How to Identify the Right Product Leader for Your Business…and Why This Is So Damn Important!

Written by Ben Walton on May 17, 2017

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It all sounds so simple really. To stay ahead of the competition and be successful, Technology board rooms up and down the country know that they need to differentiate, successfully commercialise and build effective, user-friendly products.

So, how does product play a part and what are the four kinds of Product Leader you should consider for your business?

Historically, Commercial Leaders were tasked with defining key products and functionality and then filtering down these plans to the tech teams to implement. Having someone to look at strategy and someone else to put this into practice is all very straight forward in theory…but they were missing a trick.

A lack of technical understanding from those planning the strategy ultimately led to missed deadlines, failed projects and unhappy customers. Companies eventually started to realise that they needed a more effective and formal product strategy.

Roll on a few years and Product Strategy now requires not just gaining a deep understanding of what customers want, but also a technical understanding how the technology can be built. Product Management is now about software engineering as well as the product strategy itself.

How is Product Strategy viewed in the Tech sphere?

There is a fairly universal recognition of the importance of strong product leadership within Technology and given the above, it is perhaps no surprise to see how highly sought after strong Product Leaders are. There has been a huge increase in demand for individuals who are able to knit together the overall technical strategy and lead in the continuous improvement of features and functions.

The most senior Product person in your organisation may take many forms; VP Product, Head of Product, Chief Product Officer and so forth. They are the driving force whose ultimate aim is to turn the CEO’s oft little black book of ideas into a reality. As well as, adding professional methodology into the fore and holding development teams accountable for pulling together initial MVPs through to subsequent formal releases and continuous development.

As Head of Technology Search at EO Executives, I have personally placed numerous Heads’ of Product and this is increasing all the time. Throughout these processes, I have spoken to many business Founders, CEO’s, MD’s, CTO’s, COO’s and the like (as well as the Product leads themselves!) about their understanding of what a product leader does. There are far too often different opinions and expectations.

Check out the image at the top of this blog and you’ll see a snapshot of what goes through a Product Heads’ mind on a daily basis. It’s enough to give anyone a headache!

Since the skill set and experience sought are so wide ranging, so highly sought after and so open to interpretation, it is widely regarded as one of the toughest tech roles to fill. Salaries are at a premium and candidates typically have multiple opportunities on the table.

Given their role in ultimately defining your business direction, a strong product leader is an essential hire for any Tech organisation and perhaps even the most important hire for tech start-ups.

To me, there are 4 kinds of Product Leader; although of course the best are a combination of all 4…

1. The Trail Blazer

This person is a real idea generator and innovator. Great at coming up with suggestions for new products, features and add-ons. The Trail Blazer will ensure you stay ahead of the competition but may struggle to drive formal product management, documentation and rigour. This kind of person would be a great hire for an already established product function…but be careful if you are early stage and looking to build out as this could be seen as a risky hire.

2. The Customer Champion

I see two types of product focus within my clients; 1) businesses that focus product strategy by client, perhaps even producing bespoke solutions, and 2) businesses who are more inward facing and focus all product development on an overall strategic goal.

To be honest, the Customer Champion is effective in either scenario. They really understand their clients, the market in which the operate and can quickly draw readings on new product releases, pivoting where necessary. The customer champion will really get UX and will challenge internally on behalf of the client.

3. The Enforcer

The Enforcer would be a great hire for an early stage business who perhaps need a shot in the arm in terms of instilling formal product management practices.

These individuals may not be as creative as a Trail Blazer for instance and will require more direction internally from the CEO when it comes to new product ideas – but they will get the job done.

The Enforcer will hold development teams accountable, likely set up a strong agile / DevOps methodology and will lead projects/budgets effectively.

4. The Conduit

The Conduit is incredibly important when it comes to internal communication and improving the alignment between sales and technology in particular.

As our recent survey 'Are Sales & Technology Pulling in Different Directions?' shows, far too often there is a disconnect between these two areas and this can lead to extremely damaging consequences.

This individual will likely be a good mix of technical/strategy and will be great at stakeholder management in particular.

We are holding an upcoming Webinar on this topic on June 8th – get in touch for more details.

So just how do you identify the right product leader for your business?

Firstly – Identify the type of Product Manager (or mix) that you require from the list above and ensure all internal stakeholders are aligned in terms of expectation.

You can start by asking yourself these key questions to formulate this;

  1. Will this be an Inward facing product role or more customer centric/ bespoke?
  2. How much of an innovator are you looking for vs someone who can build and lead a function?
  3. Who will the role be reporting into? This is an important question and in my opinion the answer should really be the CEO.
  4. Who will the Head of Product be accountable for/ working closely with? Dev Teams/CTO?
  5. What stage is your business at? If you are an early stage business, how important for instance is the ability to pivot quickly and wear many hats?
  6. Will they need previous sector specific expertise or can this be quickly learned?
  7. What are the historical challenges been that your product function have faced? Why is this?

A Reminder - This is currently one of the hottest skill sets in town. Once you have identified the right person to lead your Product function, my last piece of advice is to move at pace and be prepared to pay a premium.

For more information on how to find and assess Product leaders, feel free to contact me directly at: ben.walton@eoexecutives.com

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