One of the challenges of being a product leader is that different stakeholders are looking to you for different things. The three most prominent groups of stakeholders include:
- Internal teams like sales, marketing and engineering who are looking to you for direction on what they should be working on over the next three months.
- Customers who are looking to you for guidance on where the product is going over the next three quarters.
- Senior leaders who are looking to you to help iterate on what the product should look like in the next three years.
These three different constituents have very different expectations and very different needs as it pertains to how a product leader should talk to them. In some ways, product leaders have to be three different people rolled into one to satisfy the demands of these diverse groups.
The first person is the manager. They are the internal leader crafting a seamless product narrative for sales, marketing and engineering. The manager is always able to give internal teams 100% clarity on what they should be working on over the next three months. This person is infectiously excited and capable of inspiring everyone they talk to. Working with this leader, internal teams should have the utmost confidence that they are on a steady path to success. They should be inspired to work hard and should often be able to see the fruits of their labor pay off.
The second person is the discoverer. They are the customer-facing product leader. This person is primarily out to learn about customer problems and discover how customer needs are evolving. This product leader is inquisitive and charismatic, always asking questions and digging deeper to get to the source of the problem, find solutions, and create customer value.
The third person is the visionary. This is the strategic product leader who works with senior management on long-term product strategy. This person is ruthlessly skeptical, collaborative and full of new ideas. This product leader holds no sacred cows and finds no subject taboo. Everything must be challenged and re-challenged to ensure sound strategic direction.
I’ve always known that these three product roles exist, but this week I realized something interesting: a good product leader can be all of these three people in a way that is completely mutually exclusive.
Let me explain.
If the visionary was primarily in charge of talking to sales, marketing, and engineering without the help of the manager, it could be disastrous. The visionary is wildly iterating on ideas, each day going back and forth imagining different versions of the future. That kind of inconsistency and vacillation can paralyze your engineering team and confuse your sales and marketing team. It’s ok to show these internal teams the strategies you’re considering, but the manager has to be there to make sure it fits into the smooth narrative you’re creating for the team.
Further, if the manager were in charge of developing the strategy for the next three years, the company would surely be on a slow path to decline. The manager is most concerned about creating a smooth experience for the internal teams and lacks the vision and rapid iteration of the visionary. If the manager tried to do the visionary’s job, they would send the company straight toward disaster.
The discoverer can do neither the job of the manager nor the visionary. A complete skillset unto its own, customer discovery must take place early and often and help guide both the manager and the visionary.
The best product leaders need to be all three of these people in one and able to effortlessly shift back and forth between roles at a moments notice.