A Human-Centered Product Leader

leadership product management Sep 01, 2021

Labor Day was just a few days ago, which is a good opportunity to check in on yourself and your colleagues. Many product managers are exhausted and overwhelmed after six months of working in new and unique conditions amid the pandemic. The future feels very uncertain.

Yet there are many reasons to be hopeful as a product manager. Over the medium to long term, an organization’s competitive advantage will be employees and their ability to innovate. This will require a shift in mindset – from treating employees as “ resources” to treating them like humans. 

As Gary Hamel states, every employee gets to decide whether to bring their unique skills and ideas to work. Gallup’s engagement data suggests the answer is usually "no." To survive, grow, and continuously innovate, leaders should commit to creating a culture where every person can bring their initiative, imagination, and passion to work.

A new leadership model is required. It's a human-centered model that treats employees as valued individuals who are respected, empowered, and trusted. What does a human-centered leader look like?

Embraces a growth mindset

Technology continues to change at an accelerated pace. What used to take decades now takes years; what took years takes months; months, weeks; weeks, days; days, hours. An employee executing on one task today must be continually upskilled to handle a different job tomorrow. 

For this reason, a human-centered leader embraces a growth mindset. They believe everyone's skills can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are just the starting point. Growth mindset creates a culture of continuous learning and evolution, where it is safe to work outside your comfort zone and learn new skills.

Earns respect

As leaders move up the hierarchy of an organization, the assumption is they deserve increasing respect. This paradigm is incorrect. According to Simon Sinek, "leaders lead not to serve those above them; they lead to serve those who serve them."

Some ways to earn respect include:

Takes off the mask

Human-centered leaders are authentic and genuine. They are guided by their values and stay true to those principles. Authenticity enables leaders to emotionally connect to employees. It invites everyone to let their “masks” down and connect, inspire, collaborate, and innovate. Without authenticity, most workplace relationships are superficial, which is detrimental to collaboration and innovation.

Understands the limits of knowledge

Power, as the late Karl Deutsch astutely observed, is the ability to afford not to learn. As leaders move up the hierarchy, their intellectual capital tends to decline. They do not have the time to focus on understanding the detail of what is needed in the market. 

Effective leaders empower employees to challenge norms and decisions. They engage employees, especially those in customer-facing roles, to gather the right information to drive strategy and vision. Human-centered leaders acknowledge their blind spots and actively engage those who have the details needed to make decisions.

Removes obstacles

The human-centered leader does not micromanage. Instead, they remove barriers. The goal is to enable individuals to create, innovate, and charge full speed ahead. Some barriers are to other teams and priorities. Other barriers could be smaller, such as having time to attend a mid-day yoga class to relieve stress. A leader's primary role is to make their employees more successful.

Asks for feedback

The human-centered leader asks for feedback from their teams on a continuous and systematic basis. They take feedback seriously and commit to evolve and change. These leaders are humble, ask for help, and apologize when needed.

Understands the impact of bias

Leaders cannot close their eyes to systematic racism and bias throughout the organization. Leaders must be aware of their own biases and the organization's challenges for creating a diverse and inclusive culture

Coaches versus manages

Priorities shift too quickly for leaders to become experts at everything. The command-and-control leadership modelmust evolve to one where leaders give support and guidance. They must equip employees with the skills to make the right decisions through ongoing coaching.

Cares about more than profit

Many forward-thinking leaders are embracing their obligation to society as a whole. Carol Stanford explains that a regenerative organization "begins to take responsibility not only for its internal systems … but also for the larger social and natural systems that we depend on collectively." The bottom line is successful organizations and leaders care for and invest in the society and community in which they operate. 

Recognizes great work

Finally, human-centered leaders create a culture of recognition where employees feel valued, respected, and recognized for their creativity and innovation. 

For organizations to be successful and thrive in the new world of work, they must adopt a new leadership model that treats employees as valued, respected humans who are a critical competitive advantage. It is time for change. It is time for a new mindset. But it is also a journey. Organizations should step back from analysis paralysis, embrace these concepts, and start the journey.

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