In my last article, Product Leadership Is Hard, I provided a high-level overview of what it takes to provide strong product leadership in a product organization built on empowered product teams.

In this article, I’d like to share with you several examples of strong product leaders.

When I wrote the second edition of INSPIRED, I shared the back stories of six product managers that were behind some of our industry’s most iconic products.  I ended up publishing a summary of those stories in one of my most popular articles, and also the one I’m most proud of: Behind Every Great Product.

The reason I’m so proud of that particular article and of sharing those stories is because there have been so many people that have told me over the past few years how those stories inspired them to pursue a career in product, and to strive to make a difference.

In our new book EMPOWERED, we share the stories of eight strong product leaders – two leaders of product management, two of product design, two of engineering, and two leaders of companies.  I have known each of these leaders for many years, and have had the chance to see their leadership in action.

In the new book I asked each of these leaders to share their path to leadership, and a bit about their values and approach to building strong teams.  I’m very much looking forward to many more people discovering these leaders through the new book, and hopefully their examples will inspire other leaders.

In this article, I’ll introduce you to the eight leaders, and share some of my own thoughts about what makes each of these leaders special.  At the end of this article, I’ll share what I hope you take away from the examples these strong leaders provide.

Avid Larizadeh Duggan 

Avid studied engineering but wanted to learn product, and I hired her early on at eBay and watched as she rose rapidly through the organization, and then on to a remarkable career in product, and eventually as a long-time investor and advisor to product teams as a partner at Google Ventures, and as a champion for helping women and minorities learn to code through Code.org.

I’ve watched Avid build great teams at organizations ranging from a very early stage startup, up to very large enterprises, something very few leaders have been able to pull off.

“Leaders need to focus on bringing strong people together and giving them greater freedom to generate ideas and execute them through collaboration.  A leader should articulate what needs to be done and why, and then let the team decide how best to do it.”

“A leader needs to make her team feel safe…no one is smarter than everyone else, trust is established, collaboration is natural, and conflicting ideas are frequent and comfortable because it is safe to be candid.  That’s how good ideas become great ideas. By bringing out the best in your teammates, you find the best in yourself.”

April Underwood

April also began her career in engineering, but she soon understood enough about how product companies and product teams worked that she realized the right place for her was in product management.

April also learned business development, partner management, product marketing, and in general worked to get a much broader understanding of how tech companies worked.

When she eventually moved into product management at Twitter, and later as the original head of product at Slack, she was able to draw on this broader range of knowledge and experience, and identify and recruit talent, to create one of the best product organizations in our industry.

“Throughout my career, I have worn a variety of different functional hats—sometimes by choice, to learn a new skillset, and sometimes because the preferred PM ‘hat’ was out of reach for reasons beyond my control.”

“Now, after having gained experience as a product executive, I realize that these sidesteps are actually my most valuable asset. They help me build bridges across organizational lines. And they help me bear in mind that the product is always in service of the broader company mission—not the other way around.”

Lisa Kavanaugh 

Lisa began her career as an engineer at HP, and then joined a young Ask.com, and over the next 12 years, earned her way up through the engineering ranks to eventually become the CTO of what was by then a very large and global engineering organization.

But what has always defined Lisa is her passion for coaching and developing others.  Helping engineering leaders to become the leaders their companies need them to be.

Especially in engineering, most new managers are promoted because they have demonstrated strong engineering skills.  But making the transition from engineer to engineering manager is a very difficult leap for many leaders.

“I often meet technology executives that have built a reputation for absolutely dependable execution. They have consistently put in the effort and delivered what they had promised. In many cases, they have had to move mountains to deliver, but they did. They are known for their reliable execution and that is a large part of their identity. But now the leader has been promoted to the level where her personal effort can’t scale, and her teams feel like they are being micromanaged.”

“When you have built a career and identity out of one set of behaviors, and you realize you need to change, especially in ways that now depend on other people, this can take real courage.”

“Every leader’s journey is different, but I have found over the years that if a leader truly wants to improve, and has the courage to take the leap of faith necessary to learn to trust others, that they can indeed disrupt themselves and become the leader their company needs, and that their employees deserve.”

Debby Meredith

I have known Debby for 25 years.  She was VP Engineering at Netscape Communications, responsible for the browser and browser-based products.  Since then, she’s built a reputation as someone that can join a tech company on an interim basis, and work her magic with the engineering organization and the senior leadership team to build trust and establish a strong working relationship between the engineers, product and the senior team.  At this point, Debby has helped transform the engineering organizations of more than 50 companies, many of which have gone on to considerable success.

“Many startup founders or CEOs have never worked with strong engineering organizations, and it’s not uncommon to find leaders with fundamental misunderstandings about the role of technology, and the necessary contribution of engineers as a partner to product management and product design.”

“People are the heart and soul of any company. And, trust can enable those people, working together effectively, to create and achieve far more than they ever imagined individually. This is the magic of successful companies.” 

Audrey Crane

Audrey is a long-time designer, user researcher and design leader.  She was very fortunate to have learned her craft working for, and coached by, one of the true pioneers of modern product design, Hugh Dubberly, formerly the design leader at both Apple and Netscape.

When I first met Audrey I was immediately struck by the power of her mind, and her unusual background with an education in pure mathematics and theater.  It was clear to me that she was born to solve hard problems with lots of constraints, which is the essence of great design.

Over the years, I saw Audrey move from designing great products to designing great teams.

“The most rewarding experiences of my career have been identifying talent and aptitude in people who weren’t aware of it themselves, and then convincing them that they’re great at whatever the thing is.  And working with a team—all operating in ways that they are passionate about or excel at—means being part of something so much greater than the strengths of any one individual person. Those teams are transformational, both in terms of how it feels to belong to one, and what they can accomplish.”

Christina Wodtke 

Some people are just born coaches.  Drawn to the calling of helping others to reach their potential.  Christina is just such a leader.

Christina learned her craft from some of the industry’s greats, including Irene Au.  She has had a long career initially as a product designer, and soon design leader, at several of the iconic product companies of Silicon Valley.  

“I realized I needed to stop designing products, in order to start designing a place where good design could happen.”

“I’ve been making teams out of groups of individuals ever since. Teams can make miracles happen when no individual can.”

About seven years ago she joined the faculty at Stanford, where she teaches product design and human computer interaction to her very fortunate students.

“I have always tried to pay it forward by investing in the lives and careers of others.”

Shan Lyn Ma

I first met Shan-Lyn in 2009 when she was the original product manager for fast-growing Gilt Groupe in New York City.  But it was easy to see her potential.  After four years building the product team at Gilt, she was ready to found her own startup, Zola, an online wedding registry and planning company.  

“Both (co-founder) Nobu and I believed that innovation comes from empowered teams of strong people working in a trusted environment. We deeply believed that we could provide an environment that valued and respected the people that worked there, and that this would help us provide the type of experience that engaged couples wanted and deserved.  Many founders say things like this, but we were willing to bet the company on this.”

“We know that innovation thrives in environments where different perspectives are sought out and encouraged, so we made diversity an explicit goal from the beginning, for every open role. We of course wanted diversity in skills and talents, but also diversity in gender, in orientation, in education, and in approach to problem solving. Not only would this help us with innovation, but our users—engaged couples—come in every flavor and combination, so we believed this would help us at every level.”

And indeed it has.  Zola is not only one of the NYC tech community success stories, but is also considered one of the best tech companies to work for.

Judy Gibbons

I have known Judy for most of my professional life, and am honored to call her my friend.  Judy has had an extraordinary career, as a long-time executive at Apple and Microsoft, and in venture capital at Accel Partners.  For the last ten years, she’s been asked to serve on several boards, usually when the company knows they need to get serious about transformation, but they are not sure how to go about accomplishing that.  

As a member of the board, Judy works with the CEO and the rest of the senior leadership team to help them through the necessary changes.  She has been there and done that herself many times, so she brings first-hand knowledge, along with an uncanny ability to see through noise and get to the essence of the issue.

“Leaders need to establish and communicate a clear and compelling purpose and vision—what the organization is trying to achieve and why. There needs to be obsession with the customer from the top—who they are, what they want, and how they behave. And to develop the solution, there need to be highly-focused and effective cross-functional teams led by a capable product manager, empowered to deliver on the product vision. And this means clear objectives, accountability, constant interaction, and continuous learning.”

“As a board member, I try to impress upon the senior leaders these principles and values, and emphasize that the product teams need to be empowered. Without this, there will be little progression, and a great deal of frustration which inevitably means that the necessary digital talent—which has been brought into the organization with great effort and cost—will walk out the door in search of a more worthwhile place to work.”

Key Takeaways

While each of these leaders is unique, and followed their own path to product leadership, what I find most interesting is how much they have in common:

They have all experienced the magic of strong, empowered product teams, and they strive to replicate that magic in the organizations they help.

They are all committed to coaching and developing others.  They all fundamentally believe in people, and measure their own success by the success of those they help.

None of them are generic people managers; they are all accomplished product professionals in their own right, which gives them the foundation they need to coach people from a position of first-hand knowledge.

They all understand that their “product” is now their people.

They are all genuinely good human beings; the kind of person most of us would want to work for and with.

In literally every truly strong product company I know, there are strong product leaders.  And if your organization hopes to transform from feature teams to empowered product teams, then what we’ve learned is that strong product leadership is key.  

If you’d like to know more about each of these leaders, you can find the full leadership profiles in the new book Chris Jones and I wrote: EMPOWERED: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products.

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