What does it take to be a great product leader and what characteristics should you look for when hiring one for your SaaS company? Given that every SaaS company is a product oriented company, this is one of the most important roles that you're going to find inside your business, so it's very important that we think about it in the right way.
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A simple way to think about the product management leader is someone who sits at the intersection of user experience, technology and the business. Their job is to drive the customer experience forward so that the product is easy to learn, adopt, and use, to work with technology leaders to ensure that the product is built with the right infrastructure and architecture to solve the problems that we're trying to solve, and to understand the business fundamentals.
Now, this is probably the hardest skill to find inside a product manager because most product managers are oriented towards creating beautiful products, which is a good thing. We want product managers to be focused on creating wonderful experiences. At the same time, the product leader is someone that has a seat at the leadership table and they need to be able to understand the foundations of the business to help it grow and to make a bigger impact on the world. This is why in product management interviews, it is super important to figure out if the person sitting across the table is capable of understanding the business fundamentals and incorporating that into the product strategy that they're going to be managing.
Beyond these three responsibilities, there is a fourth critical skill that product managers need to have, which is market understanding. This is often one of the most overlooked skills when hiring product managers because people often look for candidates who can build great products, but it's impossible to build a great product if you don't understand the market that you're trying to serve. This is where the products leader job is to know the answers to questions like what does the market care about? Where is the market moving? What do we need to do to keep up with market expectations? What do we need to do to differentiate ourselves from the competition? The ability to answer these questions is the hardest to teach because the person who sits in this seat needs to be able to truly empathize with the market, their needs, and what they really need to solve their problems.
The quote on the right is from a framework called Pragmatic Marketing, which is a course a lot of product managers take and what it says is, "The building is full of product experts. Your company needs market experts." What this means is there are plenty of people inside your company that know how the product works, can troubleshoot it, can figure out the ins and outs, know where the little issues are inside the product, but very few people inside the company truly understand and empathize with the market, the market's problems, and what that means for the company's strategy and where you need to take it going forward. That's why when you're hiring a product manager, look for someone who is market-focused because that is probably the hardest thing for you to actually develop inside your company.
Beyond these four key pillars, there are three additional things I want you to think about. Number one, hire someone who can make the difficult tradeoffs. The entire product management function is about making tradeoffs and prioritizing limited resources to balance the needs of potential customers, evaluators and customers, marketing, sales, customer success and engineers and investors, executives, customers and team members. It's not an easy position to hold because there are so many stakeholders to please so the product manager needs to be able to make those tradeoffs and at the same time drive the business forward in terms of strategy and serving the market.
Hire someone who values growth. While product growth has been an intricate part of product management forever, finding someone who understands all the different growth levers for your business and how product can play a role is super important.
The product leader needs to think about things like how do we leverage product to acquire more customers, expand existing customers, retain more customers, increase our total addressable market, build out a pricing strategy that is fair, effective, and helps us grow further, find, build, or create solutions that we can cross sell and up sell to our existing base, and influence the M&A strategy of the organization. These are deep strategic business questions and a product manager or product leader needs to be able to answer them to be able to effectively direct where the product needs to go.
That's why the third thing to look for, it's probably the most important, which is you need to hire someone who is data-driven. When making these tradeoffs or trying to figure out how the product can help the business grow, the product leader needs to be able to make business cases that are ROI based and have a long-term vision. Most importantly, the product manager needs to be able to say no to good ideas. There are going to be good ideas coming from every team, marketing, sales, customer support, engineering. Everybody's going to want to prioritize something on the roadmap. The product manager's role is to figure out which of those items are the most relevant or the highest priority that can drive the most leverage for the business.
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