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What is 'product leadership' and what skills do product leaders need?

Colleagues putting post-it notes on a wall

People working in product management roles often have a very broad set of responsibilities, and the role can vary greatly between departments and teams. This makes product management a difficult discipline to learn without doing.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion in the government product management community and wider digital industry about product leadership: what it is, what it means, and what product leaders actually do.

To support the development of product managers working at all levels, I have been leading 2 pieces of work with some of the other heads of product across government. 

One of them is about providing specific and practical guidance on things you need to learn how to do to become a successful product manager.

The other one is about defining what you need to learn to become a successful product leader, which is what this blog post is about.

This work is an important part of my role and aims to help product managers at all levels become more effective, and to provide targeted learning and development opportunities for our community.

Defining ‘product leadership’

We define product leadership as anyone in a senior product manager, lead product manager or head of product role.

In our experience, ‘senior product manager’ is often the first role where a product manager is asked to own a vision and strategy for multiple products, take on line management activities, and engage and communicate with a larger group of more senior stakeholders.

We assume that a successful product leader has already developed strong product management skills – as described in the Digital, Data, and Technology (DDaT) Capability Framework – and has been a successful product manager.

In government, we do have a small number of people working in product management roles at senior civil servant level. These roles are equivalent to chief product officer, or director of product but they are not yet included in the DDaT Capability Framework.

Key skills for successful product leaders

To be a successful product leader, it is likely that an individual will need to develop a new and different set of skills to those which have made them a successful product manager.

To describe what we expect them to know how to do, the other heads of product and I have defined 4 additional skills which we expect product leaders to develop. These are: develop and manage product people, define portfolio vision and strategy, understand your organisation, and participate in executive management teams.

Each skill has an example set of activities and experiences which add detail and provide tangible examples. You can read the complete list on GitHub.

For example, the ‘develop and manage product people’ skill has activities including: creating an environment for teams to succeed, managing the performance and pastoral support of other product managers, coaching and mentoring others, and understanding your own levels of emotional intelligence and making a plan for areas to develop.

How to use the product leadership skills and supporting materials

This list helps product leaders – and their line managers – to take greater ownership over their personal development, and gives practical examples of the things we expect a successful product leader to be able to do.

As well as using the skills to help guide personal and professional development, you can also use them in your local product management communities and networks, as the basis for group discussions or workshops.

The list is not intended to be prescriptive, or a test of ability. It is intended to be a guiding framework to support product leaders to become the best #ProductPeople that they can be, support other product managers in their organisation, and deliver world-class products and services for our citizen users.

What value do product leaders bring?

Creating and sharing these materials also has a role to play in helping to advocate and demonstrate the value of having experienced product leaders in government departments and organisations.

Product managers play a key role in the development of new and existing products and services by defining and creating value for users.

This means that our product leaders are key to the ongoing successful transformation of government and the Civil Service by being accountable for defining and creating value for users at an organisational level, and leading and supporting product managers to create value for users in their products and services.

We are currently in the process of updating the product management content in the DDaT Capability Framework. This activity will give us the opportunity to reflect these new materials and describe the role of product leaders in our role descriptions and skills.

I would love to hear your comments and feedback on this. You can leave comments on this post, on the GitHub pages, or follow and message me on Twitter @JPForman86.

If you’re interested in a career in product management in government, follow @digicareersgov on Twitter.

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  1. Comment by Chris posted on

    Really valuable work Jonathan!

    As a Product Manger who is growing into this role, it'd be great to see the 'product leadership' and 'learn by doing' guiding frameworks linked.

    E.g. How can Associate Product Mangers and Product Managers support Product Leaders whilst also developing their own 'product leadership' skills and experience?

    • Replies to Chris>

      Comment by Jonathan Forman posted on

      Chris, good to hear that. Thank you for your feedback.

      Great point - I will link the 2 GitHub pages.

      I hope that the two frameworks can be used together - the 'learn by doing' framework to learn the product management craft, and the 'product leadership' framework to develop the leadership aspects of the role (potentially whilst working as an Associate or Product Manager).

      This is also about product leaders supporting other individuals by providing these opportunities.
      Whilst many leaders do this, there is room for improvement - hence my including explicitly it in the 'product leadership' framework!

      • Replies to Jonathan Forman>

        Comment by Shelley Perry posted on

        Thank you for taking the time to post this - we are aligned in the mission to uplevel product leaders and spread the word on the benefit.

        • Replies to Shelley Perry>

          Comment by Jonathan Forman posted on

          Hi Shelley, thanks for the comments and feedback

  2. Comment by Manisha posted on

    Thanks Jon - this was a really interesting read!

    • Replies to Manisha>

      Comment by Jonathan Forman posted on

      Hi Manisha, thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.