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It’s not how long you have been a product manager, product marketer, or product designer that determines your level of experience or potential to succeed in your role.

Hiring executives get this wrong every day. Every day.

We all need to get away from the flawed formula of:
Time with Product Title + Size of the Organization = Product Leadership Experience

What are we responsible for as product leaders every day? It is continuous problem solving. Most of us have experience doing that since we landed on this spinning rock. Some of us have earned the product title before others, but that does not make us better at it or more valuable at it for an organization. What problem is the product or service solving? Think outcomes, not how come.

It may be a data product, but if the client outcome is not a database, why would you get hung up on someone with database product management experience. I know this is a larger issue than I have time to cover here today, but product leaders need to articulate their experience in achieving outcomes and not simply how come we can do something.

When we as leaders only use the formula of title time=experience, we are missing exceptional talent plain and simple. The remarkable people we set out to bring to our team end up working with someone else.

Don’t Fret

Product leadership is similar to playing the guitar. Stay with me. If you don’t play guitar every day, you lose the calluses on your fingertips that allow you to press down the proper strings on the frets to play the right notes and chords over time. The fingertips get soft. Even after a week or two the ends of the fingers soften so much so that the next time you play it can get very painful quickly–especially if you are playing a full set or just practicing for awhile. Calluses are a real sign of a guitar player’s commitment to their craft.

A great product leader develops calluses in their area of expertise. For the Product Manager, it might show up from being able to hear the signal within the noise when it comes to market pressure from a competitor or a new entrant into your space.

After years of playing guitar, you can certainly see the remnants of many days and nights of playing guitar on my fingertips. I’ve earned them from daily practice and playing consistently in a band. As a product leader myself, I know that I have to be a practitioner daily to build the calluses that will enable me to lead my team and orchestrate the creation of great products.

Just like it takes practicing a lot on the guitar to be something special, it takes the same dedication and practice at product marketing and product management to excel as a leader. My wife plays the piano. She has been playing it since she was a child and started teaching it to adults at the age of 13. She can literally sit down and play anything that you put in front of her because of all the years of practice. As a guitar player, I know that if I want to be able to do that, it is going to take effort t no matter how well my brain is wired to play guitar.

Building Up

What are some of the callus building activities for product leaders? It is not what you might expect.

“There is no amount of gear that can make a poor player sound good.” Brian Stout

For guitar, these are the basics that it takes to get started at mastery.

1. Chords/Barre Chords
2. Scales
3. Rhythm and Strumming Patterns
4. Fingerpicking
5. Tone

Those are the basics, but once you have mastered them you can really start to play well. So, what does this have to do with product leadership? I’m glad you asked.

If you have read many of my other posts, then you know that I’m Pragmatic Marketing certified and that I buy into the framework. Their framework has the “chords” of good product management and product marketing. If you follow the 37 prime principles in your technology company, then you will become a great product leader because you know all the “notes” on the scales.

Getting the team to do things when they need to do them is the “rhythm and strumming patterns” of product management. There is an order to things that have to get done when they need to get done. Knowing when to start engaging with the internal team about the launch is one of those items. If you communicate too soon, and the product is not ready for launch, then you are fading the potential for the launch to be successful because you have lost momentum. Following a framework like Pragmatic will keep you on the beat.

Being agile within your marketing and product teams will develop like fingerpicking on the guitar. It is a skill that takes a lot of practice to get that muscle memory to know which string to hit in sequence and at what time. You need to be agile and adjust quickly to what is going on with the product and what the marketing group can deliver.

All guitars have unique sounds…that is why there are so many makes and models. As a product leader, you will have your own unique way of managing product as a leader. Just stay in tune with your customers and prospects and internally with the team.

In the Right Position

I’ve noticed I lose the muscle memory of changing hand positions for barre (bar) chords as well when I don’t play consistently. When that happens, you can definitely tell. Depending on the key you are playing in, it can sound REAL bad when your hand is in the wrong position–especially if you are the only one playing.

Product leaders who are not practitioners daily will be barring on the wrong fret. If you have played guitar before then, you understand how bad that can sound.

Decades to Get it Right

I’ve been playing guitar for over 22 years now. On my 21st birthday, my Grandpa Joe gave me my first acoustic guitar. I think it was because for decades when I would visit my grandparent’s house I would hang out in the living room playing on their plethora of musical instruments that he had tucked in the corner of his small living room. He encouraged every family member to play a musical instrument. I was the only one that played music. I’m encouraging you to keep practicing your craft as a product leader.

You see, my Grandpa Joe had played in bands when he was younger– like the 1930’s and 40’s younger. My grandfather always loved music and picked around on his Fender guitar and played the Hammond organ up until he died in the 2000’s. When he was younger, he played a stand-up Bass (Dad called it a Bass Fiddle–that is grandpa Joe in the picture below playing with the band Esta and the Music) and occasionally the guitar in the bands he was in, but I never got to see him play in a group. Those years of playing music were formable and some of the happiest of his life.

The Classics Never Go Out of Style

My grandpa was a classic musician who loved playing. If you want to be a rock star product manager I would suggest reading this classic Pragmatic Marketing article from Paul Young that inspired me back in 2011. Hopefully, it will put your career and product growth in overdrive.

Rock on!

Brian Stout