How to be an expert product leader

“Leadership” is a funny beast. There is no one right way to lead teams. First, you can’t fake your leadership style. Every person in a leadership position has a different personality and communication style. You need to identify what that is to be true to yourself and authentic. On the other hand, every different group will work better with different leadership styles. Also, depending on the status of the product (launch, growth, turnaround, maintenance, etc.) different leadership styles will be needed. Simply stated, when it comes to leadership it’s not “one size fits all”.

The notion of “expert leadership” can be controversial. There is an important school of thought that suggests that product-agnostic leadership is the way to go. Leaders should not be hired because they have a sense of what leads to success, but rather because they can drive teams to work together – and get people who have expertise to deliver. As someone who entered game leadership coming from a product strategy and business performance background, I have always found this to be very reductive. Interesting studies show how expert leadership is a key factor in having happier teams and better outcomes.  

There is some truth to the expertise-agnostic approach. The team will always be the most important factor. To a certain extent, it will always be more important to have a highly functional team than a solid strategy and roadmap. Ultimately, the team is the one that will implement the vision, and you can argue that all non-implemented visions are equal (i.e. non-existent). The extra advantage for an effective expert leader is that you can have both. A leader with technical expertise can ensure the team works well, and at the same time ensure that the team is working well and executing on the things that will have the biggest impact.

Focus on the team

I’ve come to the conclusion that when you’re a manager, you need to focus on the team. You need to find ways to indirectly impact product output by working with people on the team. That’s achieving results through people. There is no straight line to leadership – especially in the creative industry when making entertainment products that have little functional value. You can’t effectively impact the team’s work by telling them what work to do. In other words, you don’t add value as a manager by telling people what to do, or by doing someone else’s job (but only better because you’re the chief expert). 

As a manager, your main goal is to ensure the team is delivering. One of the key guiding principles of Andy Grove’s book “High Output Management” is that “a manager’s output is the output of his (sic) organization”. He further identifies a manager’s opportunities to impact its organization’s output as a) increase individual motivation and b) coaching to increase individual capability on the team. The first part is a requirement for all managers. The second one is something expert leaders are better equipped to deliver on.

The team is the central point of reference for all leadership action. It all needs to start with the team: what people on the team are thinking, what they want, and how they feel. Emphasis here on feel because technical experts are conditioned to think about the output in an objective way, more than the human process to get there. What is required for a team to act on a message is to make it their own. So what matters here is what the team wants and what makes sense for them. That’s because you can’t impose buy-in. You can’t successfully get an unsolicited message across. You need to start with what the reality of the team is, what they value and want, and what is meaningful for them. You need to frame the message in a way that your audience can and wants to hear it. You can only push so much. And in order to get the pull you need, you need to be appealing to that individual sense of purpose everybody has, and clearly formulate the collective purpose in a way that matches that.

Because everything you starts and ends with the team, you need to focus on listening, caring, and providing people on the team with the support they need and want. There are a few great books that elaborate more on that: “The Coaching Habit”, “Difficult Conversations”, “Thanks for the Feedback” (and a dash of “Radical Candor”). You can tell people on the team to do something they don’t want and don’t believe in. The output probably won’t be that good. You need enthusiastic buy-in for the most effective, robust output. And that starts by creating a space where people matter, and where you are saying things in a way that makes sense for them – not for you. You can’t jedi-mind-trick people into saying they want something they don’t. You can’t convince people they are not feeling or thinking the things they are feeling or wanting. You won’t be able to make everybody happy, but you also can’t act as if points of contention don’t exist if people on the team are telling you they do. That’s why caring and vulnerability go hand in hand.

This can be summarized quite simply. Imagine you want to get a message across (about strategy, organization, culture, etc.). Your role as a manager doesn’t consist in transmitting a message (that’s a task). Your role as a manager is to ensure the message is received by the team (that is the output that matters and that will make a difference). And “receive” here doesn’t just mean heard and understood. It means there is enthusiastic consent and buy-in. So you have to start with what (and how) people on the team make sense of things – not with what you want to say. And find a way to connect both.

Help the team focus on the most impactful things

The expertise part can help ensure people on the team are coached and supported by providing context, feedback and helping them ask the right questions. The additional value of the expertise is to coach the team into connecting the dots, and always being intentional with what they do. By knowing how to work well, and how each individual contribution fits into the overall picture, an expert leader can have an exponential impact on the growth of the team and the results delivered. You need to hold people accountable to explicitly state the rationale for their decisions – and the impact they think it will have. This is where you need to have some level of subject-matter expertise in order to be able to evaluate and challenge that rationale. Expertise also comes in handy to know the limits of your knowledge, distinguish between what really matters and what doesn’t, and see the difference between risky and safe bets.

By focusing on the questions and the process you can ensure people with the biggest practical expertise are doing what the situation requires, while instilling the highest standards when it comes to evaluating impact and defining success. When looking at the specifics, that can take on many different forms. An expert leader can ask people on the team why they are looking at one metric instead of another or point out limitations of some metrics. More generally, an expert leader is in a better position to make sure the individual work done is relevant and impactful when considered from the point of view of the main goal. 

Every expert leader needs to operate a crucial shift in mindset from the product to the team. That’s because technical experts are conditioned to provide solutions and say what should be done – but you can’t contribute that way as a manager. So in the case of mobile games, someone coming from a business performance background will probably be thinking more in terms of features, functions – and how all that impacts user behavior and is measured by various KPIs. And as a leader you need to find a way to impact that outcome by focusing your efforts on the team – not directly at the level of the game and its features. You don’t work directly at the level of the product, but at the level of the team working on the product. 

The focus on the people applies to all effective managers. And it’s probably the most important aspect of leadership. But there is additional value that can come from being an expert leader. All managers should aim to add value by creating an inclusive framework for collaboration where everybody is valued, respected, and has a chance to make a difference. An expert leader should also aim to create a framework to identify what matters, why, and define what success looks like. And here, the value is not on determining the specific outcomes that need to be achieved in each contingent situation. It’s rather about translating the specific expertise into general principles that can be applied in different situations. Quoting Grove once more: “It’s not about how smart you are or how well you know your business; it’s about how that translates to the team’s performance and output”. All leaders need to find the right tone to get their message across to the team. And expert leaders who possess those qualities can have even more impact because they can translate their knowledge in a way that helps the team work together on a specific area that requires technical expertise.

A good leader will be able to create a space where everybody will be motivated to do their best.  An expert leader can do one more, and provide the high-level context that will help put the impact of each individual contribution into perspective, and discriminate between what matters and what doesn’t. Ideally, an expert leader can help frame individual contributions at a higher level of abstraction. You need the expertise to articulate in a clear way the key technical principles. It’s about getting to the essence of things and clearly communicating them in a way that makes sense and gets people’s buy-in. Here, the biggest impact is not on what the team is doing, but on the processes to decide what to do. Focusing on the what and why effectively requires knowing how products perform and why they perform that way. Expert leaders can have a bigger impact by getting to the essence of product performance, and explicitly providing the right framework to observe product performance and explain the questions that will lead to the right product decisions.

Expertise is key in coaching the team and pushing them to grow. Expert leaders need to be coaches who can translate their expertise: not focus on what to do, but get to the essence of how you determine what to do and why that’s a good way to go about that. In a sense, an expert leader needs to be a bit of a compassionate teacher. The idea here is that as a leader you don’t ask people on the team to look at one feature or another. It’s more that you challenge the team, and hold them accountable to explain why they are doing what they are doing, and why they believe it’s the best way to achieve the main objective. You need to be able to orient people in the right direction when looking for what matters and what will have the most impact – and that requires some level of subject-matter expertise.

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