The Increasingly External Role of the Product Leader

What can product leaders learn from Zoom’s Head of Product?

When a business succeeds or fails, it’s the person at the top who is deemed most responsible to accept praise or criticism. Every company needs to take crisis communications seriously because how you handle a situation will result in a positive or negative impact to your bottom line.

Yet recently, product leaders (product owners, product managers, heads of product, or chief product officers) have taken over the spokesperson responsibility from the CEO. This is already true for an early stage startup where the CEO or founder is often the product leader, but the outward responsibility of being a founder is assumed, and it already outweighs the product visionary.

Take the August 24, 2020 Zoom outage that halted the start of the fall school year for most K-12 and college students. Some customers experienced glitches while others couldn’t access the software at all, limiting their ability to teach, learn or support.

On August 25, customers received an email with a statement from Zoom’s President of Product and Engineering. In a total of three paragraphs, Velchamy Sankarlingam communicated and took responsibility for what turned out to be a web login failure that affected millions of customers.

Ultimately the bug was fixed and customers moved on either by continuing to use the product or by choosing another video conferencing platform. But the lessons and key findings learned from this crisis are worth pausing to consider.

Why the spotlight is now on the product leader

Traditional public relations strategy suggests choosing a spokesperson based off of:

  • Industry experience
  • Tenure
  • Comfort speaking with the public
  • Emotional maturity
  • Proximity to the area which you are communicating (i.e. hiring issues might fall to the Head of HR, marketing to the CMO)

Take the Zoom situation: how do the above points apply? The head of product either met these qualifications, or the CEO of Zoom chose to favor the trend in acknowledging the head of product as an executive role within the company.

Only in the past few years has the role of the product leader emerged, becoming not just an official title but a role with responsibilities and often a seat at the decision-making table. Zoom’s decision to choose their head of product to be the spokesperson for this issue highlights the value and responsibility their head of product has on the company. This person owns the product vision and strategy, which is intrinsically tied to the company strategy. They might have the clout of the CMO, the CRO, and other influential company leaders.

The new external skills product leaders need

In order to lead a team, product leaders must already exhibit a track record of success in clear and consistent communication, leadership and coaching, time management, prioritization, and organization, just to name a few. They must be able to stand up in front of a crowd and represent features and functionalities that make up their product vision.

1. Media Relations

If your external role is communicating in a crisis, first consult your marketing, PR, and product marketing teams. They have relationships with the media and can help you craft your statement with the right tone and information included. It’s possible you were volunteered to be the spokesperson. Either way, this is their specialty and have likely experienced a few times in their career and therefore can help you navigate the situation with the most appropriate strategy.

For early-stage startups, consult a board member with related experience or call upon a professional freelancer or PR agency if the situation is dire and will affect your revenue enough to offset the cost of the issue.

2. Thought Leadership

Product leaders must now develop equity in their brand as their CEO or founder does. You might already do this to help with your ability to attract talent to work for your team. When your company needs you to speak on its behalf, having a visible, external brand makes it easier for media to speak accurately (and likely, more positively) on your behalf. They’ll see more of your personality, your behavior, and your track record – all things that will show in the final article.

To develop thought leadership, start by:

  • Authoring posts for your company’s blog
  • Be interviewed in industry podcasts
  • Speak at industry conferences
  • Leaving product leader tips as status updates on LinkedIN

3. Public Speaking

Product leaders already need this skill to be successful in their day-to-day roles, but it is even more required when moving from internal pitches to external presentations. The external audience is not as familiar with you as the internal one. You are judged more from first reactions than built-up behaviors. The irony is that you need to do it to get experience. Start building those experiences up now so your skills are sharp when you need them.

Ultimately, product leaders are now front and center at the board room table and in the headlines. The trend emphasizes the role product has claimed in the tech world today. Product leaders must meet the everyday demands of their role while taking on new skills to position them externally as brand ambassadors for their product and their company.