Standouts vs. Status Quo: 10 Traits of an Elite Product Leader

Brennen Hernandez
Content Marketing Specialist at ProductPlan


Product teams are as diverse as the products they help bring into existence. While backgrounds and experience can vary broadly, all product managers come to work with a similar core foundational skillset that organizations rely on to build successful products.

Product leaders (e.g., CPOs, VPs of product, head of product, etc.) have the weighty challenge of bringing these diverse PMs together to form a cohesive team with a unified vision and aligned goals.

Of course, not all product leaders are created equal. Some stand out from the rest as exemplary in the role.

What separates the average product leader from the superstars who energize their teams and provide the right leadership, support, and space to enable teams to create and steer products to successful outcomes? In this post, we’ll explore some of the key skills and qualities that elite product leaders share, and we’ll also identify what separates the standouts from the status quo.

What elite product leaders have in common

Truly great product leaders share ten key attributes we’ll examine more closely here.

1. Driven to lead

Elite product leaders are natural-born leaders. They are driven to lead. Not only do they know what needs to be done, they know how to get it done. They make prioritization look easy. But they also trust their team and nurture their people to lead. Leadership in and of itself is a core value. 

Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic and senior fellow at Harvard Business School, knows a thing or two about cultivating an environment of leadership. (George wrote several books that explore leadership: True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership and Discover Your True North.) “The role of leaders,” he contends, “is not to get other people to follow them but to empower others to lead.”

2. See alignment as a cornerstone

An elite product leader stays firmly aligned to vision, strategy, and an organization’s goals. The alignment of all three is considered sacred and unshakeable. But more important: this alignment is shared. And it becomes the glue that unites the product team. 

“It’s no longer good enough to build products customers love. Elite product organizations must work across multiple dimensions, building products customers love, that achieve the company’s objectives at the lowest cost and best use of resources. Elite product leaders are the multi-dimensional connector across teams, functions, and all levels of the company hierarchy.” 

(Connie Kwan, How to Run an Elite Product Organization)

Product Manager to Product Leader

3. Powerful storytellers

A product leader holds a strategic and visible spot for the product team within the company and has a great deal of power in setting the tone companywide. An elite product leader understands the power of effective storytelling and why getting the story right and telling it well are so important for product teams. They use stories to simplify, engage emotions, and be memorable. And when these three boxes are checked, that story becomes shareable–an ideal outcome for a product team. 

In Building a Storybrand, Donald Miller suggests that the job of product is “not simply getting products to market, but also communicating why customers need those products in their lives.” Without a strong story that persuades and sticks in people’s minds, even the best products can be drowned out in a crowded marketplace. 

4. Seek meaningful engagement

Elite product leaders know how to motivate members of their team by meaningfully engaging them. They also encourage, support, and mentor their team members. They understand their people and know what makes them tick. And they see team members as individuals who bring unique skillsets and experiences to the group. 

Elite product leaders understand that building a great product begins with building a great product team that scales alongside product vision and goals. 

5. Offer ongoing connection

Product leaders are often responsible for hiring. Building the right team culture begins here but doesn’t end here. It’s an ongoing, intentional effort to cultivate the right culture. That intention might take setting a weekly goal for customer interactions or a daily time to check in on product usage. (Note: Elite leaders use their products.)

Building a truly great team must be as intentional as building a truly great product. Elite product leaders know that “great product teams don’t build themselves or come together by chance or accident. Instead, it takes a dedicated leader to envision, shape, and nurture the team and its members so it can grow and scale with the products they manage.” 

6. Intentionally build community

There are many ways to generate an intentional product community. The easiest way is to relevant read books and articles and listen to podcasts. Join groups that create an external product bridge. Connect internally within the product group by launching a book club or setting up a casual monthly or biweekly meetup to talk shop. Merge internal and external communities by attending conferences together. 

7. Data-driven (but not data-obsessed)

Data is essential for a product team to make informed decisions. But sometimes, there’s so much data coming at the team; it’s challenging to know what to focus on or how to manage it so that it can be useful. 

Elite product leaders can skillfully balance the flow of data, get the right systems to manage it, and identify what’s most important. 

8. Extraordinary communicators

It really can’t be overstated just how essential strong communication skills are to the entire product team, but especially product leaders. Elite leaders can strike a strategic balance in knowing what to say, when, how to say it and to whom. Getting it right (or wrong) can make or break a product

9. Amplify efficiency

Increasing efficiency across product teams and organizations is the hallmark of product operations. To elite product leaders, this means long-term sustainability and effectiveness. This efficiency stems from “implementing standardization around metrics, infrastructure, business processes, best practices, budgeting, and reporting.” Further, it means enabling product teams with the tools and processes they need to do their jobs successfully. 

10. Customer-driven (borderline customer-obsessed)

Being customer-driven is a hallmark of a successful product organization. That being said, an elite product leader might be seen as more customer-obsessed. They take customer feedback and the customer experience very seriously. And they use this feedback to inform strategic product decisions about which goals to pursue

How do elite leaders view mistakes?

Elite product leaders are not superhuman. They certainly make mistakes along the way. But they don’t bury those mistakes or distance themselves as quickly as possible from their mistakes. They circle back and poke at them, dissect them, and hold them up to the light to learn from them. Mistakes become teachers. Mistakes provide valuable insights. Leaders know this, embrace this, and put this value into action.

“Failure is not the opposite of success. It’s a stepping stone to success.”

Final Thoughts

Effective product teams that build great products are a direct result of an elite product leader.

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