Leadership in Product Management (2) – People & Organizational Culture

In the first post on leadership in Product Management I laid out the case for leadership in product management and outlined three primary aspects of a company [Leadership in Product Management – Effecting Organizational Alignment].   This post will address the importance of effecting leadership within the context of two of those aspects: people and organizational culture.

In most organizations, alignment of people around a common initiative in the context of product management immediately involves multiple stakeholders in terms of decision makers and influencers.  With respect to people and personalities, the immediate task is to identify the stakeholders relevant to product management.

As with prospective customers, these will include both decision makers and influencers.  Also material with respect to people is the need to approach people differently.  Some stakeholders will require no more than being asked for support, while others will need more formal persuasion in terms of market assessments, pitches and business cases.  It should be recognized on occasion there will be those stakeholders you will not be able to inspire or persuade and for them you should identify a means to mitigate their impact.

Similar to development of a good go-to-market plan, development of a stakeholder engagement plan (whether formal or informal) will increase the chances of obtaining your objective of advancing the product / solution plan Products proposes.  In short, the engagement plan should identify the decision makers and influencers within the organization whose agreement (or at least neutrality) is critical to advance your objectives.

Engage your stakeholders one-on-one.  Doing so provides you with the opportunity to engage each stakeholder using an approach most appropriate to them.  It allows you to demonstrate your knowledge of the market and why they should buy into what Products proposes, and therefore align themselves in terms of objectives and metrics organic to their departments.

Engaging stakeholders individually also allows them to privately air disagreements or concerns which you must address as part of your product, solution and/or go-to-market plan.  Note the “must” in the previous sentence.  Failure to address the concerns shared with you one-on-one will most likely prevent their support of Products in the current initiative.  It could also result in limited to no access to these stakeholders for future projects.

This also provides a firebreak in the event a particular engagement does not go well.  Company-wide presentations are best utilized as forums for publicly demonstrating broad consensus across the organization – not for persuasion of undecided stakeholders.  If you have done your job properly, the true benefit of public presentations are to demonstrate that all (or the majority) are agreed with the go-to-market plan and aligned accordingly.

Organizational culture is important as your approach in leadership should be informed by the predominate culture.  The primary dimensions in which this comes into play are “what” and “how”.  Let’s explore some examples to illustrate the point.

Carly Fiorina became CEO of Hewlett Packard in 1999 largely on the basis of her strong performance in rising through the ranks at AT&T and Lucent.  Prior to her departure from Lucent Fiorina led Marketing and Sales for the largest customer segment.  She brought with her to HP this focus upon sales and marketing which was initially lauded as a much needed shake up of the staid engineering oriented company.  However, Fiorina’s personality and approach ran counter to the well established “HP Way” (http://www.hpalumni.org/hp_way.htm) and proved to be a catalyst to her eventual dismissal.

Fiorina’s successor, Mark Hurd, was appointed CEO in 2005.  Though Hurd continued the head count and cost reductions, his approach was much lower profile than that of his high-flying predecessor.  His focus upon productivity and efficiency seems to be more in line with the inherent engineering culture of HP.  Assuming leadership of HP, Hurd took on expectations that he would return HP to “boring profitability” – a challenge that he has delivered upon in spades.

Interestingly however, a closer examination of the strategies upon which Hurd has successfully executed trace many of their lineages to Fiorina.  No where is this more apparent than in the acquisition of EDS which delivers upon a strategic proposal made early in Fiorina’s tenure – and which precipitated the now infamous proxy fight with Walter Hewlett (son of co-founder William Hewlett).

There is a growing level of recognition that strategy developed by and under Fiorina has proven to be both sound and profitable for HP.  What is equally apparent was that the “how” of her approach was out of synch with the much vaunted HP culture and as a result it is Hurd that has received recognition and reward for the successes of HP.

From 1986 to 1997 Apple, Inc was then known as Apple Computer and struggling to define its path in the highly dynamic personal computer business.  This period in the company’s history is best known for the notable failure of Newton and plummeting share prices.  Yet Newton was only one of many endeavors undertaken by the executive team, all of which contributed to the declining market capitalization.

Under the respective leadership of John Sculley, Michael Spindler and Gil Amelio Apple moved away from its predominate culture in two ways.  Under the auspices of Sculley, and continued by both Spindler and Amelio, the organization of Apple was changed from that of being product focused to various forms of nominal corporate functional alignment.  Secondly, the company embarked on a spectrum of technology initiatives that were far removed from the core competence recognized today. These initiatives ranged from central processors (Aquarius) to high-end workstations (Tesseract) to high volume / low margin go-to-market strategy (wading into the prevailing PC price wars of the time) to licensed manufacturing (Mac clones built by Radius, Motorola and Power Computing).

It was not until the return of Steve Jobs and his assumption of the CEO role that Apple again found its footing.  Jobs appears to be the very embodiment of the Apple culture and he reasserted the focus upon products and the user experience.  The results have been stunning.  The CEOs before Jobs had each in turn attempted to lead Apple into various forms of “what” that was not congruent with the predominate culture – none of which were successful.

The point is to be aware of the company culture and align your leadership efforts accordingly.  The degree to which your approach with respect to either “how” or “what” is divergent from the culture will increase the level of difficulty in attaining your objective of aligning critical stakeholders and therefore the company behind your initiative.