The other day I had a conversation with my skip-level manager about what it means to be a leader in an independent contributor role, that prompted me to sit down and write this out. I’ve always been fascinated about ways in which I can multiply my impact, so this seemed like an important conversation to have. A lot of times product managers assume that just because they are in an Individual Contributor (IC) role, that means they need to focus only on their immediate areas - things that yield positive outcomes in projects and initiatives that are directly related to one’s line of work. That doesn’t necessarily mean that by focusing on just their projects, ICs are inherently worse off or are less of a team player. However, to accelerate one’s growth, there is a way to augment that work with certain leadership skills, that are bound to help one gain more credibility and visibility in an organization.
The post below is primarily focused on the product/program manager discipline, but can be applied to other roles as well.
Helping foster growth in peers
One the most obvious areas in which an IC can contribute to the development of their leadership potential is by helping their peers grow as well. This is not about trying to manage the people you work with, or attempting to give unsolicited advice on projects they work on. This is about bringing your expertise to the team. For example, I am very keen in democratizing data access and ensuring that my team can operate comfortably with numbers and metrics. I am not barging in to someone’s feature work item and mentioning: “Here is how you should do metrics for this project.” You’re more likely to build a less-than-helpful image that way. Instead, I focus on setting up some open time for my immediate and extended teams to show how they can query data and make more meaningful decisions with it. I am sharing something that I am good at with the team - they can then decide whether the information is useful to them or not.
Similarly, fostering peer growth can be done in ways directly related to their projects, but only when they solicit help. For example, if a peer sends out a specification document for review to the team, spend some time reading through the document and trying to better understand what they are building. Ask questions about the design, structure or hypotheses, and suggest changes where you feel you can contribute. Again - this is not an opportunity to shove your way of thinking in someone else’s project. This is about helping your peers build out a better understanding of problems at hand and how those can be tackled, based on your own experience.
You can’t expect everyone on the team to have a vast amount of knowledge on every single aspect of the product that you build. I don’t, for sure. But I can be the catalyst in getting that knowledge shared in a way that benefits everyone within my range of impact.
Building a deep understanding of the business, and contributing to it
At the end of the day, every product that you build serves a purpose. Whether it’s to drive revenue in a specific customer segment, or to reduce the cost of operations in another (there can be other reasons, too). I’ve heard this a couple of times: “Managers above me decide the strategy, I just execute.” That’s a fallacy that can come to bite you in the long run. One cannot design impactful products (or even at a smaller scale - features) without understanding how it all feeds into the larger set of business goals. What stands out to me when I talk to ICs who have a good understanding of how their work drives organization-wide KPIs, is that their vision, no matter how broad or focused in scope, instantly clicks - I get it why what they build is important.
Spend time with the metrics in your organization. Consult the data science team. When working on plans around your product, always be intentional in determining what drives the most value for your customers and your business. When asked questions about why certain things are being done, you should be able to paint a clear picture of the efforts driving the strategic business value.
I like focusing on execution, but I also like stepping back regularly and assessing what other opportunities are out there that can yield more benefits to our customers and business. Too often, product managers get caught up in the immediate, tactical work, that they forget to take a breather and focus on strategic opportunities. Figure out ways in which you are not only putting plans in motion, but are also coming up with plans, and building strong cases for them. This means collecting data, getting customer input (do preliminary customer development) and communicating that to your immediate leadership team. This also ties in to building a network across teams, and having an understanding of how your product impacts others.
The old adage about good communication skills being key for any product manager is just half of the truth. The other is that communication patterns and behaviors should be leading to building bridges, rather than walls or moats. You can be a good communicator, and very clearly communicate that your team is not receptive to feedback, ignores customer concerns and is working in a silo. What I am always trying to do when working with partner teams and peers is establishing relationships that can be fruitful for years to come. Instead of trying to coerce others to help me reach my goals, I ask what can I do to help the team reach theirs, while also building out the product segments that I am focused on. The "How can I help” attitude is just one of the possible approaches. The key is to build partnerships - that does not require a managerial title. As you identify opportunities, work through issues that were caused by other teams, or determine what do next, think of how you can help connect other people to your vision and assist them in driving theirs.
Leading by setting an example
Whether it’s process excellence, or ability to communicate requirements clearly and gain alignment with the engineering counter-parts, one of the best ways to demonstrate leadership is by doing things that help you scale within the organization yourself, that others can replicate. When your peers see the fruits of your labor, it becomes much easier to put together the pieces of the puzzle and understand what is needed for the common success. That means that you also need to proactively seek out opportunities to grow and learn best practices that you can apply in your position - there are plenty of resources and classes, both online and offline, that can walk you through some of the best approaches to communication and driving clarity in your team. Don’t forget to also take advantage of internal training resources at your company - it’s staggering how many people are not using those, when there is plenty of content available that can help you do your best!
Be a mentor
Volunteer to become a mentor - both to colleagues, peers from other organizations, interns or even complete strangers on the Internet! It’s an extremely rewarding activity that yields benefits not just to the person that you are helping, but also to you - nothing is more valuable than getting a fresh perspective on what you do and how you do it. This does not need to be a formal arrangement done through HR or some other initiative. You can do this 100% yourself! That said, I’d recommend that you check whether your organization or team already has a mentor matching program, where you can tap into the network and skip the “recruiting” part.