Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Debunking Leadership Myths

Typical Conversation Between Product Managers

Many conversations about product management and leadership have taken place in the blogosphere and Twitter.  The typical exchange goes something like this:
Product Manager 1:  "Product managers have a lot of responsibility but no formal authority."
Product Manager 2:  "Authority is something to be earned, not granted."
Product Manager 1:  "But developers and sales don't listen to me, because they don't report to me and are in different departments."
Product Manager 2:  "Great leaders work with cross-functional teams."
Product Manager 1:  "Yes, but I don't get any support from executives when I work across departments."
Product Manager 2:  "You shouldn't need support if you are a great leader."
Leadership Myths

Let's put to rest the two opposing leadership myths that underlie these types of exchanges.  The opposing myths are:
  1. A great leader's effectiveness comes from authority.
  2. Great leaders are largely self-empowered and require little or no help to influence others and be effective.
Some people believe leaders are granted authority.  Other people have a romantic model of a leader as someone who, with little or no help, achieves great things and influences and earns the respect of others.

Both of these notions of leadership are ill conceived.

What is Leadership?

On page 12 of Becoming a Technical Leader: An Organic Problem Solving Approach, Gerald M. Weinberg defined an organic model of leadership:
Leadership is the process of creating an environment in which people become empowered.
A person can lead in many ways – by fostering a shared understanding of problems the group will solve, by organizing and putting supportive structures in place, by motivating others, by stimulating or managing the flow of ideas, and in some cases by acting unilaterally.  In almost every case, the leadership manifests itself in enabling or helping others.

But guess what – leaders also need empowerment. They need help. In fact, one great talent of many leaders is that they know when and whom to ask for help.  Indeed, Weinberg wrote on page 261:
People become leaders thinking they will help other people.  Before long they realize that it's they who need help.  They need help to see themselves as others see them, to carry them through their mistakes, to learn about other people, and to deal with the frustrations of trying to be helpful.  The only way to learn to be helpful is by learning to be helped.
A great leader may appear completely ineffectual in one environment yet masterful in another environment. The difference lies in how supportive and empowering the environment is for the leader.

Product Management Leadership Challenges

The formal authority that most product managers lack may not limit their leadership, but the lack of formal authority often reflects a disempowering environment.

Most people – executives included – don’t fully understand the product management role.  They don't recognize that product managers need to be like therapists to understand markets.  They aren't aware that marketing principles tend to defy common sense.  In a work environment where executives and fellow employees don't understand the role and what it means to be effective in it, product managers receive limited support.

At this point, if you still believe in the romantic model of leadership (the one in which great leaders don't need support from others), you think this description of product managers' situation is just whining.  Why don't product managers just "buck up" and overcome this situation?

To overcome the situation, product managers can attempt to build credibility and educate executives and others around them. But recognize that most product managers are hired into a poorly-defined role, are expected to behave tactically, and are actively discouraged from spending time defining their role and educating others about it.

Indeed, the worst corporate environments actively prevent product managers from realizing their leadership potential.  On page 166 of Leading Change, John P. Kotter wrote:
Highly controlling organizations often destroy leadership by not allowing people to blossom, test themselves, and grow. In stiff bureaucracies, young men and women with potential typically see few good role models, are not encouraged to lead, and may even be punished if they go out of bounds, challenge the status quo, and take risks. These kinds of organizations tend either to repel people with leadership potential or to take those individuals and teach them only about bureaucratic management.
Take note of the last sentence about this type of organization repelling people with leadership potential.  We'll revisit it at the end of this piece.

What to Do?

As an executive, you can empower your product managers by providing them with support.  Support doesn't necessarily mean giving product managers formal authority.  But you can:
  • Encourage (and budget for) your product managers to visit prospective and existing customers, to observe them in their native environments, and to conduct one-on-one interviews with them.
  • Encourage your product managers to share their market knowledge with others throughout the organization.  For example, suggest that a product manager set up a mid-day meeting and have the company provide lunch for everyone who attends.
  • Encourage (and budget for) your product managers to attend training and learn and share best practices in public forums.
  • Let others in the organization know that you believe these activities, and the functions of product management, are important.
For more information on the challenges of creating an organization that empowers its employees and fosters innovation, see this paper by my friend and colleague, Becca Frasier.


Finally, let's consider how product managers can empower themselves.

When a great leader finds herself in a disempowering environment, she changes her environment.

In some cases, she does so by establishing mutually supportive relationships with others, by "speaking truth to power" (making the case to executives for organizational change), by teaching, and by demonstrating competence and building credibility over time.

However, the often-overlooked quality of great leaders is that they quickly recognize disempowering environments, extricate themselves from them, and seek out and place themselves in empowering ones.  People who hold onto the romantic notion of leadership might see such a tactic as cowardly or as a form of avoidance, but it is in many cases the only realistic - and the most empowering - approach.