Servant Leadership for Product Managers

Published May 14, 2019

Over the past few years, I’ve witnessed and been part of the evolution of the product manager role and product management as a discipline. Yesterday, product management was mostly unknown unless you were already in it. Most schools were unable to tie the discipline to real-world value. Yesterday, product leaders grew out of a myriad of roles, like developers, business analysts, and marketing professionals. We brought our diverse backgrounds to the table, falling in love with the power of outcome and bringing customers delight in ways big and small.

That was yesterday.

Today, I talk to undergrad and MBA candidates who are eager to break into our world of PM. They’re coming out of school a little more prepared to enter this world, excited about the impact of great technology and ready to create products users love. Today, everyone wants to be a PM. Reflecting back, there’s one critical thing I didn’t recognize until I was in the thick of it. I realized those in product management –from product owner to chief product officer — are never individual contributors. Instead, they’re in a position to become true servant leaders.

What Is Servant Leadership?

Robert K. Greenleaf coined the phrase “servant leadership” several decades ago. He famously said, “The servant-leader is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” In simple terms, a servant-leader is ready to assist others before themselves and understands this will ultimately help everyone achieve success.

Being willing and able to both learn and teach enables a PM to make the best decisions possible. The ability to listen with intent and understanding allows you the right details to work with everyone around us. Equally important, the recognition that you are responsible for sharing what you know to either help someone make a decision or teach someone something new helps you succeed in your role.

Several key principles belong to servant leadership and are critical to being good students and teachers, including empathy, persuasiveness, and generosity. We’re going to talk about how to be a servant leader in product. Let’s go into more detail on how these traits apply to your team, your people, your organization, and finally, your customers.

First and Foremost — Empowering Your Team

In product management, your team is the root of every success, win, and loss. Strong PMs with successful teams realize quickly that telling the team what to build won’t lead to positive outcomes. Instead, they recognize the value of bringing data, insights, and stakeholder input to the table. They provide their team with what they need to figure out the how and the what of solving the problem.

As servant leaders, we’re here to move mountains to get the job done. I learned escalating blockers helped my devs and designers do their jobs asap. Also, I realized that learning the limitations my team faced was extremely valuable. I was able to help stakeholders understand why something may not have been feasible in a certain time frame, and helped us all think of ways to deliver value in other ways to our customers.

In fact, PMs educate stakeholders at every turn. At times, you need to help them see that teams can be told what to build based on the dollar in front of them (short-term gain), or they can create amazing things based on the data in front of them (long-term success).

Time and time again I’ve seen the pressure teams face when a high-paying client is unhappy with something insignificant. I knew a PM who dedicated 8 weeks of development time to adding a feature for one client. Why? To save the relationship. The feature ended up going unused.

Once the feature was built, the wheels were turning in her head to make sure she avoided that situation in the future. I saw her lean on the team and use data to illustrate to stakeholders that the dollar spend on the 8 weeks outweighed the feature value. Finally, I saw her talk to the client and help them understand time was better spent enhancing areas of the application where their instance had the most usage.

The team worked together to communicate all of this with the client using data. This helped move the needle with the relationship and helped internal partners and stakeholders understand how great product teams create impact. The PM persuaded them to change their approach and move forward in a different manner.

As a Manager — Growing Great PMs Who Empower Their Teams

Leaders have a responsibility to their people to give them the information, tools, and space they need to make decisions and own their outcomes. The better-equipped PMs are to solve problems for customers, the better our teams and organizations do. This can mean ensuring they have access to customers and/or providing them with effective collaboration and productivity tools. It also means having their backs.

And after you’ve given them what they need, give them space. My experience has led me to believe those in our craft who come out on top are empathetic, better listeners than talkers, very self-aware, and always willing to reflect and course correct when needed. They drive results for the company because they’re empowered and have the room to try. However, giving them space doesn’t mean you walk away. The best PMs I’ve seen have learned at every turn, shared knowledge and data with their teams, believed in collaborative decision-making, stayed humble, took feedback, and adjusted course. They failed fast and learned quickly, took risks and embraced the possibility of failure, and supported the people on their team.

Of all the qualities leaders can develop, empathy is probably the most important. One of the best leaders in my career said to me one day “know your audience”. It’s probably the best piece of advice I’ve ever received. Know who you’re facing — your team, your direct report, your client, your stakeholders, your partners in the organization. Remember they have other things going on outside of what you’re there to talk to them about. Ideally, you want to be able to do a quick pulse check when communicating so you know whether you need to pivot the conversation or persuade them with data. Don’t confuse pivoting with conceding. A strong product professional knows when to pause to reassess a situation to drive a better outcome.

How Product Impacts the Larger Organization

Here’s a little-known fact — PMs are salespeople, too!

In my current role, some of my most rewarding moments have centered around gauging reactions from our revenue team around new features or product capabilities. Watching their eyes widen a little on demos, or reading excited Slack messages from a salesperson or CSM when we publish what we’ve done takes us one step closer to the prize. And it keeps the teams excited about what they’re doing. See how it all ties back to the team?

Product folks, I can’t stress this enough — if you are not excited about what you’re building for clients, how is anyone else going to be? Put in the time to educate your internal teams both pre-and post-launch. Get sales excited to talk about that new feature set. Get CSMs calling every client they know will benefit from that new capability. Help marketing understand customer value so they can share it broadly. Encourage everyone to build and maintain strong relationships with prospects and customers. Product marketing is as much your job as it is the PMM’s.

And while you’re doing all this, continue to build empathy for them as your partners. Understand their day-to-day so you know what matters most to them. I bet most of them will do this in return. Building empathy within an organization is something we are uniquely positioned to do in our roles since we interact with pretty much everyone. Use your seat to help foster a culture of empathy and strengthen and protect what you are proud of.

Most Importantly — Your Customers

You’d think with all the work you put in internally, your role with clients would be easier. It isn’t. That’s because product managers need to assume the role of “student” with their clients even more so than in other relationships. At Pendo, one of our core values is Maniacal Focus on the Customer. We all work hard to see that NPS score come in a perfect 10. We love reading that TrustRadius review telling others how Pendo has changed their day-to-day. We’re always waiting for that renewal alert with a “can’t do my job without it” attached. And we all want to see our customers win. 

As product professionals, we must go beyond the scores and testimonials. Our role exists to solve problems and help clients be successful. This requires a deep understanding of their goals and the markets they serve, their day-to-day activities, and their pain points. This is Product 101. The moment we grasp this, we must simultaneously understand the value of sharing this with those we work with. Without maniacal focus on this relationship, we’re less likely to be on the same page as our stakeholder. Also, we stop ourselves from growing and end up unable to educate our teams to drive features and solutions for our customers. In the end, we’re not positioned to succeed.

What This Means for Aspiring PMs

I mentioned earlier I’ve been speaking to candidates out of school who are eager to break into product management. One of them asked me, “What do you know now that you wish you knew back when you entered the world of product?” My answer is simple: simultaneously and continuously learning, teaching, and serving as a product management professional are all critical to your success. If you aren’t willing to do this, don’t enter the world of product. And if you are ready to do this, get ready for an amazing journey.