Navigating the product management journey can be a very frustrating experience. Many of us get stuck in the shoes of a Sr. Product Manager longer than necessary, while only a handful of us get a lucky ticket to leadership by chance or design. So, how do we ensure we are on the path to leadership? Ahead of Product Co-Founder Katerina Suchkova shares insights on scalable leadership frameworks to start thinking and acting like a leader. 

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On the Role of a Product Manager

The definition of a product manager varies from company to company. But something that rings true no matter the company is that product managers are in a leadership role. Katerina likes to think of product managers as being underneath the water. They focus on navigating the problems and finding solutions to things that are directly affecting their team. But, they aren’t always aware of what’s going on in the company. Or in terms of the metaphor, what’s happening above the surface. This is what a PM does: 

“So, as product managers, we get really familiar with a 360-degree view, but underneath the water, there may be shipwrecks, fish, or jellyfish. We get really good at navigating the short-sightedness that we might get because there was a storm above that happened. But we don’t know about that.” 

“And we really focus on team management, we might not have an authority. In fact, most likely we don’t. But we manage the team of designers, engineers, maybe UX researchers use our influence and our leadership.”

“So, we align with stakeholders to make sure we share the same goals so that we can drive towards the same vision. And when it comes to thinking, we focus our time on the discovery.”

On the Role of a Product Leader

Product leaders are a level above product managers, and their focus is a lot broader. They focus on long-term strategy. They are above the water and can see at every level. In their leadership role, product leaders focus on making sure that everyone has a clear and focused vision. And they make sure that everyone is clear on the mission and company goals. Product leaders strive to clear the waters for PMs and their teams. Here is what a product leader does: 

“There was a lot of time that was spent working on the ways our team is working, on setting up processes, introducing co-creating, and bringing new frameworks and methodologies. We wanted to clear the path for our teams to do the best work, and to build the best products that address the business need and the customer need.”

“We really focus on that long-term strategy, because now we can see the horizon and we can see everything that’s happening above the water, and know exactly what’s happening underneath. And some of the pieces that we encourage all of the leaders to focus on is making sure your team is clear on the vision, mission, and the company goals.”

“And beyond looking at the specific target audience, as a product leader, you’re widening the lens. So you’re looking at different markets, how to serve different customers, and you might even interface bigger business stakeholders and investors.”

On Developing a Leadership Mindset

Leadership starts with you. You cannot wait around for someone to come and make you a leader. It must start with you. Anyone who aspires to be a leader must develop a leadership mindset. You need to develop new behaviors and habits that support your new mindset. Product leaders need to have certain attitudes, beliefs, and expectations that create the foundation of how they lead others and how they interact with and influence their colleagues. Remember these things when developing your leadership mindset:

“What I’ve learned over time is that leadership really starts with me, and it can start now if I set that intention. And if I start working on developing new behaviors and habits that lead to new actions that support that the leadership mindset.”

“By reducing the complexity, you create new behaviors and new habits that become a cornerstone for actions and the leadership mindset that needs to be in place first, before you even potentially getting promoted to become a leader.

And then ultimately, it increases your impact. Because you’re now acting and behaving as a leader, you’re not just concerned with your underwater world, or just with your immediate product area. In a way, you’re widening the lens, and then you increasing your scope. And that really increases the impact on visibility for the rest of the team.”

On Complexities Framework

There are many complexities when it comes to being a product manager or leader. There are many moving pieces involved in leadership. Katerina likes to think of it as playing Tetris. There are many moving blocks, and sometimes it can be difficult to get them to mesh. But the best product leaders know how to play the game. They look for the complexities within their company, and they aim to reduce it. Try the following when making a complexities framework: 

“Suddenly, you have to serve new customers. And then a little later, you get this new Tetris piece that says that now we have to build new features to address these new customers or to solve their problems. And then, you have to develop a new strategy. Then, you need to look into new markets and broaden your scope. And suddenly, there is a new product line or new portfolio, and so on, and so forth.”

“As product managers, we sometimes feel pretty helpless balancing the load. And we just react. So, we’re just taking everything in without stepping back and understanding that you could actually turn [the Tetris pieces.]”

“But that comes when you officially become the product leader. So, at that level of your career comes a focus on finding the complexity within your organization and reducing it. It needs to have a higher impact on your business, customers, and team. And of course, yourself, because we’re talking about your growth, and we’re talking about your career.”

On Scalable Leadership Frameworks Pillars 

Good leaders know that they need support. They need other people around them that share their vision and goal and are willing to work hard to produce results. It is important to reach out to other product managers and leaders to create successful roadmaps and plans. Katerina’s three pillars focus on commination, collaboration, and adaptation. These are the three pillars of the scalable leadership framework:

“The first key pillar of the leadership framework is to find others who suffer from the same complexity and to inspire them to commit and join you, get management buy-in.”

“The second pillar of the leadership framework is to define what you will fix and what stays out with measurable milestones and open collaboration.”

“The third pillar is to communicate frequently, talk about risks upfront, and adapt content and channel to the audience.”

About the speaker
Katia Suchkova Ahead of Product, Co-founder and Product Coach Member
About the host
Brian Root-Bernstein Assurance IQ, Senior Director of Product Management - Consumer Experience

Brian is currently Senior Director of Product Management - Consumer Experience at Assurance IQ. Prior to that he was VP of Product & Design at Huckleberry, working on using data and automation to eliminate the complexity from small business insurance. Before that, Brian was Senior Director of Product Management at Fundera (acquired by NerdWallet), Walmart Labs and Amazon. Brian moved (back) to NYC in January 2020, and continues to experience everything this city has to offer.

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