Why do some amazing product managers turn into the worst product management team leaders and VPs? It does not always happen, but when it does it can be particularly nasty because in a technology company the product is the company. Transitioning from an individual Product Manager to leading a product team takes practice, skill, and guidance. But, the need for validation, the desire for power, and fear often drives excellent product managers into brutish leaders who no one wants to work with.
Why does this happen?
The reality is that many product management leaders excelled as individual contributors because they were experts in the product and motivated by delivering a great customer experience that was differentiated in market.
In the role as the CEO of the product, leader of the product team, and the go-to for everything product — product managers are the center of the universe.
But the transition from individual product owner to people and portfolio manager can be difficult. Leading a team of highly motivated product managers is not an easy job and it is not something you can learn by reading a management book or taking a leadership class. Product managers often thrive in the spotlight and VPs of Product Management need to learn to shine that spotlight on others.
Empowering other product stars can take some getting used to. There often is a sense of loss-of-control over the product and in an increasingly agile world, “hands off” can mean “out-of-the-loop.” When this happens we have seen leaders take on new faces in their desperate quest to reclaim their former glory.
At Aha! we have spoken with thousands of product management teams and hundreds of VPs of product. The industry is dominated by highly talented folks, but these are the most dysfunctional types of newly promoted leaders we have seen. If you are in product management, they are likely familiar to you.
I was speaking with a Director of Product recently who described her boss as a “glory hog.” We have all experienced this person in the organization. Her VP of Product would jump on any opportunity to prop himself up while validating his contribution to the team versus letting his team shine and be recognized in the organization. There is nothing more demotivating to a Product Manager than having all of her hard work be recognized as an accomplishment of her manager. This leader presents the team’s roadmap to the leadership team himself, positions himself as the one with all of the answers and hoards information from the team to use for personal gain and success.
The Wet Noodle
This leader is so outside of his comfort zone that he cannot even remember why he moved into “management” in the first place. Product managers need to make tough decisions and trade-offs when managing their products. When their manager waivers, is indecisive and does not back-up the team for fear of looking ‘bad’ in the eyes of their peers and leadership, it makes the entire team appear weak. There’s nothing worse than having a manager who does not want to make a decision for fear of making a mistake and looking like they don’t know what they are doing.
The product management tyrant leads with an iron fist, makes all of the critical decisions herself and disempowers the team. The product managers on her team dread reading the email that comes in at 9:30 pm with a scathing assessment of everything they were not able to accomplish that day and then makes unreasonable requests that are due first thing the next morning. This manager leads from a position of fear –- and manipulates her team to optimize for personal power. This leader only feels good about herself when she’s making others feel demeaned and unworthy.
The strongest VPs of Product typically were terrific Product Managers who have learned to trust their staff, lead from behind, and break down the barriers to allow their teams to be successful. They realize that by making their teams shine they will ultimately be viewed as a strong, powerful contributor to the entire organization.
Have you worked with a Wet Noodle? How have you seen Product Managers struggle to become leaders of product management?