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The Way of Thinking That Separates the Good Product Managers From the Great

Anyone can make a list of potential feature improvements, prioritize between them, and throw them in some fancy roadmap software. Product Managers ARE NOT TICKET MAKERS.

Not just anyone can have the soft skills required to be a great Product Manager. Product Management is a role of leadership, collaboration, and oftentimes influence. While we work with our own engineering partners to bring new features to life, we also very often need to work with other Product Managers, technology teams, or stakeholders to get an idea from inception to live in front of the customer.

There are so many different flavors of soft skills. An ability to set expectations for delivery with your stakeholders, or being able to motivate team members to go the extra mile are two examples that come to mind of core soft skills for Product Managers.

Or how about being able to read between the lines in a customer conversation to really hear what the customer is saying instead of taking their feedback at face value? That one comes up a ton! That famous Henry Ford quote comes up frequently: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

The better you can be at these soft skills in general, the better you will be at Product Management and the less chances you have of being replaced by an intelligent AI in the not so distant future.

One specific quality I’ve noticed drastically changes from Product person to Product person AND is a massive indicator of how effective someone will be in the role is their ability to be a servant leader.

Servant leadership

Wikipedia defines servant leadership as “a leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader’s main focus is the thriving of their company or organizations. A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible,”

Basically this turns traditional management on its head. Instead of asking what your team can do to support your roadmap, you ask what you can do to support your team.

While Servant Leadership first surfaced in the 1970s, it seems to be gaining significantly more traction recently in organizations trying to optimize.

At Nordstrom for example, instead of referring to the executive team as the top of the hierarchical pyramid, we are asked to refer to them as the bottom of the pyramid. Personally I found this incredibly confusing as I onboarded as a new employee, but also energizing to see that level of commitment to servant leadership with an organization of this size.

Servant leadership has incredibly broad applications. For Product Managers to be good at what they do, utilizing it is critical.

Without servant leadership, a Product Manager might make all of their prioritization decisions about their roadmap in a silo and never get any feedback anywhere. Bringing stakeholders along to prioritize together to get insight and input from experts in the company however is a quality of servant leadership. You never want to go off on your own, make a bunch of decisions, and then tell people to go do them. Engineering teams frequently have some of the best ideas in terms of what would make the biggest impact to the end customer.

Servant leadership can also be a massive driver of team empowerment. Getting to know your engineering or design partners on a deeper level will give you insight into what gets people the most excited. If you know that an engineer on your team gets pretty depressed whenever they have to do back end development work, you can keep that in mind as the team works through new features.

Making sure to leverage peoples’ areas of expertise will drive value for the team, and will keep everyone more engaged. Leading this way will often allow folks to develop new ideas out of a passion for the work. This can’t happen if you go around telling everyone what to do.

TeamGantt identifies one of the most important principles of servant leadership as community building. The more you as a leader support your team, the more the team will come together and build a psychologically safe place where you can make mistakes and take risks to launch new cool things.

Psychological safety is key. It isn’t just up to Product Managers in an organization to become servant leaders. Ideally everyone in the organization should be one. David K. Williams writes “Nothing screams camaraderie like uniting a diverse group of people to work toward a common goal.”

Whether you are looking around for the next great product manager in your org, or just trying to improve the mindset of your team, think about how servant leadership can transform your way of thinking.

About the author:

Ben Staples has over 7 years of Product Management and product marketing eCommerce experience. He is currently employed at Nordstrom as a Senior Product Manager responsible for their product pages on Previously, Ben was a Senior Product Manager for Trunk Club responsible for their iOS and Android apps. Ben started his Product career as a Product Manager for Vistaprint where he was responsible for their cart and checkout experiences. Before leaving Vistaprint, Ben founded the Vistaprint Product Management guild with over 40 members. Learn more at

I do Product Management consulting! Interested in finding out more? Want to get notified when my next Product article comes out? Interested in getting into Product Management but don't know how? Want book recommendations?! Contact me!

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