Strategic Skills for Product Leaders

Written by Lisa mo Wagner

Nobody is an island. We cannot build products alone. 

The most successful products get built by teams that work well together and move in the same direction. As a product manager, design lead or product leader, you need to lead your team without authority, ensuring to create products that people love and work for the business.

No matter who said it, they were right: “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sail.” And strategic skills will help us with that.

What do you mean by “strategic skills”?

For a long time, skills got categorized into two groups hard skills and soft skills, the latter seemingly less important. They are just soft, squishy. I believe that those squishy skills are the ones that differentiate between good and great product people.

The amazing product leader Rosemary King introduced me to calling them strategic and tactical skills. Let’s unpack that a little.

Strategic means that something relates to “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.” While tactical means things “relating to small-scale actions serving a larger purpose, carried out with only a limited or immediate end in view.”

Anyone can learn a framework. Don’t get me wrong, it is important to know your frameworks and ways of working. So you can choose the right one to bring you closer to your goals. That’s why those are considered tactical skills.

If you ever ran a workshop or participated in one, you might know that the workshop outline is just as important as the facilitation skills of the moderator.

Skills like facilitation, presenting well or being a good listener are your means to achieve your overall goals. 

Creating collaboration & alignment as a leader

Let’s take a short detour and talk about what your overall goal should be. I am not talking about business goals. How can you empower your team? To empower a team, you need to create alignment and an environment of collaboration. That should be your goal always.

There are two components to help in reaching this goal:

  • values and processes
  • purpose and direction

Everyone on your team needs to know the processes and understand them. The team values need to be explicit. That sounds simple, does it not? Most companies are lacking in this department. When joining a new company or team, I like to run a workshop called the Team Canvas. It helps to surface values, goals and how the team wants to work together. We review it together once a quarter. We take a look at what has worked and what has not. Our values usually do not change, the ways of working together get tweaked.

Did you know that having a purpose makes people happy? You can help out your team members by having a clear vision. Give everyone the context they need, explain the big picture. Even if you do not get to define the product vision yourself, you still need to evangelize. This means repeating the vision, mission, strategy and goals until you feel like a broken record. That’s the moment you just started communicating enough.

You want to rally people around a mission! Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools you can have in your box for this. Marty Cagan, the author of Inspired and Empowered, talks about the advantage of missionaries over mercenaries all the time. You want people that care. They will outperform your “swords for hire” any day.

Communication is key

Communication is the main ingredient when it comes to strong strategic skills. Here are my personal principles for effective communication:

  • Be unambiguous -> make things explicit and clear, repeat often
  • Be transparent -> share your thought process and iterations, how did you get here?
  • Be radically candid -> be very honest but remain kind, book recommendation: Radical Candor by Kim Scott
  • Be an active listener -> do not listen to reply, ask questions to understand

Now that we know what we need to communicate and how to do it best, let’s look at the skills that can help you.

Strategic skills you might want to pick up

All of these skills are closely related to communication:

  • Active listening
  • Coaching 
  • Drawing
  • Facilitation
  • Giving & receiving feedback
  • Presenting
  • Storytelling
  • Visual collaboration
  • Writing

That is by no means an extensive list but the ones that I think are most important. There’s overlap with tactical skills here. For a lot of the strategic ones, you can learn the foundations by reading a book about or taking an online class. After that, it comes down to practice. 

Don’t try to learn them all at once. Rate their importance to your current role on a scale of 1-5. Now rate yourself on that same scale. Maybe start practicing “receiving feedback” and ask your colleagues to help you. Now, start with the most useful skills. Or start with the one that seems the most fun, that will keep you motivated. Or start with the one you are worst at and see progress fast. Whatever your approach, don’t wait, start now.

Striking a balance

To be a great leader, you need strategic skills to communicate effectively what is important and why it is important. You need to help your team collaborate better. Use your unambiguous, candid, and transparent communication skills, listen actively and most importantly, sound like a broken record! 

At the end of the day, it is not either strategic or tactical skills. You need both to succeed and build the best products that customers love and work for the business together with an empowered team. And don’t forget to have fun while you do it!

Lisa is a product person with a strong focus on inclusive and empowering product management. She believes the most effective product leaders excel at strategic skills like empathy, listening and facilitation. Put your team first and trust they will put your customer first. Her 8 years of experience range from early-stage startups to corporates in Europe and Canada across industries like retail, ad tech, e-commerce, and fintech.

Lisa Mo Wagner

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