Transitioning from Product Manager to Product LeaderWe hear from…Antonio Tella, Director of Product at TotallyMoney
You’re a seasoned product manager, possibly at a senior level and have spent years honing your craft. You get into the minds of your users and are able to deliver great products that serve people’s needs and solve their problems. So what’s next? Is it a natural transition to a leadership role? Do you want to become a Head of Product or Chief Product Officer?
Product leadership can be immensely rewarding. As a product manager you aim to change the lives of users interacting with the products you build. As a product leader your ability to impact people moves beyond users and can have a lifelong impact on those you coach and mentor, work with and inspire.
Transitioning from a product manager to a product leader entails a shift in mindset, responsibilities, and qualities. Here we discuss the various nuances of this transition and hope that if this is a path you’re considering you find it useful or inspiring.
To become an incredible product leader, you’ve got to possess a strategic vision and the ability to think beyond immediate goals. In their article on Harvard Business Review, “From Product Manager to Product Leader,” Saeed Khan and Alistair Croll emphasise the importance of forward-thinking. They argue that product leaders must focus on long-term success by aligning product strategy with business objectives and market trends. This ability to see the bigger picture and anticipate future needs allows product leaders to guide their teams effectively. This is a shift from being delivery focussed and you’ll need to adjust your mindset to being able to cope with the high and low level, daily!
Communication lies at the heart of successful leadership. Product managers transitioning to leaders must develop exceptional communication skills to articulate their vision, motivate teams, and foster collaboration. As highlighted in the book “The Lean Product Playbook” by Dan Olsen, strong communication helps product leaders build a shared understanding and inspire alignment among stakeholders [Olsen, D. (2015). The Lean Product Playbook. John Wiley & Sons.]. By effectively communicating goals, product leaders create an environment conducive to innovation, creativity, and efficient decision-making. Over the years you can decide where your legacy as a product leader lies. For some it is about results and numbers. For others it is more about fostering a wonderful environment where even if the product fails you’ve created a lasting cultural impact. Hopefully your path lies somewhere inbetween!
Exceptional product leaders understand the significance of empathy and maintaining a customer-centric approach. They prioritise understanding user needs, pain points, and desires, which allows them to guide the product strategy effectively. Teresa Torres, a product discovery coach, emphasises empathy as a critical quality for product leaders in her article “Empathy: The Surprising Secret to Incredible Leadership“. By putting themselves in the customers’ shoes, product leaders can lead their teams in building products that resonate deeply with users and drive sustainable growth. This means being able to enact high level strategic thinking whilst being in the reeds with your users. Always. Do not think that the transition to CPO will remove you from the very craft you loved at the start – but it is up to you to ensure you’ve got that covered.
A remarkable product leader possesses the ability to inspire and influence cross-functional teams. They foster an environment that encourages creativity, experimentation, and continuous learning. Marty Cagan, the author of “Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love,” stresses the importance of inspiring teams to deliver exceptional results[Cagan, M. (2018). Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love. John Wiley & Sons]. By leading with passion, product leaders inspire their teams to think innovatively, take risks, and achieve remarkable outcomes.
In today’s rapidly changing business landscape, resilience and adaptability are key qualities for any leader. Product leaders must navigate uncertainties, overcome challenges, and adapt strategies based on feedback and evolving market dynamics. A study by McKinsey & Company, “The Five Trademarks of Agile Organizations,” identifies resilience and adaptability as essential traits for leaders in dynamic environments. By demonstrating resilience and adaptability, product leaders inspire confidence in their teams and drive a culture of continuous improvement and agility.
Having worked in many start up / scale up organisations I can certainly attest to needing a ton of resilience! This is especially true if you’re on the exec team at C-level. Your voice will be scrutinised and examined. You’ll be held accountable for P&L, user satisfaction, bugs in the product and a whole lot more – whether you feel this is your remit or not. In this you’ll have to be a person of the people, able to be strong for yourself but also your teams and the company as a whole.
Transitioning from a product manager to a product leader is a transformative journey that demands the cultivation of key qualities. Strategic vision, effective communication, empathy, inspiration, and resilience are five essential qualities that distinguish an incredible leader. By embodying these qualities and continuously refining their skills, product managers can pave the way to becoming visionary leaders, driving innovation, and creating impactful products that resonate with customers. Additionally the impact you can have on your peers and the relationships you’ll build will be lifelong achievements outside of the product delivery cycle.
Everyone has their own take on product leadership. For me, it is about falling in love with customer problems but also ensuring that those around you on the journey fall in love with the craft, the vision and simply form magical memories of working together that transcend tenure and last a lifetime.
Over the last few years myself and Antonio have put the world to rights and discussed this very topic for some time. As such, I thought it would be great to get him onboard to give us a few tips on what’s involved in transitioning from product manager to product leader and some insights into the process.
“Probably the biggest thing for me that no one really tells you is the change in scope and perspective on your thinking. You go from thinking deeply and running your one product, or part of a product to really being part of a team that now runs the business. As such your thinking suddenly has to elevate to that level which thinks about “how does this all fit together?”
💡Think about what you want to stand for as a product leader. Ultimately how do you want those around you to think and talk about you when you aren’t there. Make that your focus early. Do you want to be the Steve Jobs visionary leader? Or is it more important to you that you create an environment where your team can thrive.
💡Set standards. It’s your job to set the standard of what is expected and then live by that. I also think it’s true to say that if you tolerate something then you are encouraging it. That can apply for everything from the behaviours within your team to the quality of the engineering that gets shipped. It’s your job to have an opinion on and ensure its the right standard.
💡 Learn to delegate quickly and put your trust in the right people. I’ve been fortunate in my career that people put their trust in me and I’ve found that by giving others opportunities to shine and deliver means the overall product improves. The best ways I’ve found to enable this are to take an interest in what those PMs under you are doing, ask open questions – always try to understand the thinking behind the decisions that are being made, and always try to challenge them to do more and think bigger.