Nine Characteristics of the Best Product Leaders

Published Feb 18, 2018

Last week, I attended the SaaStr conference in San Francisco where, despite a crush of thousands in a space designed for hundreds, I had the chance to sit in on a few good sessions on product and product leadership. One, in particular, that stimulated fresh thinking was a panel discussion featuring Jen Taylor, CPO of Cloudflare; Cheryl Chavez, former GVP of PM at Marketo; Jon Aniano, CPO of Prosperworks; and Scott Beechuk of Norwest Venture Partners.

The opening volley:

What is the single most important characteristic in hiring a product leader?

The responses were a thoughtful tribute to empathy, conviction, and curiosity, which got me thinking: If these are the single most important characteristics of a product leader, what are the others? Is there something like a list of attributes for the best product managers?

At the risk of reducing the irreducible, I’ve compiled my own list. In no particular order, they are:

1. Empathy

They have a keen eye for observation and a genuine sensitivity to what’s at stake for customers.  Not only do they ask great questions, they actively seek to put themselves in their customers’ shoes, learn their specific jobs to be done, and understand the cost and consequence of failure. Their starting assumption is the customers’ unmet need, not simply what they have on the truck to sell. And they never settle for a superficial articulation of these needs, knowing that the opportunity for true product differentiation and customer delight is often hidden several layers beneath what customers are willing or able to explicitly report. 

2. Conviction

They’re willing to go all-in on a bet, never allowing their positions to erode under political or social pressure. Like the best entrepreneurs, they’re rarely rattled by unbelievers. In fact, it’s often the skeptics that motivate them all the more. But what drives this conviction isn’t ego or ordinary stubbornness (which is really the mutation of this characteristic). Instead, they’re driven by an abiding belief in how their ideas will deliver value for the customer.

3. Curiosity

They’re more than happy to travel outside their native domain in pursuit of inspiration. They pull at random threads and turn over rocks, understanding that ideas well established in one domain are often novel in another. They cross-train in adjacent and tangential disciplines, for intellectual exercise and personal fulfillment, but also, opportunistically—and optimistically. Like the expeditioner setting off into unexplored terrain, they may not be able to name it yet, but they wholly expect to bring home a bounty.

4. Passion

They find energy and inspiration in what they do, never viewing it as simply “a job” or, worse, a grind. Their enthusiasm for their products—or more importantly, their products’ soon-to-be-fully-realized potential—is magnetic and infectious, transmitting across teams and organizations as something of a life-giving force. While sometimes their passion can feel a bit overwrought, it rarely feels disingenuous. How could it? Their belief is practically religious.

5. Persuasiveness

They understand both audience and message, ensuring that their arguments are not only tight, but targeted and tailored to the motivations and goals of the stakeholders that they seek to influence. While they’re not manipulators, they’re exceptionally savvy about how to sell ideas and establish informal influence in the absence of direct authority.

6. Discipline

They’re willing to do the research and to build the case, however tedious, even when they could probably get away with doing considerably less. They live or die by deadlines and hold themselves accountable, always. They build credibility and informal authority by establishing themselves as a leader to be counted on. Commitments are sacrosanct.

7. Creativity

They’re willing or even eager to break the rules—intellectually, anyway. They’re inclined to challenge conventions and take risks, asking stupid questions, pushing back on tired assumptions, and testing ideas that may seem absurd at first blush. They recognize that most breakthrough innovations were initially seen as crazy, as were their progenitors.

8. Pragmatism

They know that perfect is the enemy of good. Particularly because they lead by influence rather than direct authority, they’re willing to make tactical concessions to further the strategic cause. They know that, like politics, product is often a transactional business, where negotiating and horsetrading are how relationships are formed and progress is earned.

9. Humility

They’re willing to accept and assimilate new information and points of view even when they challenge existing beliefs and assumptions. They hold firm on certain principles (see “conviction”), but they’re never rigid, dogmatic or doctrinaire. They trust data more than they admire their own intuition. They never allow arrogance to blind them to the reality that markets are dynamic and nobody has a lock on perfect information.