Product Managers: Become your own Steve Jobs!

29 09 2011

I am a big fan of Steve Jobs- for what he has done for a broad range of customers, for the tech market, and for innovation in general. He has shown emotional resilience (remember he was exited from AAPL but then formed Pixar and then came back), fortitude, willpower, vision and an eye for detail. To say he is a model leader is an understatement. He is THE icon of tech leadership.

Enough plaudits for Steve. The question that I want to address is how does a product manager become “Steve Jobs” for his/her product line? First, let’s make an assumption that acting as Steve Jobs – evangelist, leader, innovator, and stickler for detail- is good. Can you learn to be exactly like Steve? Not at all. Yet, that doesn’t mean you can model his leadership. And, how can a product manager do that? What are some of the key elements that the product manager should focus on?

Here’s a checklist of items for the product manager to consider. How many of these attributes do you display?
1. Think customer. Walk in their shoes. Find out who are the lead users. Talk with your technologists and dialog with them on the art of the possible – of what the technology could do for customers.
2. Make products and services easy to use. Put the complexity behind the hardware, the software and the interface. Make it intuitive for people to use. Consider integration of mobile apps with online applications and the ability to enter information via a traditional laptop.
3. Embrace technology. Take a techie to lunch. Attend tech sessions. Share your plans with them and have them share their new technology discussions with you. Ask questions how the technology can apply to different markets, uses.
4. Respond to market changes. Some of this will come from the technology side as new technology will yield drastic changes in functions and features and even entirely new applications. However, the key is making technology relevant to the customers. Use a new product advisory board to glean input.
5. Become friends with the vendors, suppliers and others in the supply chain. Be demanding of them as you are to yourself and to your team. Yet ideas coming from these partners can help you and your products stay ahead of the competition. Perhaps there is a technology they know that you can embed in your product and get an exclusive for a period of time.
6. Build a strong integrated technical, marketing, and sales team. This will ensure success. Be demanding of each group and set a standard modeled after your own attitude and work ethic.
7. Be an evangelist both inside and outside the company. Build excitement and suspense. Become a showman so to speak, making the product exciting and building suspense before the actual release. Use Beta tests; get the product into the hands of the technical analyst community. Find lead users and innovators to try the product and provide testimonials. Many product managers are reserved and introverted focusing on the development of PRDs and MRDs. As the “owner” of the P&L for the product line, the product manager has to be evangelist or find someone on his team to assume that role.

I have known many product managers that have several of these qualities and the best ones display all of them and more. What are your thoughts on the skills and capabilities of product managers that will make a difference in the success or failure of a product?

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