What Does It Mean to Be a Product Lead?

Why Product Lead has become such a crucial position, how is it different from a Product Manager and what traits should you have to become one.
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In the past decade, a new rockstar of business, the product leader, has emerged.

For decades, product managers have been an integral part of any business structure. But with the fast-moving environment of the digital business world, the need for rapid communication, and coordination of departments — a new level of expert has emerged: the product lead. This child of creative leadership was first found only in a few of the tech giants but has since migrated into almost every successful startup. 

 So where did this person called a product leader come from? 

It seemed at first that the product leader was a person who was just born for the position. They appeared from any of several disciplines, from engineering to design, from marketing to administration. But they all had a few qualities in common that set them apart. They could visualize the overarching goal of the company and communicate that goal clearly to their coworkers.

They had a gift to think logically, but also creatively. They could see a product from the point of view of the ideal avatar, and also from the perspective of the production team. And they seemed to have the ability to perform specialized tasks as well as the most seasoned specialist.

Whatever the background of a product leader, she or he is a blend of a skilled manager; a person with the empathy of an artist, the logic of an engineer, and the vision of a successful entrepreneur. A role of such popularity and requiring such a level of competence, that 7% of recent Harvard Business School grads took jobs in product management. 

What sets a product leader apart from other corporate employees?

What differs a product leader from an excellent employee is the mindset. They see the overall picture. They intuitively understand the company goals. They have the mindset of the founders of the business, empathize with the customer, management, and members of the support teams. Obstacles are seen as opportunities to discover creative solutions. Problems are not negative, but rather are a challenge to generate creativity.

 A product leader sees that the business environment is filled with possibilities and is an environment where impossible goals can be achieved. A great product leader clearly presents ideas that resonate with the engineer, the project manager, and the creative designer. A product leader can think logically and artistically at the same time — and sees the finished puzzle where others see a box full of random pieces. When the product leader speaks with understanding and authority, people at every level listen.

 The mindset of the product leader is aligned with the goals of the business. They can communicate with the stakeholders to describe clearly the goals of a project, but can also see ways to integrate what one person does in marketing with what another is doing in product design to make a project more efficient and get a product created and out the customer on time. 

As the cornerstone of the next age of entrepreneurial business, a product leader knows the intricate pieces that create a successful business, from the heart of the customer to the mind of the management team, and is comfortable at every level. Experience and education have combined to produce a person who can speak with understanding and authority, and lead by example. Clarity of vision allows a product leader to see what needs to be added and what needs to be cut away, to make the critical difference between success and failure.

What’s the difference between a product manager and a product leader?

A product leader is not just a hire paid product manager. A product leader has special skills that make them worth much more to a business. The core of these skills arises from the ability to see the big picture. Each product manager specializes in focused tasks. The creative manager may be focused on the artwork of the UI, while the engineering manager turns their team’s attention to making the data flow properly.

While the product manager of each team has a narrowly defined focus, the product leader has the ability to see how all of the parts fit together to bring the product to its highest level of perfection. But there is something more. The product leader can also communicate with each of the product managers the overall corporate goal of the product in a way that is clear, inspiring, and supportive. It all comes down to having a clear vision of the goal and seeing how all of the parts fit together.

A product leader is a rare person with knowledge, empathy, and vision. They have the versatility to see solutions to problems in many areas. They understand the language of the artist, the engineer, and the marketing manager, and can see how the different departments work to flow together. A product leader moves people with confidence and clarity, and by example helps the business grow.

There is another important skill of the product leader. That is the ability to think like the user. A product leader is like a chameleon who can become part of many different environments. He or she can become the customer but also initiate strategic planning, and create plans that are in harmony with the goals of the business owners.

The question is, “Are you born a product lead, or can you learn to become one?”

Valerie Nygaard knows the world of the product lead inside and out. She worked her way up in the corporate digital world and became a product lead for Google Duplex. She knows how important the role of a product lead is, and she also knows how to teach the skills of a product lead to professional leaders.

Obviously, like any creative superstar, some product leaders are just born that way. These are the Aprils Underwoods, Steves Jobs, and Russells Brunsons of the world. But there is another way. Valerie believes that one can become a product leader. 

It's really about the kind of person that wants to think in a number of ways. Do you want to have the creativity or you want to have that analysis or that empathy?

It's always about perfecting what you already have, and then bringing up the people who can complement it.

It all boils down to flexibility in attitude. A product leader sees the finished product, understands the importance of working together, and is willing to get in with both hands and get the job done. With the sensitivity of an artist, a product leader can communicate to the creative team working on the product colors, just as well as the engineering and design team working on the moving parts and databases. From a converting funnel to writing a corporate vision statement, the product leader knows how to communicate the goal to everyone.

There are steps that can guide you from where you are today, wondering what is happening, to being a product leader, where you can tell others not just what is happening, but what is going to happen and the role every person will play in making it happen. You can learn how to have a larger vision, understand the basics of the different teams in a business, and how to communicate to make them work together smoothly.

Maybe you have wondered if you have that creative rockstar of business. Maybe you think that whatever people say to hold you back, that there is a way to really make something of yourself. Maybe you have been waiting for an opportunity to come along, but don’t know what it could be. 

Learning to become a product leader is your opportunity to be great.

Becoming a product leader is not for everyone. You have to really want to become a better version of yourself, and to make other people around you better. The wonderful thing is: you can do it! Does living a creative, rewarding career as a product leader sound like something you have always dreamed of? That dream can come true, starting today! You can become one of the elite people who are changing the course of business and the growth of a new culture.

“If you build things with an eye toward flexibility — you can end up with something that is just really helpful.”

If you have to choose one thing in your life that you are really proud of, what would that be? Here’s a suggestion: set your sights high and learn to be a true leader. Become the person who puts all the parts of the puzzle together. You can only reach a higher goal when you decide to really strive towards it. There is a huge need for product leaders in business, and you can fill that need by elevating your skills.