How do you effectively lead people who are natural leaders?
As a Group Product Manager (or GPM) at HubSpot, I’m constantly asking this question. I’m part of a product team called the Revenue Product Group, and our mission is to help HubSpot become an experience disruptor at scale. My team's focus within this mission is making every touchpoint a customer has with a HubSpot employee delightful.
Like many product managers (PMs) I took a nonlinear path into the field, but not by chance. I believe PMs carve a path, often unintentionally, toward the seat that drives product change. We find our way by instinct to the room that steers the ship.
That’s why I often reflect on that key question: How do you effectively lead natural leaders? Over the past fifteen years in my career, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about what it takes to go from managing products to managing product people. People who are entrepreneurial, self-starters, and passionate problem solvers.
My answer to this question is in constant iteration. But there are principles I’ve come to lean on for not only managing product managers, but for helping them grow, too. These are three of the principles that I believe any product leader or GPM can use to lead, scale, and grow a team of natural leaders.
1. An Autonomous Culture Takes Work
Product managers are innate problem-solvers. They don’t want you to give them a map to figure out how to get from point A to point B; they want the autonomy to chart their own course. While the pressure to deliver value is constant, and it can be tempting to tell your teams what to do, shortcutting into boss-mode shortchanges everybody's growth. Instead, as a product leader, you want to create a product culture that PMs can use as a backbone to make sound decisions along that autonomous journey.
I believe you need a multitude of things to make guided autonomy work, but if you do nothing else, my three fundamentals include; a shared vision, psychological safety, and guardrails. My first component for making guided autonomy work is a no brainer: having a shared vision. In fact, Harvard Business Review argues that “the only visions that take hold are shared visions — and you will create them only when you listen very, very closely to others, appreciate their hopes, and attend to their needs.” Creating a vision together as a team strengthens collaboration and the team's ability to have true ownership over their work. The second two are important ones. Teams thrive in an environment where they feel psychologically safe — an environment where they can share ideas and take risks without fear of judgement, while also having guardrails to guide them that are made up of team and product principles, KPIs and yearly themes for how you go after your vision.
2. Adaptability Is Key in Helping People Grow
As a GPM or product leader, you’ll be managing and coaching a team with varied levels and years of experience simultaneously. Therefore, being comfortable adapting a different approach for developing and supporting new and more experienced talent is important. For newer PMs, this means mentoring and teaching them what you know. It means helping them to remove biases, teaching them to think long term, understanding strategy, and building them up. For more experienced PMs, it means clearing a path for them to do their best work and being there as a sounding board on how to approach tough scenarios. Don’t underestimate the importance of differentiating between these two groups within your team, and make sure to adapt your coaching style accordingly.
3. Everyone Should Know What Success Looks Like
Measuring success in Product Management is not ‘paint by numbers.’ It’s hard, especially when you’re new in a product leadership role. Brandon Chu, VP of Product & GM of Platform at Shopify, explained why: “PMs are notoriously difficult to evaluate for a few reasons. In general, they write no code, produce no designs, achieve no sales quotas, and manage no support tickets.” While it’s tough to navigate in the beginning, you’re responsible for setting clear expectations of what success looks like. My definition of success includes the product outcomes a PM has driven — how have customers’ lives improved and how has that helped our business grow? And very importantly, what value has a PM added to the team and our product culture? How you derive success will of course vary, but what matters is that you’re clear upfront about performance expectations and how PMs on your team will be measured.
While my path to product management may not have been deliberate from the outset, my choice to go into people management was. HubSpot's Chief Customer Officer, Yamini Rangan, says that “leadership is like a mountain without a top”. In other words, you’ll never be done growing as a leader. PMs are natural leaders and I love the challenge of evolving my leadership style to accelerate their path to get there. Finding your groove as a product leader can be hard, but by creating a culture built on guided autonomy, and focusing on helping your PMs grow, I promise you’ll be leading and scaling a strong team of natural leaders in no time.