April 19

Transitioning from Product Manager to Product Leader

The role of a product manager and the role of a product leader are two very different and distinct roles within a technology/software organization, each requiring a unique set of skills and responsibilities. A typical product manager focuses quite a bit of their time on the day-to-day tasks of managing a product. Product leaders, however, are less focused on the product – and more focused on the people within their product organization. Because of this, Product leaders must take on more of a strategic mindset and a deep understanding of the company’s goals and objectives.

The best Product managers don’t necessarily make the best product leaders – as it requires an entirely unique combination of skills, experience, and mindset shifts. However, it certainly is possible to make a smooth transition – and in this post, we’ll explore what it takes to make the transition successfully.

1. First, it’s important to develop a strategic mindset as a product leader

Product leadership requires a strategic mindset that goes beyond day-to-day management. To become a successful product leader, you need to develop the ability to think strategically and make decisions that align with the company’s overall goals and objectives. This requires a deep understanding of the market, competition, and customer needs, as well as the ability to anticipate future trends and changes.

To develop a strategic mindset, you can start by asking yourself questions such as:

  • What are the company’s long-term goals?
  • What are the key challenges the company is facing?
  • What are the biggest opportunities in the market?
  • How can our products help solve customer problems?

By asking these questions, you can start to think beyond the immediate tasks and develop a broader perspective on the company’s goals and objectives.

These are actually important questions for product managers to ask as well. However, product leaders are constantly thinking about how these key questions impact the overall organization on an ongoing basis.

2. Product leaders must also continue to develop and refine their leadership skills

Product leadership requires strong leadership skills, including the ability to inspire and motivate a team, build relationships with stakeholders, and make tough decisions. In fact, as a product leader – it’s often understood that the true product you’re managing is now your team!

To continue to develop leadership skills, you can:

  • Seek out opportunities to lead initiatives within your organization, such as cross-functional projects or process improvements.
  • Take on mentoring or coaching roles to help develop the skills of others.
  • Attend leadership training programs – specifically those that have a product leadership focus.

The good news is that product managers often need to flex their “leadership” muscles in working with various stakeholders each day. But as a product leader, you’ll be tasked with empowering each of the stakeholders you currently work with in a much different way.

3. It’s important to foster relationships with key internal and external stakeholders

Speaking of these stakeholders, product leaders must build strong relationships with all different types of stakeholders, including customers, executives, sales, marketing, and engineering teams – some of which may be new to somebody who recently transitioned as a product manager.

To help foster these strong relationships, you can:

  • Make it a point to proactively talk to stakeholders and understand their needs and concerns.
  • Communicate effectively and transparently, keeping stakeholders informed of progress and changes.
  • Build trust by delivering on commitments and following through on promises.
  • Empower your teams – show your product team that their growth is important to you not just with your words, but with actions.

By building strong relationships, you can gain buy-in and support for your product vision and strategy, and effectively navigate any challenges that arise.

4. The best product leaders focus on outcomes – not just outputs

Product leadership requires a focus on outcomes, not just outputs. While product management is focused on delivering features and functionality, product leadership is focused on delivering business value and driving growth.

To focus on outcomes, you can:

  • Define clear goals and metrics for your product, and track progress against those goals.
  • Prioritize features and functionality that will drive the most impact and value for the business.
  • Continuously measure and iterate on the product to optimize for outcomes.
  • Constantly revisit product roadmaps and consider iterating proactively in ways that deliver the outcomes you desire.

By focusing on outcomes, you can ensure that your product is driving value for the business and meeting customer needs.

5. Product leaders must embrace a growth mindset

Embracing a growth mindset means being open to learning and feedback, taking risks, and embracing failure as a learning opportunity.

To embrace a growth mindset, you can:

  • Seek out feedback from stakeholders and use it to improve your product and your own skills.
  • Take calculated risks and experiment with new ideas and approaches.
  • Embrace failure as a learning opportunity and use it to iterate and improve.

By embracing a growth mindset, you can continuously improve your product and your own skills, and drive growth for the business.

Simply put, transitioning from product management to product leadership requires a combination of skills, experience, and mindset shifts. These shifts may be uncomfortable and certainly will be different from what you experienced as a product manager, but they’re critical in order to make a smooth transition to being a great product leader.

Mike Belsito

About the author

Mike Belsito is a startup product and business developer who loves creating something from nothing. Mike is the Co-Founder of Product Collective which organizes INDUSTRY, one of the largest product management summits anywhere in the world. For his leadership at Product Collective, Mike was named one of the Top 40 influencers in the field of Product Management. Mike also serves as a Faculty member of Case Western Reserve University in the department of Design and Innovation, and is Co-Host of one of the top startup podcasts online, Rocketship.FM. Prior to Product Collective, Mike spent the past 12 years in startup companies as an early employee, Co-Founder, and Executive. Mike's businesses and products have been featured in national media outlets such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN, NPR, and elsewhere. Mike is also the Author of Startup Seed Funding for the Rest of us, one of the top startup books on Amazon.


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