The differences between leadership and management are well studied, documented, and taught in business schools; however, the two are almost always confused in practice. Look at any job description for a product management leadership role and you’ll find things like “Directly manage product managers and team members” with no mention about being a leader.
The funny thing about the product management role in most software startups is that product managers don’t usually “manage” people. They most often do not have direct reports. They are typically hired to manage a product, not people. Instead they are tasked with leading development teams to build successful products.
Good product managers will pick up a very useful leadership skill by working in this structure. A product manager cannot direct a development team to build anything, they must lead the development team to follow their vision.
This isn’t to say that management is not a necessary function. It most certainly is a necessary role in some industries. In software development we need more leaders and fewer managers. This is likely why there is a trend of flattened organizational structures in startups.
Here are my three tips for leading high functioning startup product development teams.
- Leaders realize they don’t have a monopoly on good ideas.
Ideas are a dime a dozen and aren’t worth anything until executed. Great leaders realize that they don’t corner the market on good ideas. A manager will suck the team dry of any energy to generate new ideas. Leaders bring their team a problem, managers bring a solution. Your team has great ideas. Harvest those ideas.
Michael Dell once said “Ideas are commodity. Execution of them is not.” Stop thinking that your ideas are superior and start harvesting the team’s ability to be creative.
- A well functioning team moves at warp speed.
There’s this phenomenon that happens when a strong leader has inspired a team around a collective vision. You see this in early-stage startups that are able to build an MVP product in their garage in just a few months. The team is inspired and moves at warp speed. I have seen many startup founders trying to artificially create this warp speed.
The only way to create this warp speed of teamwork is by creating a vision for a future greater than what one person can accomplish by themselves. A vision for a future that inspires the team to come together and ideate and create. A manager will set deadlines and dictate specs, a leader will outline the vision and opportunity and say “Let’s go.”
Managers often get sucked into micromanaging teams because the team hasn’t been given the ability to function autonomously. The irony is that it seems like team output improves; however, you are actually limiting the team output. If a manager has to micromanage, the maximum output of the team is inherently capped at the managers ability to delegate. Avoid this at all costs.
- Leave the ego at the door.
A great leader has to set his or her own ego at the door so that the rest of the team will do the same. 3 weak team members with strong teamwork is better than a single team member with weak teamwork. That is to say that one rotten apple will spoil the bunch.
Harry S. Truman once said “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” A strong leader will foster a teamwork built on a collective belief that the team rises together. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Leading high functioning teams takes practice, patience, and personal growth. If you find yourself managing people, try some of these lessons and see how your team dynamic changes.