The Difference Between Thought Leadership vs. People Leadership

Annie Dunham
Former VP of Product Management at ProductPlan


At times, product professionals fail to realize the similarities and differences between thought leadership vs people leadership. A compelling thought leader most likely started as a people leader, such as a manager or a director.

In itself, leading is a sought-after position that requires specialized knowledge and experience. Professionals may decide to pursue a leadership position to lead a team and guide them towards primary objectives and milestones. Leaders are the ones that provide all the go-to answers. There are rewards for having the position, both in money and respect. And those in leadership positions have a hard-earned experience that allows them to navigate their colleague towards actionable plans.

That said, being a thought leader is close to meaningless if you’re not a people leader, which is one of the primary connections between thought leadership vs people leadership. You can opine all day about the best way, but if it’s not the best way for your people, then it’s a sum-loss game. Even if you are thoughtful with your written pieces and presentations, you miss out.

The Start of Thought Leadership

Product management is complex. The work is ambiguous. The long hours working on a craft can take a toll if you don’t have the right people behind you.

Product leadership requires cross-disciplinary thinking from fields as software development to manufacturing. A vast breadth of insight and the best practices gives a product leader a unique insight. Their point of view combined with their experience brings multiple products from ideation to market. That is how best practices are born, and when leveraged, can make great things happen.

Hopefully, that is how most product professionals advance in their careers. They’ve taken those ideas and put them to work.

Who in the world is Charlie Munger?

Charlie Munger is Warren Buffet’s investment partner and has a reputation as a wise investor. He has an impactful way of looking at the world, which he calls mental models.

One of the most useful for those who want to work involves the concept of the “Circle of Competence.”

“You have to figure out what your aptitudes are. If you play games where other people have the aptitudes, and you don’t, you’re going to lose. And that’s as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you’ve got an edge. And you’ve got to play within your own circle of competence.

When the ego goes into the wrong place, operating outside of an individualized circle of competence has disastrous results.

Easing the transition of leadership

Product leaders need to implement best practices and stay inside the organization’s circle of competence. Though imposter syndrome may affect people differently, product leaders need to feel empowered to utilize their product experience and translate that knowledge into their new role.

Whether it’s a new company or a new team, these professionals need to show empathy towards the company culture. Newly hired leaders must respect the company culture and exhibit a level of empathy towards their new team. The leadership transition also affects employees, so an effective leader knows how the change affects their colleagues.

Taking Your Thoughts Into New Territory

If a tree falls into the woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Let’s adapt the famous question into one that fits “people leadership.”

“If you have a best practice, and it doesn’t change the culture, is it a best practice at all?”

Being good at what you do is a given. You’ve earned that experience in your career. None of that matters if you can’t relate to your current environment.

Talking about your ideas is useless if it doesn’t affect the company culture.

It’s about managing relationships. People have to respect what you bring to the table. If they don’t see you as credible, your value decreases.

If your ideas don’t connect, then you are that tree mentioned earlier. Best practices are fascinating thought exercises, but if they don’t affect change, that is all they are.

Digital Transformation Blues

Enterprises struggle with transformation. Anyone that has done this work long enough has seen the following play out:

Let’s make a couple of bets for this transformation: the teams have a communication issue and find themselves siloed. They have the best practices and experience, but they can’t connect.

These examples show how thought leadership can happen without culture shifts.

Culture-Shifting Practices

Now, here is an example of effectively applying culture-shifting practices.

1.) The leader comes on board and promises a digital transformation within eighteen months.

When the leader comes in, they avoid the splash. Instead of trying to grab the spotlight, they spend time listening. They do so to understand the culture they are working with, where their experience can help, and where it won’t.

2.) The leader comes in with all sorts of bonafide – they’ve worked with all the “essential” companies.

Instead of leading with company names, the leader leads with experience. They tell stories that pair with the listening tour and give the folks around them a feel of who they are. Along the way, they find minor problems and fix them.

3.) The leader makes a big speech and gets the team fired up.

The leader distributes the work. Instead of putting themselves out front immediately, they learn. After finding the actual difference makers, they get their buy-in before going to the group. This way, they know they have support at all levels.

Avoid agile-fall

Those three changes put culture first. The company gets to be better at making changes because the changes tie to a realistic vision.

For example, when shifting from waterfall to agile, go to each team and understand what waterfall did for them. After understanding each team’s waterfall processes, you can develop a business case to sell your agile product management strategy. Listen, apply your experience, and get buy-in. If you are running more reviews of the process than retrospectives, you’ve fallen for the trap.

We’ve all been on teams where agile turned into “agile-fall,” and everyone sours on the process.

Change is hard, and our thoughts need to evolve. The process is iterative, and when you treat it that way, you’ll get better.

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Minding the Gap: Thought Leadership vs. People Leadership

Changes are an evolutionary process. They aren’t something that happens only once. Leading doesn’t mean being curious and going to make the conference talk.

Remember this:

“If you have a best practice, and it doesn’t change the culture, is it a best practice at all?”

The concept also applies to ourselves.

Making an impact once is good, but we want to expand our circle of competence.

There is an opportunity to build that muscle by working within our culture, seeking new problems, and staying curious.

When you do that, you shift. You go from one experience to multiple.

Remember, leadership is ambiguous, and what you do here won’t always get you to the place you want to go. The more product narratives you have, the more you can exhibit your competence around the organization. Every cycle of change is another opportunity to add to your toolkit. Please focus on the culture, and cultivate it like a plant. From there, you’ll see things develop.

That development helps develop yourself as a realized thought leader. An influential thought leader can tell a product narrative in multiple ways while shedding light on the problem from different angles. They can level up to standard best practices by being flexible.

We can’t avoid the will to lead. It’s a part of us being leaders. Please don’t deny it, as it may lead you to overdo it. It isn’t harmful to use it to grow opportunistically. It’s essential, however, to stay curious to find ways to develop your craft further.

Change is Hard, so Use it to Get Better.

Change is hard, and our thoughts need to evolve. It’s an iterative process, and when you start treating it that way, you’ll get better.

That said, being a thought leader is close to meaningless if you’re not a people leader.

As you do that, you’ll craft the best environment to increase productivity from your team and improve your abilities. Remember, when the team gets better, you get better.

Change is hard, and it takes time. Coming in and dropping in ideas isn’t going to do anything. Being able to take those ideas, help them evolve, and make them relevant is the step to leveling up your career.

Culture isn’t just something that comes from best practice documents. It is living, growing, breathing. When you treat yourself, the team, and your career that way, you’ll find yourself in a position to take it to the next level.

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