Leadership in Product Management – Effecting Organizational Alignment

Leadership as a topic has a great deal of breadth and depth.  With respect to product management the term “leadership” usually evokes the context of product or market leadership.  While these are worthy goals to which many of us product managers aspire, there is much work to be done in laying the groundwork for the desired level of success.  This is particularly true if the objective is to achieve product or market leadership on a sustained basis – think Exchange over Lotus Notes.

Attainment of product or market leadership requires tight organizational alignment around company initiatives and its go-to-market plans.  You as PM will be called upon to drive alignment around how your company goes to market.  Success in this effort will require organizational leadership.

Over the course of three posts we will explore the topic of organizational leadership in the context of product management.  Many of you will reflexively think that this is ground more suited to CEOs and the like, and that Product Managers should stay primarily focused upon identification of market opportunities, development of products / solutions and their successful launch into the market.  However, product management best practices make implicit, or in many cases explicit, the need to run a product or solution as a business unto itself.  Therefore, unless you have direct control of all the means of production, marketing and distribution, you will need to effect leadership to ensure the organization and its disparate departments do what is necessary to win in the market.  I liken product management to being the CEO for the given product or solution.

Leadership is one of those concepts ready to grasp but difficult to define, so let’s take a moment to reflect upon definitions to ensure we are all working within the same context.  Referencing Wikipedia, one definition of leadership is the “process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leadership).  Note the focus upon persons.  The formative years of my professional career were spent as a naval officer, therefore to me there is a clear distinction between leadership and management.  Leadership involves alignment of people around a common initiative or objective.  Management is the control of assets and/or processes.

Having assumed a role as Product Manager you have learned or will learn quickly that there are many beyond you with opinions as to what the Products department should be doing.  As Joshua wrote in his recent post, A GPS for Product Roadmaps, a successful product strategy requires more than simply the PM’s imprint.  To be successful, a company needs to align itself around one or more clearly defined product or solution strategies so that all departmental teams can pull in the same direction.  Critical to the achievement of organizational alignment is ensuring the core objectives and effort across Sales, Marketing, R&D and Products.  This is best accomplished through the exercise of organizational leadership.

In approaching the challenge of alignment through leadership, the purview of product management expands beyond identifying a market opportunity, defining a product or offering and its successful launch.  In addition to the above, the foremost task of product management becomes the alignment of stakeholders and organizations such that there is consensus with respect to the go-to-market plan, and all know their role in its execution.  To accomplish the requisite level of alignment requires a multi-disciplinary approach spanning all the elements readily recognized as “good product management practices” to also encompass inspiration and persuasion.  In a positive sense, these are at the core of leadership.

The objective of this post was to posit and outline the need for product managers to effect organizational leadership.  It is axiomatic to state that every company is unique.  Yet relative to product management, there are three aspects of organizational composition that are consistently material:

  • people (and personalities) that comprise the relevant stakeholders
  • organizational culture
  • functional organization

In the next two posts we will explore these three material aspects as they relate to organizational leadership by product management – what they mean and how they can be leveraged to achieve the outcome you desire.