Product Managers: Are you a Thought Leader or Follower?

Jim Semick
Co-founder, Board Member at ProductPlan

product managers thought leaders

I was recently featured on a Pragmatic Marketing webinar about how product managers can become thought leaders. There was a very active Q&A at the end of my presentation, and I thought I’d elaborate on some of my answers in this post.

Thought leadership encompasses both internal leadership in your company and external leadership in your market. As a product manager, it’s your job to drive the product vision and to be a subject matter expert in your domain.

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You can be a thought leader within your company by producing a strategic product roadmap, advocating for your product vision, and focusing on innovation. Likewise, you can be a thought leader in your market by writing, speaking at conferences, and growing a social media following. Here are some tips for getting started.

What tips can you share on getting invitations to speak or finding people who need speakers?

Start small by speaking at local meetups, and then work your way up to getting invited to speak at larger conferences. Through this “scaffolding” you can establish your reputation and hone your speaking skills.

I think that when larger conferences are evaluating speakers, they’re looking for a track record — they’re looking for people who have done it before and who have a certain amount of credibility. Of course, it also helps to have done some writing and to propose an interesting topic. But you really need to have your work done ahead of time in terms of practicing your public speaking skills and having some smaller events under your belt.

Also, I want to make this point for those of you who are a little bit wary of public speaking: Thought leadership doesn’t mandate that you speak publicly. There are lots of outlets to get your message out, including writing and social media, that can help you establish yourself as a thought leader without necessarily speaking at conferences.

As a thought leader, do you believe you need to have a biased opinion and not just parrot research? If so, how do we balance that against the corporate mandate to be non-controversial?

Most of the thought leaders that I know have opinions and have a distinct voice. Often thought leaders are characters — people naturally gravitate towards those who take a stance. This doesn’t mean you need to necessarily choose topics that are incredibly controversial or that your company is going to object to, but you should try to take a position. And I think you can strike the right balance. I think it’s very possible for you to take interesting positions and not just toe the company line, while also not being too controversial or inappropriate.

With ProductPlan, for example, we took certain positions about product roadmaps in our book. There are so many different ways of creating product roadmaps, and there are so many different ways of prioritizing, but we have beliefs about certain ways of doing it. That’s a common thread throughout the book — there is definitely a viewpoint in it. I think opinions make for more interesting reading, and in our case, they help the book stand out in the market among all of the other content on roadmapping.
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How do you measure the ROI of thought leadership? How do track your impact on sales?

It’s hard to do. I worked on a software product that was marketed toward CFOs — it was a way to organize and safely store sensitive documents, primarily for mergers and acquisitions. A lot of our marketing effort was spent speaking at industry conferences about the benefits of securing your documents. Ultimately, our activities certainly benefited the product, but it was really hard to correlate them to sales because the leads would eventually come in through different channels. You wouldn’t have proper attribution from those educational marketing efforts.

AppFolio, another SaaS company I worked at, is the same way. They routinely conduct meetups where they invite property managers (both customers and prospects) to have lunch and learn about something interesting in the industry. Everyone believes that these events benefit the product, but again, it’s very hard to tie them back to sales results. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do these types of events though. Ultimately it’s the right approach — educating your market is the right thing to do.

How do you execute a thought leadership role in an industry that is dominated by analysts?

Analysts take a very conservative and traditional approach to thought leadership — that’s through writing papers, speaking at conferences, and so on. There are so many opportunities for you to take advantage of new mediums that analysts aren’t utilizing. I’m talking about social media — I’m talking answering questions on Quora or writing blog posts on Medium.

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Analysts are also often very horizontal — they cover a wide range of your industry. So there’s an opportunity for you to specialize in a particular area — in any industry, there are a number of sub-markets and point solutions for you to specialize in. Then, you can promote your content through channels that the analysts aren’t using. I guarantee you that analysts aren’t answering questions on Quora. There are definitely opportunities for you to differentiate yourself, and in a sense, be more cutting-edge than analysts.

I have very specialized knowledge in my domain, and I’m great one-on-one and off-the-cuff. I’m willing to speak at events, but presentations are not my strong point. What are some things I can do to work on this?

Many years ago, I participated in Toastmasters. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Toastmasters, it’s a great organization to hone your public speaking skills — it’s not the only group of it’s kind out there, but it’s one that I’m familiar with.

In Toastmasters you give 10 different talks over time, and you learn different techniques you can use to speak publicly. It helps you with everything from the content you speak about, to your speaking style, to even the way that you stand. I encourage you to take advantage of groups like Toastmasters — they’re a great place to start, and they’re low commitment. Plus you’re among friends and people give you constructive feedback.