Becoming a Product Leader: Leading Product Success in the First 100 Days

becoming a product leader first 100 daysEarly success in your role as a new product leader is essential to establishing the foundation for long-term results. For any new product leader, the first 100 days are vital. During this period, people form their views about the person you are – your priorities, values and style (Kourdi & Edwards). This is where you need to establish yourself, your leadership style and your presence.

A product leader hired to handle disruption is a leader in the face of adversity. Under times of duress, a leader must act decisively and effectively. In order to do so, you must establish a plan, build trust and initiate systemic change to mitigate challenges. The first 100 days after becoming a product leader while managing business disruption are especially important to your long-term success. During this time, follow a deliberate, organized process that includes:

1.) Listening tour: Listen to internal and external constituents affected by the disruption to understand the current situation and gain a sense of perceived reality.

2.) Gap analysis: Define where you are going, why, and what it will take to get there.

3.) Build your trust bank account with small victories: Build alliances and make deposits in your “trust bank account,” where your small victories will contribute to the stability of your relationships.

4.) Communicate, communicate, communicate: Maintaining organizational alignment and direction relies on clear communication. Internal and external constituents need to have meaningful, targeted communication from you.

Listening tour

A listening tour is time set aside to gather information and input through collecting insights, ideas and context from others before making new decisions. I first saw this method enacted when I was a young product leader at a publicly-held enterprise software company. An executive had just joined our company as our new Senior Vice President of Sales after leaving what was a high-flying company called Lotus. Everyone expected him to take action right away; decide, hire and fire people, reorganize sales and tell us what we needed to do to grow revenue. Instead, he took a step back to listen. During his first few weeks, he met with customers, partners, other external stakeholders and company leaders at their locations. Through this process, the new senior executive built trust.

Who should you start with? In my experience, start with core constituents – your immediate team, leaders of development/engineering, sales, followed by top customers. First-tier constituents fall into the “someone to build it, someone to sell it, and someone to buy it” group. Add visiting prospects by going out on sales calls. They unveil current thinking that may not be present in existing customers. Once this is completed, get in front of key executives from all areas of the company – from customer experience to accounting and finance. Their input provides incredible insight on where the company is going and most importantly, allows you to build relationships and gain support from different areas of your company.

Gap analysis

A gap analysis is the comparison of actual performance with potential or desired performance – the current state vs. the desired future state. This is where you identify what needs to be done. Consider the data you just collected – the opinions on your listening tour, where you need to take the product or company – and how it compares to the information you had when you were hired. Think of this analysis as having three primary elements:

o Where are we/you now? (Strengths/Weaknesses)

o Where do we/you want to go? (Opportunities/Threats)

o How do we/you get there?

While you can usually agree on where you are, depending on the disruption level, it can be challenging to decide where you want to go. During your first 100 days, identify a collective understanding of the possible directions the product or company should take. This could include copying the disruptive force or ignoring it and continuing to allocate resources to the business as it currently operates. The key is not to decide, but to explore the range of possibilities. Depending on the broadness of differences and the number of possibilities, it may be a good idea to facilitate a strategy meeting with key constituents. The final challenge: how do we/you get there? This is where difficult tradeoffs are made and sacred cows can turn into great burgers. Don’t be the decider; but rather, be the communicator of how the company, product or business unit can get from here to there.

Build your trust bank account with small victories

New product leaders and business unit managers must build relationships, internally and externally. This is essential to your success as a change agent for the company. This is often called a “trust bank account.” Like bank accounts, relationships are built upon deposits and withdrawals. Continual deposits make for more fulfilling, happy and productive relationships. On the other hand, too many withdrawals leave your account empty of trust and goodwill. As a new leader, you have to go first and make deposits. There are no shortcuts. Significant errors or breaches of trust can empty an account that took years to build.

The only way to achieve trust is by listening, communicating and then showing results. Once you have completed the listening tour and communicated back appropriately, you need small victories. Celebrate these. Small wins along with persistence will create the trust foundation you need to make bigger bets downstream.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

According to Towers Watson’s 2013-2014 Change and Communication ROI Study, companies effective in change management and communication are three-and-a-half times more likely to outperform industry peers that are less effective in these areas. Communicate early and often to demonstrate your value, voice change and share results. Be consistent and clear. Don’t forget to stay on task by stating what you are doing and why, followed by your progress. Use all channels of communication, such as speaking, writing, video conferencing, training, small group meetings, one-on-one meetings, bulletin boards and walls in the company, collaboration/chat tools (Slack, WhatsApp) and more. However, avoid over-relying on email. Use target-specific communication. Each target group needs to be considered differently. Think through what’s in it for them. Finally, allow time for people to ask questions, request clarification, and provide input. Acknowledge their feedback and show that you are listening by always responding thoughtfully.

As you become a product leader at a company that is facing a challenge, implementing these recommendations will help you succeed in your role to mitigate associated risk. Your first 100 days in your new product leadership position sets the tone. Taking the time to communicate with your constituents, establish trust and thoughtfully develop a long-term plan during this time is essential to creating the foundation for your success as a product leader.