4 Things you NEED to be an Effective Leader!

leadership-chalkboard

Let’s dismiss any silly notions about leadership having anything to do with authority over other people. I could list half a dozen leadership roles like Project Managers, Product Managers, Business Analysts who are all leaders often without any direct reporting lines. I’m going to instead, suggest the following definition;

Leaders are the people in an organisations that are tasked with guiding and shaping its success or failures.

So let’s break this down;

  1. Leaders are people in an organisation

That’s right. They’re not Geniuses. They’re not different. They’re also not just people who “don’t seem to work as hard as everyone else” as is a common perception. They are people just like you and me.

  1. They are tasked with guiding and shaping its success or failures

So who in your business do you think has an impact on whether your team, project, product, department or business is a success? Is it just your manager? Do you contribute as well? I’m guessing you do.

That’s right, here it is… you knew it was coming… we’re ALL leaders! Now that we’ve established that, let’s ask ourselves how well are we doing? And could we or should we be doing better?


Let’s explore the 4 key attributes that contribute to being an effective leader;

  • Be a Coach

coachIn order to get the best out of people, we must empower them to make decisions. For them to be the most effective, we need them to know what we know, and we need to arm them with the knowledge and understanding to do their role as best they can.

This is one of the hardest things I’ve found becoming a leader. Being a subject matter expert is what had made me useful to people, and when people asked me a question, I felt obliged to give them an answer.

However, by instead taking the time to coach them, I’m able to ensure they won’t have to ask that question again. The best technique I’ve found to achieve this is to answer a question with a question (Yes, I know that sounds incredibly annoying – but I promise, it works).

When I get asked, “what should we do?” I’ll respond, “Tell me what you think the best course of action is?”

If I feel they need some guidance to the right answer, I’ll suggest it in the form of a question. “Do you think approach A would achieve Goal B?”

The benefit of this is that you are now ensuring the right thinking is being done, and the right decision is being made… without having to do it yourself.

As you coach the people around you, they will become more confident and proficient in what they do.

  • Be a Mentor

mentorSometimes however, you just can’t coach your way to the best outcome –no matter how you phrase the question; they simply don’t know what you know.

If you are blessed with experience or knowledge that can lead to a better result, it is your responsibility to share. Being a mentor is exactly this, it is allowing others to benefit from your knowledge and experience so they can avoid making the same mistakes you would have made.

A great example here is to share an anecdote of how you once were in a similar position, how you dealt with it & what you learnt.

  • Be a Facilitator

FacilitationThere’s a common misconception that people who lead must be the most knowledgeable people in the room, and this is simply not the case. It is a skill though, to be able to get the right people in a room and coordinate a discussion or learning session.

As a Product manager, I work with a team of people who are extremely intelligent and experts in their field. I don’t have to have all the answers, all I need to do is get them in a room, present a problem and guide them in the right direction – they will do the rest of the work, and between them come up with the better outcome.

Learning to facilitate is a key leadership quality, and not knowing an answer should never hold you back. All you need to do is think, who would have this answer, and how can I get that person involved.

  • Be a Motivator

motivationLastly, but by no means least… is ones ability to motivate a team. Anyone in the team can do this, and I’m not talking about incentives, bonuses or bringing sugary treats into the office (though they all help).

As leaders, we need to understand that we are employed for a reason & we need to achieve certain milestones. In pursuit of those goals, we need to make sure that everyone in the team is doing what needs to be done to achieve this.

So how do you motivate people? Well, it depends… I think you need to have a few weapons in your arsenal! Sometimes you simply need to set an expectation – E.g. hey guys, do you think we can complete tasks A to D this week? Yea? OK let’s push to get that done and celebrate on Friday with a beer after work!

Sometimes it’s about simply recognising an issue and asking people if they’re ok – an environment where people care for each other fosters trust and commitment. A team is greater than the sum of its parts… but to be an effective team, you have to look after your team.

Another great way to get people more involved and take on some ownership is to empower people by delegating responsibility; they become personally invested as their reputation is on the line.

Now I’m not saying we should expect people to work themselves to death and burn themselves out. But sometimes we need to keep ourselves on track, and this is one of the roles of a leader. Understand your team, work with them, and motivate them to prosper.

While there are certainly roles in an organisation that are dedicated to leadership, the success of an organisation lies with the actions and behaviours of its employees. Using these attributes, we can all be leaders and we can all effect positive change. I’d love hear back from anyone with similar or other views!

3 Questions you MUST ask when hiring your next Product Manager!

hiring

Hiring is not a quick, easy or inexpensive endeavour – and sometimes finding that right candidate with the right skill-set, attitude and personality just seems impossible!

The key is making sure you have your interview carefully planned out to ensure you walk away with all the information you need to make the right decision. I tend to focus on a few qualities that I feel a candidate must have to be successful and then I construct ways to test for them.

While experience, domain-knowledge, attitude & personality are of equal importance, I’m going to focus on assessing skills in this article.


Question one – Estimation:

estimationOne of the most important skills a product manager must have is an ability to quickly estimate the size of a problem or opportunity. While it’s always useful to have data to back you up, sometimes you’re put on the spot and need to make a gut decision based on what you know.

To test this quality, I give the prospective candidate an estimation activity and while the answer to the question isn’t so important, the methodology of how they came to the answer is. For example, I might ask:

Estimate how many TVs are sold in Australia each year?

Good answer: OK let’s have a think. The population of Australia is about 24m people, of which we could assume that 1/3 are probably children and 2/3 are grown adults. Of the approx. 16m grown adults, lets assume that represents about 8m couples. On average, a household might have 2 TVs that they replace every 6 years, so let’s multiply and divide that up and go with an estimation of something like 2.66m TVs being sold each year.

Why is this a good answer? Well, it shows me a few things.

  • They understood the question and were able to think on their feet
  • Without any data or stats, they were able to apply some logic to a known statistic to come up with an answer that sounded plausible
  • They were decisive. Although they knew it was not an accurate answer, and given the chance could have done some research to improve the accuracy… they understood that I needed an answer and to the best of their ability, they provided one.

Bad answer: I’m not sure, I’d have to research that. There is no way I’d be able to give an estimate without some supporting statistics.

Why is this not a good answer?

  • They’re absolutely right – it’s an unfair question. But life’s not always fair and sometimes making the best decision you can with the information you have available is better than not making the decision at all.
  • It demonstrates an inability to think outside the box.

Question two – Prioritisation:

prioritiesAnother incredibly important quality is a candidates ability to prioritise requirements. As a product manager, building the right thing at the right time is what your job is all about.

Again, it’s difficult to give the candidate enough information to make a strong or rational priorities decision in the context of an interview. What we can do however,is again test the thinking that might be applied to such a decision. For example I might ask;

If you had a production bug raised that you needed to decide whether to fix immediately or later – what questions might you ask to better understand the impact of the bug?

This is something that I know I do on a daily basis. Making decisions is hard, and we need to ask the right questions to arm us with as much information as possible to ensure we make the right decisions. So what would I expect to hear?

Good answer: OK, What percentage of our audience does the issue impact? How often does it impact them? Of those impacted, what is the user-experience? Can the user continue? Is there an apparent workaround? Do we know what the solution is? Have we estimated the time/effort to fix this? What are the tradeoffs decisions? What other bugs would we not be fixing or Products would we not be launching if we were to do this? Do we know what the cause was? Have we ensured it will not happen again?

As you can see here, these questions allow us to understand the impact of the issue to the end user and allow us to quantify the importance of applying a fix versus using that time/effort on another bug or feature.

Bad answer: I would see how many complaints we’d received and fix it if it was more than 10.

This answer doesn’t show any understanding of the issue, it’s impact on users or the opportunity cost in applying a fix. It’s not enough to make a good decision.


Question three: Strategic elevator speech.

meeting in elevatorOne of the other roles of a product manager is to be able to craft & execute a bite-sized elevator speech on why it’s important to be working on the current or next project.

Making the right decision on what to work on is one thing, but being able to articulate this on-demand to your stakeholders is just as important.

In order to test this, I might ask a candidate to;

‘Sell’ their current project to me in no more than a sentence or two.

Good answer: Our FY15 aim is to achieve Z% growth by increasing X metric by Y%. Project A will help to deliver this by B date, by targeting segment C with a strong, new feature that solves problem D.

Here, they are telling me a lot, in only a few words.

  • They understand the company goals
  • They understand how their project aligns to it
  • They have a clear vision of how this new feature will achieve the required metric that support the company goals
  • I can trust their knowledge and understanding, to make the right decisions in line with the overall company objectives.

Bad answer: The Strategy manager said we need to do this project next, in order to meet the company goals.

Again, this response tells me that they don’t understand why they are doing, what they are doing. It shows a lack of understanding, and motivation. And ultimately, I don’t trust them to make day-to-day decisions that will support the overall company vision.


Now admittedly, some of the example answers I’ve provided here are quite highly contrasted. In reality, it’s more likely you get answers that fall somewhere in between. The important thing to remember is that Product Managers aren’t usually hired solely for their domain knowledge (though that is certainly helpful), they are hired for their ability to make decisions and articulate them.

Using the ideas above, it’s easy to understand how well someone might approach these tasks in your organisation.

What is MVP… and why is it so important?

MVP = Minimum Viable Product

Like me, many of you will have heard of the acronym MVP. But for those who haven’t, MVP stands for  ‘minimum viable product’ and it’s largely defined as;

“The smallest set of features you can choose to deliver to a
consumer for it to have some kind of value to them.”

A great example of this would be to understand a customer problem to solve, let’s say a transportation issue. Customers need to get to work, but walking is tiresome. How can we deliver a product that adds value to their commute?

Well, before we jump into building them a car, which could takes years to develop, will cost a fortune to design & build, and won’t give us any insights or feedback from our customers until after we deliver an end-solution that may or may not meet their needs… let’s think smaller. We’re looking for a product with the smallest set of features that we can deliver that adds value.

mvp-skateboard

In this case, it might be a skate board** – I’m guessing that’s not where you thought i was going with this!?  But let’s think about it, the problem is that
walking is tiresome and they need a product that makes it easier/faster to get to work. If we deem a successful outcome to be something that adequately addresses this problem, then a skate-board make a great first product to deliver.

Once we’ve delivered this product, we can now begin to improve upon it… The next iteration might be to include a handle for steering (make it a push scooter), then we might add bigger wheels and some gears for the hills (it becomes a bicycle). After that we could add a motor to save some energy (now we have a motorbike), we could even consider the users comfort and design a product that keeps you dry and warm and let’s you play music (we’ve now built a car), if we wanted to make sure they got to their destination as quickly as possible, we could add improvements to the engine (and make it a sports car).

A key criticism here is that the end product (the car) likely doesn’t include any components of the original (skateboard) – which is true, and you could argue that building the car in the first place would have saved time and money. I’d agree with this in the right context, but I’d also like to play advocate and argue whether you’d have known how to build the right car? It’s only through delivering these products that we learnt our customers wanted the ability to steer, or ease in peddling, or a motor, or somewhere dry. It’s these incremental releases that allowed us to;

  • Create products – which we love doing
  • Deliver incremental value to our customers and build a loyal base
  • Learn what worked and what didn’t, and iterate on this to build something better
  • Monetise these products earlier to fund our business

Now, MVPs are great for when you embark on solving a customers problem and want to add immediate and subsequent, incremental value to them. But sometimes, it’s just not as simple as that.

An example of this might be a well know online public website, that finds itself in the position that its competitors have all launched mobile apps and it’s a little behind the times. In this scenario, the MVP isn’t to simply launch an app and then build on it… because it has a large audience with high expectations that it must deliver upon. Not to mention all it’s competitors sitting out there, ready to criticise it’s first venture into app building. In this scenario, the MVP needs to be defined in the right context and likely needs to be feature rich and competitive.

It’s still an MVP, in that it’s the minimum product that can be delivered to be viable. And once it’s delivered, there’s always improvements to be made and differentiating feature sets to be added – There is nothing wrong with having a feature-rich MVP that takes a while to launch… if it makes sense to do so.

Unfortunately, people often get these concepts confused… and MVP often gets mis-labelled as;

  • Something you must deliver in less than X period of time
  • A less than complete product missing key features
  • A product that does not add value to its intended user

Next time you’re trying to solve a customer problem, have a think about all of the factors that impact the product you need to deliver and decide what YOUR MVP needs to be.

** CREDIT: I have to at this stage give credit to the popular MVP meme thats been circulating as it was inspiration for the skateboard MVP and why it sometimes does, and sometimes doesn’t work.