Indispensable habits of great product leaders

As a product management leader, there are many demands on your time. It’s easy to get sucked into working on the most pressing issues and on meeting other people’s expectations.

As “do-ers”, it’s in our nature to jump on these issues immediately. We pride ourselves on our competence to tackle these right away.

But when we do so, are we as product leaders really making traction on the things that matter? When you get to the end of the day, do you feel a sense of accomplishment?

We’re all familiar with the Eisenhower Decision Matrix:

Eisenhower Decision Matrix

Eisenhower Decision Matrix popularized in the self-help book “First Things First” by Stephen Covey

We know we should be spending more (most) of our time in quadrant 2, the yellow box.

I must admit, though, I’ve been guilty of spending too much time in the urgent column. Heck, I’ve wasted time being in quadrant 4.

There’s always a fire to put out, an urgent meeting, a request from up the chain to satisfy, someone stopping by the desk to ask a “quick question”, an email to answer, a phone call to return.

The problem is that while it feels like we’re getting stuff done in the moment, we’re actually not getting anything of real value done. It’s an illusion.

And we know this, because by the end of a day like this we usually feel drained, and lack a sense of real accomplishment.

This problem can be particularly acute for product leaders, who are responsible for (among other things) the product vision and strategy of the company, the business results of the company’s product portfolio, the performance of the product management process, and the success of their team.

The challenge is if we don’t make time for the important stuff, the urgent will always win.

But it’s easy to say we should spend time in quadrant 2. How do we actually do that?

Dan Martell, successful serial entrepreneur and investor, published this video on his YouTube channel in which he talks about what should the day of a startup CEO look like.

He talks about how as he grew in his career, he began thinking about how he could make time for the things important to him, and what are the things other people can support him on and help him with.

He lays out 5 things that startup CEOs should focus on. As I listened to this list, I realized that these same habits apply to successful product management leaders!

They’re habits because they do these regularly, every week, every day. It’s how they ensure they’re making traction on the things that are most important.

As I’ve grown in my own career, I’ve done these same things, and found them to be indispensable in the successful execution of my products.

Here they are:

1. The Daily Check-In

The most effective product leaders check in with their team every day.

Yes, every day. As much as is practical, do this at the top of the day.

One way may be in the form of a stand-up or huddle where folks provide a quick update on progress and highlight any major impediments to getting work accomplished.

Another way is to check in individually. You may “walk the floor”, stopping by each team member’s desk for a few minutes to see how things are going, how they’re feeling, and if there any major issues they may need help with.

As a product leader, you need to stay in tune with the “pulse” of your team. A daily check-in will enable you to stay on top of things tactically, as well as ensure you’ve got the temperature of your team members.

2. Keep Half Your Schedule Open For Strategic Stuff

What? Half? Really?

OK, so this one may be a challenge. But it’s SUPER important.

As a product leader, you’re responsible for setting the product vision and strategy.

That means spending time doing research, discovery and analysis, AND having some thinking time.

In addition, as a product leader, you’re responsible for communicating the product vision and strategy to everyone else in the organization.

So the point here is you need to keep a good chunk of time dedicated toward strategic activities.

If you think this is difficult, look back at the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, and ask yourself how you realistically plan to get quadrant 2 stuff done?

If you don’t make time for it, if you don’t protect that time, trust me, you’ll never get it done.

I’ve actually blocked time off on my calendar to do strategic stuff. I fight not to give up that time.

Keep half your schedule open for strategic stuff.

3. Major Projects Should Be On Your Calendar

This is somewhat related to point #2.

For example, you may be performing due diligence on a potential partner or acquisition as part of a developing product strategy. Or you may be conducting some market research or customer interviews.

Make sure these things are on your calendar.

In addition, there may be major initiatives either you are personally championing or that your team is working on that require your priority attention. A new product launch or a major release, for example.

If you want to get traction on these things, be sure to block off a reasonable amount of time for them — time that enables you to achieve flow.

4. Align Everyday Work To The Product Vision

In product management, it’s easy to get consumed by a particular feature, requirement, story, page layout, design construct, thorny technical issue, project delivery date, PowerPoint slide, or Excel analysis.

As a product leader, you need to make sure everyone understands their work serves a higher purpose.

That it ties back to something bigger, a shared goal. This is typically the product vision, product strategy, even the company mission.

And you need to do this constantly. All the time. Every day.

As Dan Martell describes it perfectly in his video:

“People forget. They get in these funks. They don’t understand why what they’re working on is going to be aligning to the bigger purpose. You should be going around to your team and saying, ‘Hey, you know that interface you’re designing? That’s going to allow us to do X, Y and Z, and allow us to achieve these big results we’re all agreed upon.'”

5. Talk With Customers. Every Week.

If you’re a product leader, this should be a “Duh!”

In fairness, though, it’s easy to become preoccupied with the demands of senior executives, the CEO, the Board, your peers, and your own team.

Certainly, the larger the organization, the more demands on your time from people within the organization than without.

But the primary job of product management is an executable product strategy. To do that means spending time with customers.

So it’s imperative product leaders dedicate time to hear directly from their customers.

Even if you have product managers reporting into you, perhaps an entire hierarchy with Directors, Senior Product Managers, Product Owners, etc. on your team, you need to spend time with your customers.

Not so much to get feedback on a specific feature or an interface design, but to immerse yourself in their world — what challenges they’re facing, what trends they’re seeing in their industry, what opportunities they’re pursuing, what defines business and personal success for them.

By doing this, you can not only make sure the current product vision and strategy, even the company mission, is aligned with the needs of your customers, but also identify opportunities to pivot on these things if necessary.

And it enables you to align the every day work with how you’re creating value for your customers.

Disclosure: I don’t know Dan Martell personally, but am a follower. All credit and many thanks for his excellent video in inspiring this post.

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