It’s Time for a New Kind of Product Leader

My most recent job search experience has been both enlightening and incredibly frustrating. We’re still mostly stuck in a system that requires recruiters to compare what they can find about people to a checklist of what they think someone needs to be successful.

Do we really think someone who has worked with AI over the last 15 years is going to have more relevant experience in generative AI than someone who has been neck deep in it for the last two years and is actively using and exploring it?

Some interesting feedback I received recently was that my Linkedin, “… doesn’t really communicate product management.”

Maybe that’s true and valid, but it brings me back to a question keep coming back to, “Why are you looking for product managers if you actually need product leaders?”

Almost every job description I’ve looked at has some mention of doing product management different and specifies expectations that would require specialized expertise or skills beyond foundational product management. In reality, these companies are looking for product managers with actual super powers or who are equipped to lead at a greater scale.

This is why I was so excited when I saw people losing their minds in response to a comment from Brian Chesky, the co-founder and CEO of Airbnb. He highlighted a significant transition in their product management strategy, moving towards a market-driven approach (nice write up here). This came from a discussion at Figma’s 2023 Config

“The designers are equal to the product managers. Actually, we got rid of the classic product management function. Apple didn’t have it either. We combined product management with product marketing and we said that you can’t develop products unless you know how to talk about the products.”

Brian Chesky, CEO Airbnb

But this change is not happening in isolation. Apple, a company renowned for its innovative products and groundbreaking design, has already made a similar transition. They are seeking individuals with a broader skill set that extends beyond the traditional product management role. Apple expects its product managers to have several years of experience, technical know-how, and a deep understanding of the industry trends, among other things.

I see a few obvious trends that will drive others to follow Apple/Airbnb’s lead here:

  1. AI will make individuals more effective in covering a broader set of responsibilities.
  2. As more and more companies adopt a remote-first model, the expectations around communication for every employee will go up and the need to “manage” design and development will go down.
  3. Competition in every market will increase and it will be harder to find product-market fit and to maintain market position. Teams will need more strategic leaders at the helm to keep a higher velocity across the board.

If you want to future-proof your career in product, you need to start thinking differently about the value you bring to the table. To be an effective product leader, you need to be adaptable, ready to unblock teams, and solve problems creatively. Yes, it’s about combining the tools, methodologies, and philosophies needed to execute a product, project, or program effectively. It’s also about being able to align empower, and equip everyone within your organization with everything they need to drive the best possible results. It’s about not waiting weeks for a creative request to get through the backlog. It’s about being able to write compelling copy that can ship this week. It’s about knowing exactly what your competitors are up to and exactly how you’ll beat them.

I see this shift also bringing some major operational advantages to the organization that successfully adopts and integrates it:

  1. Unified Vision: With the product manager at the helm, there is a singular, unified vision for the product, reducing the chances of miscommunication or misalignment across different departments.
  2. Efficient Resource Allocation: As someone intimately familiar with the product, its requirements, and its potential, a product manager is in the best position to decide where resources should be allocated for maximum impact.
  3. Customer-Centric Approach: Product managers are inherently focused on the customer. By leading sales and marketing efforts, they can ensure these initiatives are also customer-centric, enhancing overall customer satisfaction.
  4. Consistent Messaging: By overseeing sales and marketing, the product manager can ensure that the product’s messaging is consistent across all platforms and channels, strengthening the product’s brand image.

While I continue to investigate companies that are successfully implementing this model, it’s clear that this shift towards skilled product leadership is not just a passing trend. It is a necessary evolution that acknowledges the complex and multifaceted nature of modern product management. It is time to embrace this change and redefine what it means to be a product leader.

I’ll probably write more things and you might just want to read those too.

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