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Product leaders - stop doing!


And start leading. This article is for product leaders who are not individual contributors. In other words, this is for people who manage other people. Please, dear managers, stop doing things yourself - it is not helpful.

Unfortunately, I saw it too many times - a great, maybe even brilliant, individual contributor gets promoted to a managerial position and instead of embracing their new role, they keep doing what they used to do. A recent design manager still does wireframes. A fresh engineering manager keeps writing code. The newly promoted head of product can’t help but define the product or write some stories. It’s not that they neglect their new managerial responsibilities, no, they try to perform those too. As the result, these kinds of leaders tend to be overworked, overstressed and underperforming. I thought about the reasons for that and came up with those ones.

Doing feels good

Isn’t it? Doing something yourself is satisfying. You see the results of your work, you can show it to people, and it brings direct value. Moreover, you know how to do great individual contributor work! You've done it before, been successfully doing it for years and it's only natural you default to it when in doubt. You might even think that only the outcomes of the work are what counts, not the way you achieved them. So you do things yourself thinking it would reflect well on you as a manager. Spoiler alert: it will not.

It's what got you promoted

You’re good at something, like really good. Of course, you want to do more of it. If it worked once, you got promoted, then surely it will work again. And so when things get messy and uncertain - you tend to default to what you are good at. Like when a junior PM cannot write a proper user story and all your attempts to teach them failed - you’re doing it yourself. You think it’s “leading by example”, but no - that’s doing someone else’s job and neglecting your responsibilities as a manager.


You don't fully trust your team

But you do! You trust your team 100%! Right? Even when it’s something crucially important. Like when your career is at stake or the future of the company. Even then, you do trust your team 100% and never take over to do things right yourself. Yes? That’s good, keep at it. However, if that's not always the case and sometimes you tend to take over, or "double, triple-checking" the work of your team stripping them of ownership, this means you might not fully trust your team. And trust is essential, not declared trust, but a real one that is applied in action when the stakes are high.

Leading is much harder

Well, duh. Every manager should have discovered this in the first five minutes of being a manager. Empowering others is much more tricky, slow, and error-prone than doing work yourself. Plus it’s bad for your ambitions, right? When you are a manager - all the blame is yours, while the credit is your team's. Sometimes you see your team making a mistake but you cannot, or shouldn’t, stop them because if you do - they won’t learn. And won’t trust you.

We recognise leadership only at the very top

Wait, what? Surely managers are the first to get praised, they have the highest salaries and they never get fired. If you think that - well, think again. The risks for the leaders are always higher than for individual contributors. When things go well - they are all but invisible. But when things go wrong - managers will take the hit. Sometimes the hit will knock them over and out of the company.

What should you do with all of that?

If you manage people, your role is about three things: purpose, people and process.

You need to explain to your people why they need to do something. And you need to keep on explaining it, again and again, making sure it resonates. Yes, this means having a vision for your business and a strategy for your product.

You need to make sure you have the right people in the right places with the right skills to do the job. This means you need to spend the lion's share of your time hiring and coaching. And sometimes you need to let people go. It sucks, but that’s your job as well.

Having people with a purpose is not enough. They also need to know how to organise the work in the best way. And surprise surprise, that’s also your job. As a manager, you need to establish and facilitate the right processes for your team to do their best work. You need to ensure your team has all the necessary tools and they know how to use them.

If after all that you still have some time to do things yourself - well you are either a superhuman or your team might be too small. So as a manager, as a leader, please stop doing things yourself. Reflect on your new role and new responsibilities. Trust your team, empower your team and let them own the execution while you support them with purpose, people and process.

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