Ego in Product Leadership
Is Product Management one of those jobs that naturally fuels our egos? What impact do our egos have on the organisations we work in? As Product Managers, surely our behaviours ripple throughout the company to have profound impact on operations and culture.
What if product leaders thought of themselves, not as mini-CEOs, but as coaches and contributors? How can we be catalysts for a great culture, where our teams are empowered and autonomous? How can we help our teams take decisions based on what is best for our users and the organisation instead of trying to be heroes? While much of the following is based on my own experience as a Product Manager within software teams, I guess it is quite applicable to similar roles in other organisations.
Years of being “the one with all the answers” makes this transition challenging. Many engineers I have worked with would put indecisiveness at the top of a list of undesirable Product Manager traits. But having experienced specialists come to YOU with their questions is a great ego boost. We are the ones with the big picture, the visionaries and the strategists. In practice this often results in us becoming bottlenecks and micro-managers. Worse yet, it drives us to take any decision, even a sub-optimal one, rather than giving our teams the opportunity to explore the ambiguity of a situation together.
Product Managers have so far existed in a world where success was measured by either output or by outcome. Both cases drive us, through our egos, to feel the need to be right. In a worldview driven by output, you want your team’s shiny solution to be delivered on time, on scope, in budget and without hiccups. Doing so resulted in praise, the more you delivered and the shinier it looked, the more praise you received. Scope negotiation becomes a euphemism for failure, you were wrong about the scope, but at least stick to the date.
On the other hand, in a worldview driven by outcomes, it is all about having impact. We have enriched our tool boxes immeasurably through user driven and data driven methodologies, but many of us now fear receiving feedback on a release that still disappoints our users or didn’t impact the numbers. Unfortunately our egos cause us to forget the lessons of Agile and Lean. It becomes so tempting to assume that by holding back from releasing, waiting for one more feature, will make our release less likely to fail to miss its impact. Of course, we can’t predict the future and iterating on small increments is the way to ascertain that we eventually get it right. Unfortunately that means that some of the smaller iterations will certainly get it wrong. We will need to stand up in front of everyone and admit our idea was wrong. Furthermore, as no market stands still, something great we released in the past might no longer work well for our users anymore. We need to be ok hearing it critiqued by our colleagues, or perhaps even see something we released be taken down.
It is not all doom and gloom though. A few behaviours could help us not only curb our egos and make our teams more likely to succeed.
Encourage mindsets, don’t enforce actions
You read the right books, you built the right experience, you think you know what needs to be done to deliver products successfully. It is so easy to get too absorbed in the tactical day to day and just push for the actions you feel will lead to a great product… don’t! Instead focus on sharing the mindsets that lead you to think those actions are the right ones. What underlying truth drives that action? Share the experience, share the knowledge and let others discover their own best way to implement that in practice.
Lead by example, embody culture and vision
Everyone in your team should embody and contribute to your organisation’s culture and vision. You don’t stand a chance of encouraging that behaviour if you cease to exhibit it yourself. Understand the explicit values and implicit culture of your organisation and bring it into your team. Help your team define its own culture. Understand the broad strokes vision of your organisation and actively contribute towards it. Be active in defining the vision for your own part of the product. If everybody is taking decisions, that includes you too! Just remember leave space for everyone else.
Ask questions, don’t give answers
Whenever asked a question, you probably ask yourself a lot of other questions, in your head, to help guide you to an answer. Rather than just outputting an answer, share the questions and reasoning that led you to the answer. Better yet, share the questions and hold back on the answer. You should help the team by providing knowledge and context, get them to help you connect the dots and find solutions, they can probably see things in a way you can’t.
Contribute by more than just talking
Don’t just be the bureaucrat that does the talking and writes the document. If everyone shares the load of taking decisions, you should share in doing whatever it takes to make the product successful. Take an interest in the technology, understand the design, talk to users, test the product, answer support emails, write product or marketing copy, sit in sales calls, bring pizza, schedule team building dinners, check if the team area has run out of whiteboard markers. You get the idea.
Share your lessons, especially your failures
You know that driving outcomes and having impact will take you along a path of experimentation and learning. Your best lessons will come from your failures and they will make you all the more likely to eventually succeed. Share your lessons, especially your failures. Talk to your team about them and share them with other teams. It is not about you and it is not about your success or failure, it is about sharing important lessons for your organisation to succeed.
Think about the whole product, help other teams
While eagerly trying to work with your team to maximise the impact you have, it is easy to forget that your users don’t care about your team. They don’t care about any of your teams, or your organisation, they care about their goals, their jobs and their tasks. Don’t let your desire for you and your team to look good keep your users from being successful. If another team is in a better situation to have the right impact, help them out.
It’s not about you, it’s about your users
Take time to remind yourself why you are in this business, your users. They don’t care about your ego and how it stings when you are wrong, they care about their goals, their jobs and their problems. Be open to anything that improves their situation, even if that means that in the short term it feels like you took a hit. Maybe the best way to accomplish this is to spend the maximum time you can with them. Join your UX team in their research calls, help support to answer tickets and join sales to understand questions asked by new prospects. It is about them, not you.
Finally, remember to express gratitude to your team for their work, you can’t do it without them. Remember to feel gratitude towards your users, they are the reason you are doing this.