Or, the Art of Herding Cats

If you've ever felt like leading a product team is akin to herding cats, you're not alone. It's a quirky, yet surprisingly apt metaphor for the unique challenges we face in guiding teams that are as diverse, independent, and agile as, well, cats. Let's explore how empathy, servant leadership, and influence can make you the ultimate cat herder in the product management world.

Understanding Your Feline Friends: The Role of Empathy

First off, empathy. Just as every cat has its own personality, so does every team member. Some are curious and adventurous, always exploring new ideas, while others might be more cautious and prefer familiar routines. Understanding these nuances is key. It’s about more than just listening; it’s about genuinely seeking to understand the motivations, fears, and aspirations of each 'cat' in your team. Here are some of the common groups you work with and some of their shared goals.

  1. Customers/Users: They are the end-users of the product. Their primary goal is to have a reliable, efficient, and user-friendly software that solves their specific problems or meets their needs. They value features that enhance their productivity, ease of use, and cost-effectiveness.
  2. Product Managers: Product managers aim to balance the needs and desires of users with the capabilities and resources of the company. Their goals include delivering a product that meets market demands, achieves business objectives, and provides a good user experience.
  3. Sales and Marketing Teams: These teams focus on marketability and sales potential of the product. They are motivated by features that can be easily communicated as benefits to potential customers, competitive pricing, and the potential to tap into new market segments or increase market share.
  4. Development Team (Engineers, Developers): They are focused on the technical feasibility and implementation of the product. Their goals include building a scalable, maintainable, and high-quality product. They also value clear requirements, realistic timelines, and the opportunity to work with cutting-edge technologies.
  5. Quality Assurance (QA) Team: The QA team's main goal is to ensure the product is free of bugs and meets quality standards. They are motivated by clear requirements, efficient testing processes, and the ability to identify and resolve issues early in the development cycle.
  6. Customer Support Team: This team focuses on the post-launch usability of the product. They are motivated by features that reduce the frequency and severity of customer complaints and issues, and tools that help them provide effective support.
  7. Finance Department: They are concerned with the budget, profitability, and overall financial health of the product. Their goals include minimizing costs, maximizing ROI (Return on Investment), and ensuring that the product development aligns with the company's financial strategies.
  8. Executive Leadership/Investors: Executives and investors are typically focused on the strategic alignment and overall profitability of the product. Their primary motivations include market leadership, company growth, shareholder value, and sustainable competitive advantage.
  9. Legal and Compliance Teams: These stakeholders ensure that the product and its development process comply with all relevant laws, regulations, and standards. Their goals include minimizing legal risks and ensuring the product meets regulatory requirements.
  10. Operations and IT Team: They are concerned with the infrastructure and tools needed to support product development and delivery. Their motivations include system stability, scalability, and security.

Bear in mind that team members are individuals and not just members of a team. Each has his or her own goals and concerns. One may be looking for a promotion, another is trying to keep everything running smoothly.

When you approach your stakeholders with empathy, you're not just seeing the world from their perspective; you're also building trust. And trust me, just like cats, team members can sense when you're genuine. They'll be more likely to follow your lead if they feel understood and valued. Understanding who your speaking with is crucial for addressing their individual and team concerns, bringing their feedback into the development process, and winning buy-in from them for your plans.

Serving Up the Cream: Practicing Servant Leadership

Now, let's talk about servant leadership. Imagine you're not just herding these cats but also ensuring they're well-fed and content. In a team, this translates to supporting your members, ensuring they have the resources they need, and helping them overcome obstacles. It's about putting their needs first, so they can purr along happily and productively.

This might mean stepping back sometimes and letting them explore, or stepping in to offer guidance when they seem to be clawing up the wrong tree. Remember, a happy, well-supported team is a productive one. Your role is to be the calm, guiding hand that brings out their best.

Here are some concrete ways that you can practice servant leadership.

  1. Empowering the Team: By delegating authority and decision-making power, a product manager can empower team members. This involves trusting them to take ownership of tasks and make important decisions. For instance, allowing a developer to choose the best technical approach for a feature or trusting a designer to finalize a user interface. This not only boosts the team's confidence but also fosters a sense of ownership and accountability.
  2. Facilitating Growth and Learning: A servant leader focuses on the personal and professional development of their team members. This can be achieved by providing opportunities for learning and growth, such as sponsoring attendance at industry conferences, arranging in-house training sessions, or encouraging cross-functional collaborations. The product manager could also set up regular mentoring or coaching sessions to help team members advance their skills and careers.
  3. Removing Roadblocks: One of the key roles of a servant leader is to identify and remove obstacles that impede the team's progress. This could involve streamlining processes, acquiring necessary tools and resources, or mediating conflicts within the team. For example, if the development team is hindered by a slow approval process, the product manager could work to establish a more efficient workflow.
  4. Prioritizing Team Well-Being: A servant leader prioritizes the well-being of their team members. This includes ensuring a healthy work-life balance, providing support during high-stress periods, and creating a safe and inclusive work environment. For instance, a product manager might advocate for flexible working hours or implement regular check-ins to gauge team morale and address any concerns proactively.
  5. Serving as a Role Model: Leading by example is a powerful way to demonstrate servant leadership. A product manager should exhibit qualities they wish to see in their team, such as integrity, dedication, and empathy. For example, by being open to feedback, admitting mistakes, and continuously striving for improvement, the product manager sets a standard for the team to emulate.

By practicing these forms of servant leadership, a product manager at a SaaS company not only contributes to a positive and productive work environment but also inspires their team to achieve their best, resulting in better products and happier customers.

Purring with Influence: Leading Without the Leash

Lastly, influence over control. You can't really put a leash on a cat, can you? Similarly, leading a product team effectively isn't about exerting control or authority. It's about guiding them with a gentle hand.

Influencing your team is about articulating a clear and compelling vision - showing them the sunny window ledge where they all want to bask. It's about communication that resonates, encouraging collaboration, and creating an environment where ideas can leap and land gracefully. When you lead through influence, you're not pushing them where you want them to go; you're enticing them to follow you there willingly.

Here are three examples of how a product manager can effectively manage by influence:

  1. Building and Leveraging Relationships: Establishing strong relationships with team members and stakeholders is foundational to managing by influence. A product manager can achieve this by regularly engaging with team members, understanding their challenges, and acknowledging their contributions. For instance, a product manager might hold regular one-on-one meetings with team leads to understand their perspectives and offer support. By nurturing these relationships, the product manager can more effectively advocate for changes or initiatives, as their suggestions are backed by a mutual trust and understanding.
  2. Communicating a Compelling Vision: Influence often stems from the ability to articulate a clear and inspiring vision for the product. A product manager can influence their team by vividly describing the product’s potential impact, how it aligns with the company’s goals, and how each team member’s work contributes to this vision. For example, in a team meeting, the product manager might present customer success stories or market analysis data to illustrate the product's potential and rally the team around a shared goal. This approach can motivate the team and align their efforts without needing to exert direct control.
  3. Fostering a Collaborative Culture: Influence is also about creating an environment where ideas can freely flow and where team members feel valued and heard. A product manager can encourage open discussions, welcome diverse viewpoints, and facilitate collaborative decision-making processes. For instance, during the planning phase of a new feature, the product manager might organize brainstorming sessions where all team members, regardless of their role, can contribute ideas. By valuing and incorporating the team’s input, the product manager can guide the team towards a consensus-based approach, which is more inclusive and effective than top-down directives.

In each of these examples, the product manager’s influence is rooted in building relationships, communicating effectively, and fostering a collaborative team culture. This approach not only enhances team morale and productivity but also ensures that the product development process is more adaptable and responsive to change.

The Cat’s Whiskers: Wrapping It Up

Leading as a product manager is a lot like herding cats. Each 'cat' in your team is unique, with their own quirks and talents. By leading with empathy, you get to understand and appreciate these differences. With servant leadership, you provide the support and environment they need to thrive. And through influence, you guide them towards a shared vision without needing to pull on the leash.

So, dear cat herders, embrace these qualities in your leadership style. It might not always be a smooth ride (after all, cats are known for their independence!), but it will surely be a rewarding journey. Here's to leading with understanding, support, and gentle guidance. May your team purr with productivity and satisfaction!

Happy herding! 🐱🐾💼