Leading product management teams

Liz Blink

Liz Blink

Unsavable product nerd. Likes to get shit done. Secretly a philosopher at heart.

This post was co-authored by our product and pilates guru, Eadaoin Doherty.

You’ve hit an exciting progression in your career…

Did you just get a promotion? Did your product peers go from friends, to being part of the team you now lead? Have you ever done this before?

…And yet the sense of achievement you’d expect to feel might be missing.

It’s no wonder why: leading humans is hard, can be terrifying, and if you get it wrong there are big consequences (in contrast to breaking software, which is usually easier to fix 😜).

My boss from many years ago might not agree with that statement, but when I lost a few million dollars because I turned off that flag in the back-end system, I wasn’t fired! I still remember the shame of that mistake, although no one really rebuked me, and it led to the realisation that there was a bug in the system. 

When we’re doing something new with software, and get something wrong, it’s no surprise that we feel shame. But those errors are usually easily rolled back.

However, when it comes to leading people, and learning the skills that go with that, there is a much longer and murkier feedback loop. The “right answer” is so much more subjective when people’s lived experiences are involved, and there isn’t the same kind of safe space to talk about what you need to discuss to get to that right answer. 

So this stage is scary, the consequences are terrifying if it goes wrong, and the techniques new leaders try can seem like experiments, with no guarantees they will actually work. And of course your team members’ careers are involved, which only adds to the pressure!

To help you get off on the right foot, let’s take a look at some of the key skills you’ll need to learn as a people leader — and, specifically, as a leader of product managers.

5 key skills for the new people leader 

Being a great product manager does not automatically mean you will be a great leader of product managers. You will have a whole new array of skills to learn in your new role.

Before becoming the leader of a product team, you were, no doubt, a practising product manager for many years. You honed your skills in product delivery, stakeholder engagement, product strategy, and all the other product skills we use daily. These skills will continue to be important, but you’ll use them in different ways. Your job is no longer about practising and honing those skills: you’re now in the territory of coaching and mentoring those skills in others. And this can be hard. 

One of the many important skills of a product manager is being able to influence others: your key stakeholders, your delivery team, your customer support team, and so on. However, as the leader of a product team, you’ll no longer have these conversations directly. Instead, you must support your team to have these conversations themselves. You’ll need to share the methods and approaches you’ve learned whenever someone asks for your support, but also, when you see your team members struggling. 

A knock on effect of this is that you can no longer make the product decisions. If you do, you’ll be micro-managing! So, you must learn to trust your team to drive those decisions. Remember, you no longer have all the details. As the leader, you now have a bird’s-eye view of lots of products, rather than a detailed view of each one. How can you trust every member of your team to make the right call? You’ll need to learn to ask questions that get to enough detail for your comfort, and build trust by showing you understand what your team is dealing with. Let them raise red flags and ask for help rather than diving in to do it for them. 

Another important — and related — skill you’ll need to lead your team members well is the ability to coach people without telling them what to do. Don’t become the advice monster! I recently learned about the drama triangle and realised that my biggest challenge is to stop giving advice. Rather than suggesting what people do, we need to ask questions that help them investigate the problem in more detail themselves. When I tried this, at first I would ask questions like, ‘Have you tried using this approach?’ But that was basically just hiding my advice inside a question! I’m still learning this skill, and I’m relying heavily on a book called “The Advice Trap” to guide me towards better practises here.

As a people leader, you will also play a major role in creating the culture of your team, so you want to think about it carefully. One behaviour that can help is to continue to show vulnerability. As a member of a product team in a supportive work environment, I had become accustomed to showing vulnerability. I would ask for support from my team, and routinely seek advice from my peers and my manager. But on becoming the leader of the team, I found it very tempting to shut this down. We are often led to believe that our leaders are made of steel, have no fear and know all the answers. Well, this is BS. When you first become a leader, you will probably feel totally out of your depth and very nervous, and this is okay. It’s okay to tell your team you are still learning the ropes, and if you can’t answer a question now, that you’ll get back to them. As you settle into your new role and your confidence grows, there will still be things you struggle with, and it’s okay to show that to your team, too. It builds trust, and if they see that you are open to being vulnerable, they’ll feel safe to do the same. You may now be the leader of the team, but you are not invincible: you’re still human!  

The nitty gritty

There’s a lot to be said for how subjective the profession of product management is. All too often, the words, “It depends…” are the response to seemingly easy questions, such as, “what’s the best roadmapping tool?”. 

But when you embark on a career in leadership, which involves the coaching and guiding of product people, you need to grapple with a whole new world of “it depends”.  Let’s get into the nitty gritty of what it means to manage other human beings, with hopes, ambitions and egos, on a moment-by-moment basis.

One particularly tricky area is the realm of learning to give feedback. Giving feedback is, obviously, a key leadership skill —  you’ll find you’re providing it all the time, and in a space where people feel really vulnerable. As a consequence, you’ll likely challenge people’s egos, and even their sense of identity, because the feedback is about their work — and thus, their career, and who this person is. 

The practice you’ve had thus far on critiquing web pages, data analysis and prototypes is not remotely adequate for this new emotional space. Not only that, your own ego is likely to be vulnerable in regards to your career and the person you’re hoping to become, so you may be very sensitive to critical feedback yourself. Fortunately, there are lots of good resources out there to help you learn how to give feedback — check the list at the end of this article for our favourites.

If you thought your stakeholders had a lot of opinions about your product, you’ll find they will have strong opinions about your product managers, too. So be aware that not only are you a champion for product management as a practice, but you’re most importantly a champion of each person in your team. A senior executive may only see a sliver of someone’s work, but due to their influence, their potentially bad opinion can undermine that person’s great efforts in other spaces. 

This is where you get to put your influencing skills to practice. Now you have to very explicitly teach the organisation and your colleagues what product management is, and very loudly advocate for your team. Of course, you must ensure they have the support they need to be successful. It’s up to you to ensure that product has a voice in all important company discussions. 

It’s also important to be clear on the timeframe your team will need to learn and improve product skills that come in for criticism. The feedback loop for recognising change can be long. So if you, your product person or the organisation is expecting change in a day for a skill that takes months or years to master, then you’ll miss opportunities to celebrate progress, and you’ll have very unhappy people surrounding you. 

Think of the moment someone sets a goal to run a marathon. Of course that achievement won’t happen in a day, if they are starting from 0. Given that analogy, I still find it confusing that we don’t appreciate the effort that goes into personal growth in product teams. You’ll want to set milestones, talk to each other about the plan you’ve made to get to your goal state, and when the team is expected to hit that goal (eg. 3 months, 6 months or a year). Don’t forget to share that context widely. That way, you can cheer each person’s individual race and encourage the whole team to the finish line together. Yes, it’s also important to call it out if a team member isn’t doing the work to get there. Most importantly, this approach allows you all to feel pride and accomplishment as you learn and grow together, instead of simply focusing on the end goal, and asking why you’re not there yet. 

Finally, understand that your team members may come to you for career advice, too. And again, the temptation to share advice based on your career and the tools that worked for you is high. To help avoid this temptation, really get to know the person in front of you. Understand their aspirations, their strengths and weaknesses, and begin to help them navigate the options they face within their unique context. Offering career advice is hard to do because the person you’re offering those options to can’t yet know what will work. Furthermore, the timeframe for them (and you) to get feedback on whether you gave the right advice is long. And of course, there’s a lot more at stake if your advice is wrong. So don’t go down the advice route: learn to help your team members explore the options for themselves. 

In conclusion

We’ve talked through key areas that can make moving into product leadership challenging. It’s important to raise these topics. If we don’t, we can lose potentially great leaders who decide to return to what they are good at, and don’t continue down the people-leader path. Learning these skills takes time and practice, so we highly recommend finding a safe space to share what’s going on: get a mentor for yourself, and create space for reflection. 


If you’re looking for some immediate resources to get started, try these:

Professional coaching

Community spaces you could join:

Leadership of Awesome

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