The Lessons of Fearless Leadership
Updated: Mar 7, 2022
To become courageous, we must do things that scare us. We’re fortified as leaders by doing what was deemed impossible, allowing us to elicit change and making the journey much easier for others who want to walk the same path.
I love being a product manager because I get to build people and products. I believe leadership is an endeavor in service. Every day, I wake up inspired to work for my cross-disciplinary teams and build up the people around me to envision big, become more prescient, facilitate, and flourish into more.
I love building products from concepts that have an impact on many people. As product managers, we are the convergence between humanities and technology. What motivates me every day is that we have both the ability and capability to build products that will add to the enhancement of society.
My motivation and love for product management still burns brightly as it did when I first started years ago. Even today, with multiple product experiences that I have acquired along the way in my career - both successes and failures.
After so many years of experience, I still occasionally get nervous or feel like an imposter at times. The difference between now and then is I have learned how the fear of failure and anxieties can be traversed into success.
Impingement of fear and anxiety
Fear can be characterized as a feeling triggered by an anticipated threat. The science of human behavior illustrates it as our survival system reacting with a fight-or-flight effect. Nevertheless, when we live in perpetual fear from perceived threats, we can experience adverse effects and become debilitated in all areas of our lives.
My only two options were to manage my fears and apprehensions or give up on my product management dreams. I choose to manage my anxieties and lead fearlessly.
My experiences with fear and anxiety
As most people in the product management community will contend, the inherent characteristics of product management are indeterminate. There is no roadmap or set direction on becoming a product manager. As a result, many PMs come from all walks of life and disciplines. In my opinion, this is also what makes the field all the better because it enables us to build products for diverse groups, thereby enhancing humanity.
Additionally, no set presupposition helps determine product managers’ auspiciousness. For this reason, imposter syndrome and anxiety were more pronounced for me when I became a product manager, and I continuously questioned my abilities and my decisions.
When I started as a junior product manager, I knew my product inside and out. I could recite the business rules, marketplace competitors, and even the competitors’ features and functionalities. Notwithstanding, I carried the weight of the product vision on my shoulders, and everyone expected me to have all the answers. I was panicked most of the time, and I lived in constant worry of making the wrong decisions. Below are some of the thoughts of ineptness I’ve had:
I cannot do this. I'm a fraud, and everyone is going to find out. Why would they ever take me seriously? I’m a fake.
Everyone expects me to have all the answers. If I don‘t, they will think I am not smart enough.
The engineering and quality assurance teams may not believe me.
The sales team won‘t trust me.
They are going to blame me if things don’t go well.
What if customers hate this feature?
What if my boss doesn't like my decision and overrides me?
Yes, this product was a success… but I’m just lucky on this one.
What if I can’t save one of our biggest customers from leaving us?
Managing my fear of failing
To manage my fear of failure and anxieties that accompanied those thoughts, I had to learn from my mistakes and move on from them. The invaluable lesson from those experiences was that I learned not to be afraid to try new things, as it freed my scrum teams to be creative and imaginative. Furthermore, it made me a better PM and leader.
Although it did not happen overnight, here are a few things I put into practice.
1. Self-guided improvement
During my early years as a PM, I was beleaguered with so much incessant self-doubt. My mentors helped me a lot by underscoring tools that have assisted them to be more confident in their roles. Part of this was that any leader who wants to be effective should partake in auditing, mindfulness, assessment, and culpability of their actions.
In essence, they own and clean up their side of the street. How else would they distinguish their stalwartness, constraints, and temperament? For me, this meant that I needed to examine the effect of my comportment, adjudications and assess my own personal SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis without any bias.
Along the way, while I was doing this work on myself, I also recognized that product leaders who engage in self-guided improvement became unassuming and open to receiving constructive feedback. The desire to work on my self-development and do the work helped me to not only be a better leader - but a fearless one.
A part of my self-led improvement was to humanize my colleagues. After all, they ask questions because they want to build products that will solve our customers’ problems, as I do. They seek knowledge to get a better understanding of the problem space.
I needed to be comfortable within myself and display vulnerability. This meant checking my ego at the door and simply communicating with my scrum team (or any other team within my organization) that I do not have all the answers, but I am happy to research their queries.
The turning point for me came when I realized that bringing in my tech lead and design lead from the beginning of a project or discussing a customer problem yielded innovative and inspired solutions. In other words, they took the burden off my shoulders. As a result, each project brought about the best solutions as a group.
3. Voice of customer
Partnering with leads from sales, customer service, technical support, and relationship management allows us to gather great insights into understanding our customers’ needs. These team leads are closer to customers and are proficient in their language, pain points, needs from the sales process, onboarding, and servicing. They offer additional requirements for features and functionalities that wouldn’t have been thought of, and they’re able to introduce me to power users during in-person/virtual interviews and focus groups. Any findings from the group would go to my scrum teams to be a part of the decision-making process.
Another valuable lesson l garnered along the way was the significance of collaborating early on with sales, customer service, technical support, and relationship management, and engineering.
Bringing these teams in early to help solve a problem, review a new experience or requirements helps to yield innovation. In those discussions, we find what will not work, what will work, and what we can improve on.
5. Metrics matter
One thing is true about engineering and other cross-disciplinary teams - they want to work on products that make a difference in customers’ lives and win in the marketplace.
Sharing metrics was one of the ways that helped me build relationships with these teams. By showing them specifics of customers’ wins and losses, why we won or lost new deals if customers left us for a competitor, why they left, and what features we don’t have.
Another type of data I shared with the teams was the Net Promoter Score (NPS). I believe that the NPS cuts straight to the core of whether our product addresses an issue for our customers and whether they think it could do the same for their colleagues. The response from customers helps us recognize what amendments we need to make to our product to add additional value.
Sharing metrics helps the teams better understand the product strategy and roadmap structure. Furthermore, I found that offering transparency into why specific determinations were being made mattered in forming trusting relationships.
My fearless leadership
An efficacious product that continuously increases revenue growth, sturdy client adoption, or perhaps is characterized as an “industry disrupter” always has one thing in common: they solve a customer’s problem and they’re willing to pay for the service.
It successfully achieves those objectives because scrum teams, teammates, colleagues, partners, and leadership came together with different perspectives; in essence, they created product magic.
For me, fearless leadership means being a people leader, which is a badge that I proudly wear. I work for my team, but they do not work for me. I am here to build them and help them achieve the impossible without the need to lead with fear.
Of course, there is still an expectation for them to deliver promptly, and when there is an issue, the problem is not mine alone as the product leader - it is all our problem to manage and resolve. My cross-functional teams understand that I value them, that they are essential, and I genuinely care about them, their happiness, and wellbeing. Leading without fear means team members become more motivated, productive, and comfortable in the workplace.
Being a product manager is one of the most humbling opportunities because I alone cannot build or solve customer problems. Early on, collaboration with cross-functional teams is the key to bringing about brilliant and exceptional solutions. This is done by offering these teams the voice of customer information, metrics and finding answers to their questions.
The things that used to cause me anxieties no longer do because I long ago recognized that fearless leadership means creating an environment where my team members can be part of something bigger. An atmosphere where every team member can contribute their talents and bring to fruition their aspirations. As a result, we pave the way for those that will come after us making it easier for them to do what may be deemed impossible.