Tips for Improving Impact and Presence as a Leader

NOTE: The following is a guest post by Blathnaid McGill. If you want to submit your own guest post, click here for more information.

You don’t need to be an academic scholar to know that much has already been said and written about leadership. You could fill a small library with books on leadership development and related topics. Nevertheless, the world continues to look for qualities that define a leader. There are, quite obviously a few must have’s. A leader has to lead by example, his/her actions must be decisive and must reflect a certain level of integrity, his/her dedication and commitment towards the ultimate goal must be able to inspire followers and his/her humility should bring out the best in everyone.

Manager vs. Leader
Having listed these qualities, a distinction needs to be made between a manager and a leader. Essentially, a leader has to be much more than a manager. While a manager’s primary concern is strategic deployment of work, a leader has to be innovative even when it comes to administration. A good leader works with a long term vision in mind while a manager usually focuses on an immediate goal. Quite simply then, a leader has a much more challenging role to play than a manager.

Leadership Skills
First things first, anyone hoping to develop leadership skills should choose the niche they are most comfortable with. This choice depends on factors both emotional and rational. It goes without saying that you must feel passionately about your chosen field if you hope to excel as leader in it but at the same time, your choice has to be guide by practicality as well. Ask yourself if you are suited for the particular field or if your personality is more conducive to some other field. Once you have made this choice, you can start working on the required attributes particular to that field.

Leadership Impact
Having said that, leadership development is not merely about following a set of prescribed rules; it has a lot to do with evaluating and contextualising a particular situation and devising a plan according to it. To have a greater impact, a leader has to be flexible. She has to have the ability to prioritise the larger goal above all other concerns. So, a good leader may adopt a style of leadership she is otherwise not comfortable with if the situation so demands it. The key lies in striking a balance between what you want to do and what is expected of you. It is not really an either/or choice between your personal preferences and contextual requirements, you have to blend them in just the right proportions.

Essential Leadership Qualities
Much is said of humility as an essential leadership quality. Every person who wants to improve his/her leadership skills must learn to temper this humility with ruthless practicality. If you try to please everyone, you are basically writing your own recipe for disaster. Begin by accepting that your actions might offend certain people but this must not stop you from making the right choices.

Product Management
In terms of product management, leadership qualities play a big role. It is easy to assume that product management is isolated around the product itself but it involves possessing cross-functional leadership skills. Improving on an existing product, for example, cross–functional managers need to be able to interpret the company’s business plan as well as recognise the skills of employees in addition to establishing what the customer/market needs. It is about expanding the existing tools you have and using them to improve your product.

Finally then, there is only so much that can be formally taught about leadership. A lot of it comes from instinct and experience. Every time you are faced with a difficult situation, try to remember if you have handled anything similar before. Take tips from your own past but remember to modify your course of action according to present demands. And if you find yourself lacking information or unable to make a decision, never be afraid to seek help. After all, every leader started out as a novice.

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Blathnaid Magill has an MBS in Electronic Business from University College Cork and has an interest in business and technology trends. Blathnaid is currently writing on behalf of QA who are current frontrunners in leadership development.


The 3 Biggest Hurdles to Greater Strategic Influence

NOTE: The following is a guest post by John Mansour. If you want to submit your own guest post, click here for more information

Wearing the “strategic” label in one form or another has been the Holy Grail for as long as I’ve been in the product management and marketing profession.  But despite years of ongoing group therapy via blogs, meet-ups, associations, ProductCamp, social media, training courses and various other forums, the strategic-influence needle for product managers and marketers has barely advanced, if at all.  Why?

It’s ironic when I think about how the profession has grown in recent years but I have a theory that comes from many years of observation, as both a practitioner and a consultant.  The top three hurdles preventing product management and marketing teams from wielding greater strategic influence are the following:

1. Product Ownership is All-Consuming

Product managers with direct responsibility for one or more products have two chances of being strategic – SLIM and NONE.  It’s not that product managers don’t have the knowledge or skills.  There are simply too many issues coming from too many directions that suck product managers into a rat hole to the point of no return.  It’s not enough to be strategic for a few hours here and there or for the occasional offsite meetings, sales calls or customer visits.  To be strategic in a manner that’s valuable to the organization, it has to be a fulltime job for a select few.

2. A Growing Influx of Technical Skills

More and more product management and marketing professionals are coming from roles with strong technical backgrounds.  While those skills are highly valuable, they don’t make for a “natural” transition into product management and marketing roles where there’s no exact science to most of the activities, extroverted type-A personalities are preferable, and soft skills such as persuasion and schmoozing are paramount.Consequently, teams overloaded with technical skills naturally gravitate to their comfort zone to deal with issues that are more black and white, the tactics.  While tactics are an enormous part of the success factor, the macro effect on the organization is the lack of a unified grand plan that transcends all products.  It’s a root cause of poor execution on all levels.

3. Strategic at a Product Level is a Misnomer

Strategy can only go so far at a product level.  With very few exceptions, it’s difficult to solve problems that have broad strategic impact (as measured by your target buyers) with a single product because the scope of problems and the solutions are limited by the product.  Furthermore, in B2B companies where many products target the same markets, the highest impact solutions usually involve multiple integrated products and address a broader set of related customer activities that go beyond the scope of a single product.  Throw in the fact that product managers are motivated by product performance incentives and you have practices that simply aren’t conducive to identifying and solving problems that have high market value.  The “product CEO” mentality flies in the face of a cohesive strategy that transcends all products.  Result: a team divided!

It’s worth noting that these issues have little to do with the individuals in the roles.  They’re more a by-product of organizations not changing the structure of their product teams to reflect larger, diverse and more complex portfolios.   In one way, shape or form product teams have to be structured to be strategic beyond individual product strategies and unite the organization behind a common strategy that transcends all products.  That strategy has to be defined at a more granular level than revenue, profitability, market share, etc. so that the entire collection of product and marketing initiatives create greater momentum together than they would individually while making the best utilization of resources.  It’s a much easier way to meet the organization’s strategic goals.

What’s your take?

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John Mansour is the founder and president of Proficientz, a company that specializes in B2B product  portfolio management. This article was originally published on the Proficientz blog in January 2012.

There’s No Such Thing as “a Designer”

NOTE: The following is a guest post by Didier Thizy. If you want to submit your own guest post, click here for more information

Across all industries, product managers are waking up to the power of user experience design. They are realizing that a great design can differentiate a product in a field of competitors, reduce development churn, and sell more product.

And most product managers agree – teams need to include “a designer”.

But did you know that there are not one but three very different types of designers? Design researchers, interaction designers, and visual designers. Each is about as distinct from the other as sales, marketing and engineering.

Successful companies like Google, and Facebook involve all three design skillsets on their projects. If your process does not, you may be missing out on a serious competitive advantage.

3 Design Disciplines

  • Design Research. Design researchers specialize in uncovering user needs. They train for years to learn how to interview and observe end-users, and communicate those results to the other two designers. Their findings often yield fascinating insights that can be used to determine the exact point in the workflow where users are abandoning your product, or even help you uncover the next big innovation in your product line.
  • Interaction Design. Interaction designers are the masters of information architecture, intuitive workflows and content prioritization. They work with product management and design researchers to obtain market and user research and translate it into a draft of what the product will look like, how it will behave, and how it ties back to the user’s goals—usually in the form of sketches called “wireframes”.
  • Visual Design. Visual designers are graphical experts that specialize in tools like Photoshop and Illustrator to add the right visual “wow” to software. Good visual designers can provide users with an instant emotional connection to a product even before they start using it.

From my experience working with many designers, it is quite rare to find “a designer” who is strong in two, let alone three, of these areas. Each skill set is so different from the other that companies are often best served involving even part-time help from a specialist in each area rather than trying to find a jack of all trades.

The Usual Suspect

Most often when a team has “a designer”, we find out that what they really have is a visual designer, who is in charge of making their product “look good”. Great visual designers are essential. Good ones know how to present visual information in a way your users immediately “get”. They help make the potentially confounding analytics graphs in your product easy to understand. They design icons that help your users instinctively understand what to do. But there is a lot more to creating a design users love than visual look and feel.

The Unlikely Hero

Of all three disciplines, the most overlooked is the Design Researcher (also known as the User Researcher or UX Researcher). Product Managers are responsible for a lot of research, and as such they (or their bosses) don’t always see the value that a design researcher could bring.

From our experience, product managers are very busy. More than any other role in a software organization, they are thrust with a myriad of responsibilities, from strategic planning to sales calls to working with marketing on launch strategy and collateral. Of all these responsibilities, the one that most often gets deprioritized is talking to real-world users.

Design researchers are specialists at drawing out insights from end-users using a variety of techniques, from contextual interviews following a formal protocol to card sorting and triading. They are also trained in communicating those insights to interaction designers and visual designers.

As such, a design researcher can be an extremely valuable partner for a product manager.

Design researchers can:

  • help product managers glean insights from end-users, especially as they pertain to
  • the product design and workflow
  • act as a bridge between user research and the interaction and visual designers
  • act as the voice of the customer in technical team scrums, particularly when the
  • product manager is away with marketing and sales
  • present user research results to executives to support the product manager’s strategic  plan

Most importantly, having even a part-time design researcher on the team ensures the critical task of getting real-world user input is not dropped.

In an industry where B2C and B2B vendors are setting the bar higher and higher every quarter with design, it is no longer enough to recognize you need “a designer” on your team. Recognize all three design skillsets. Incorporate each at some level in your process. And be amazed at the true power that design can bring to you and your product.

Tweet this: There’s no such thing as “a Designer” #prodmgmt #ux #id #design

Didier Thizy  is Director of Market Development for Macadamian, a global UI design and software innovation firm. You can find more information on Macadamian’s blog.

“Products are Hard” Conference on May 1 in San Francisco

If you will be in the San Francisco area on May 1, you may want to check out this conference.

Products Are Hard is a 1-day, 1-track conference in at the Whitcomb Hotel on Market Street.

NOTE: You can get a 20% discount by using the promo code – ONPM – when you register.

The focus of Products are Hard is on the craft of product creation with speakers and audience members from a variety of industries. Speakers and panelists will include product leaders from Zynga, YouTube, Clorox, Wikipedia, Yammer, and several other companies.  Keynote speakers are Sara Beckman of UC Berkeley Haas School of Business and Janice Fraser, the CEO of Luxr, the Lean UX Company.

So if you’re in the Bay Area, or plan to be on May 1, and want to attend, use our promo code – ONPM — and save a few bucks.

And if you do attend, we’d love to hear from you about the day, what you liked, learned and can leverage in the future.


Note:  If you have an activity or event that you want to promote, submit it here and we’ll add it to our Events page. And who knows, if you ask, we may even spotlight it in a blog post. 🙂


4 Mistakes to Avoid in your Product Management Career

Late last year, we had a group post on Lessons Learned in 2011. It was well received so we decided to post another one. This one is also about lessons learned, but focused on mistakes we made in our careers . Hopefully this advice will help some of you avoid making the same mistakes we did.

Veronica Figarella – Wrong analysis, Wrong pricing!

A few years ago I started a new telecom job managing a group of related products. Although I was excited about the challenge, I was working under great stress and juggling too many projects with too little time to prioritize. Typical PM situation.

I was asked to quickly re-launch one of the company’s products (an internet + voice + mobile pack) as its sales had declined quickly in the previous quarter. As I started analyzing what changes needed to be made in order to increase sales, I overlooked some important market information and ended with an uncompetitive pricing strategy.

To make matters worse, my bosses didn’t question my pricing strategy and I didn’t realize my mistake until the changes were ready to go live. I had to stop all the go-to-market activities, admit I’d made a mistake and work hard to correct it.

I learned that no matter how tight your timeframe, you always have to dedicate time to know the market your product is playing in. It is far more expensive to make a pricing mistake than to take an extra month to re-launch. On the personal side, I learned that it takes courage to admit one’s mistakes.

Shardul Mehta – What got me here won’t get me there

When taking on a new role, be it a different set of responsibilities, a promotion or a new job, believing what made you successful in the past is what will make you successful in the new role is a mistake.

“They gave me this job because I’m good at what I do, so they must expect me to do more of it here,” is typically how the reasoning goes. So you focus on doing what you know best, which makes you feel confident, in control and safe. But it’s a delusion. You’re actually setting yourself up for failure and limiting your opportunities to advance your career.

Even accomplished senior executives have fallen into this trap. The terrific book, The First 90 Days, gives the example of Douglas Ivester, who was promoted to CEO of Coca Cola in 1997 and thought to be the perfect fit, only to be forced to resign two years later, because he continued to act as a “super COO” rather than fully embrace the strategic and visionary role of the CEO.

As I’ve enjoyed success in my career, I often go back to that saying, “What got you here, won’t get you there.” This doesn’t mean ignoring past successes, but recognizing that my performance is now being measured by a different set of metrics. I admit, it’s something I’m still trying to crack the code on.

What this means is re-learning how to learn. It means letting go of the past, understanding how past success can actually be a barrier now, and what new perspectives need to be developed. There is much truth in Yoda’s wise teaching: “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

Ninon LaForce – No career focus, no advancement

I am not sure if it is a mistake but it took me a long time to realize that Product Management & Marketing was what really interested me.

I started my career in sales at Dell Computers with no idea of what I wanted for my career; I was only doing sales because I needed a job to pay the bills and all my friends were working there. Dell gave me great product and sales training.

Three years later, I left Dell and joined a startup in a sales role. I made some good money (finally!) but the problem was that management got to know me as a sales person and did not help me in developing my career in other areas. The company was doing well and growing by leaps and bounds.

I wanted to be involved in strategy, in partner development, and in marketing. I just enjoyed being challenged by complex problems and working with a team to solve them. I envied the marketing and product management people as they were dealing with, in my opinion, the most challenging and creative problems.

So, I took marketing classes at night with the hope to move to marketing one day. After many years with that start up, I quit and took a big pay cut to follow my passion for marketing.

I eventually found a good marketing position in a telecom start up.This job was great because I was the first and only employee in marketing so I got the chance to grow a marketing department.

Three years later, the president promoted me to lead for Product Development. I stayed with this company for 9 years until I moved to my current role in Product Development & Marketing.

This is a long story to say: it helps to know what you want early on and to focus on it so you can develop and move up faster.

Saeed Khan – Not understanding how to “manage up” early in my career

The second word of Product Management is “MANAGEMENT”, and its really important to keep in mind that the “Management” is multidimensional.

Yes, the obvious work is the product work, whether related to requirements gathering, working with Engineering or Marketing or Sales or customers or prospects etc.

But when working with executives, there’s a whole set of management skills that need to be applied, and unfortunately, unless you’ve learned them somewhere else, you’re likely to have to learn them the hard way, like I did.

“Managing up” means different things to different people. Some people look at it as doing what your boss says to make her happy. And that actually works for some people. But managing up starts with understanding the context that your boss, or executives work in, and aligning yourself with that context. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, or in fact what accomplishments you feel you’ve achieved, if those aren’t important to the goals and objectives of your boss or the executive team.

In my case, in one job, I did what I believed was in the best interest of the products I managed. But my decisions were not in synch with what the president was looking for. I pushed hard to get investment in an underfunded product, but the president was not interested in investing at all. And I grew revenue, instead of cutting costs as the president wanted, on another. The goal was to increase profitability and my view was that the better way to do it was by increasing revenue.

In the end, I left the company disappointed that my accomplishments were not recognized. Years later, I found out that the next Product Manager implemented my plans for another set of products but did it by managing up and having alignment with the executives. He was rewarded for his efforts. Lesson learned.

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