How to Lead Remote Product Teams: Key Traits for Success
As Toptal’s SVP of Product, Kleanthis drives the evolution of Toptal’s platform and associated products to help provide a seamless, on-demand experience for clients and network talent. He specializes in digital talent networks, leveraging a diverse background at both Microsoft and McKinsey, as well many early- and late-stage startups.
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As rapidly growing numbers of people embrace distributed and virtual teams, how should product managers adapt? Given their role coordinating the innovation process, product managers may be daunted by the prospect of doing their jobs remotely.
Roles in engineering, marketing, or sales tend to involve defined tasks that adapt more easily to distributed work. Thriving as a remote PdM requires fundamental changes.
During more than six years of remote product leadership, I have learned key traits for being effective and ways to modify skills from the office to work in remote environments.
Leading as a Product Manager
The role of the product manager is uniquely situated at the intersection of strategy and execution. Coming up with the right idea or feature and convincing your stakeholders and team to build it is not enough—product managers must get the job done and deliver.
A day in the life of a PdM might consist of tasks like writing specs, doing wireframes, working with designers, conducting analysis, looking into analytics, testing and providing feedback to engineers, user interviews, and speaking with stakeholders. Taking a step back, the core competencies of a product manager revolve around four elements: people leadership, communication and transparency, thought leadership, and a results-oriented culture.
People leadership. Product managers must lead cross-functional teams of engineers, designers, and data analysts, while simultaneously directing and collaborating with stakeholders. One of the unique responsibilities of a product manager is the need to influence and persuade colleagues across different teams and levels within the organizational hierarchy.
Communication and transparency. Product management is all about communication. You need to communicate with both your stakeholders and cross-functional team members to align on your vision and roadmap, provide regular status updates, communicate the impact/results of what you have built, and collect feedback. This sets the right tone, pace, and expectations for the team.
Thought leadership. In addition to rallying teams and stakeholders, product managers drive impact by developing innovative ideas, improving existing products, and deploying user instincts to understand customer and stakeholder needs. As a result, they must employ excellent problem-solving skills and analytical horsepower but also demonstrate creativity and deep knowledge of their field.
Results-oriented culture. One of the fundamentals of product management is to build products that accomplish specific results. Good product managers need to set objectives and targets and measure whether these are delivered. All cross-functional team members should be aware of these objectives, and everyone should care and work toward achieving them.
Adapting to Remote Product Management
When operating within a remote team, product managers face the same core challenges as their colleagues who operate as individual contributors in other roles. These mostly concern self-discipline, building culture, getting feedback, and communication—topics covered in previous posts. PdMs, in particular, face unique challenges as they manage cross-functional teams without the benefit of direct managerial authority. The following section highlights tactics, processes, and tools remote product managers can use to lead teams and ship great products.
Remote People Leadership
There are three main areas where a remote product manager can focus when it comes to people leadership. They must inspire cross-functional teams, foster productive and transparent communication, and establish an accountable, results-oriented culture.
Inspire Team Members
Leading remotely, without the non-verbal cues and casual interactions that build trust and empathy, is by definition a challenge—and even more so for product managers. PdMs are charged with leading team members who accomplish tasks that they cannot accomplish themselves. Unlike a sales or engineering lead, a PdM can’t pick up the slack and write code for an engineer, or design a web page if a designer falls behind.
Given the special dynamic that arises when managing cross-functional teams, building trust and leading by example take on a vital role. Employing the following tactics to build strong relationships with team members, remote product managers can transform this challenge into a strength.
Establish trust. In a physical environment, it might be easy to gain trust by relying on social interactions and personal rapport. In a remote environment, the lack of physical contact removes this avenue of building trust. This means that there are no shortcuts. You can’t only be easygoing or friendly to be trusted, you must truly be authentic and care about your people.
Offer proactive support. With less in-person social interaction, it’s harder to know when a team member is worried or facing a problem. Remote product managers need to proactively check in with their teams and schedule informal meetings at a more personal level, supporting them even when they haven’t been asked.
Team members should feel comfortable going to their PdM with any problem. For example, although a problem with a deployment process is technically something that should be addressed by the head of engineering, engineers should feel comfortable reaching out to their PdM about it as well.
Recognize great performance. Motivating team members—celebrating wins, empathizing with failures—is part of the role of a good PdM. Whether through celebratory drinks or enthusiastic conversations by the watercooler, motivating people in a physical office environment is easier to handle in an organic way. Remote PdMs should overcome this limitation by regularly celebrating success and encouraging folks to overcome setbacks, setting aside dedicated time on each team call to explicitly recognize big wins and exemplary effort.
Lead by example. When faced with a tight deadline, a good PdM will jump into the trenches, contributing to testing, QA, and other tasks within their abilities. Remote PdMs should be exceptionally diligent in determining where help is needed and sharing updates on their own work, decision-making, and values, communicating their effort to the team while avoiding the temptation to come across as “showing off.”
Transparent Communication Means Personal, Informal Interaction
Successful virtual leaders need to help team members stay focused on both the forest and the trees. An obvious way for product managers to promote visibility is regularly communicating plans, progress, and results to the rest of the team via group calls. Products should also be discussed personally and informally—as would occur in a physical environment.
Promote transparency. When working in a physical office in a small or mid-size startup, an adequate level of transparency can be achieved even without deliberate processes in place. In these environments, a product manager’s stakeholders can stay informed through informal discussions during lunch breaks or company events, or discussions taking place at the next desk over in an open office, or reading whiteboards. However, as a company grows—or goes remote—visibility and transparency become a challenge.
The problem with large group status update calls is that they can lead to infrequent meetings because of the logistical difficulty of scheduling regular meetings with large groups. A larger issue is that they can be unproductive—with so many participants who lack visual cues, big calls can turn into routine status updates, without room for brainstorming and problem-solving. The best remote PdMs keep large group calls to a minimum, instead emphasizing focused small group or 1:1 calls where valuable discussions and updates take place.
Encourage informal interactions. Unplanned conversations between coworkers are important flows of knowledge throughout an organization. This can be achieved by organizing “hangout” calls where team members can discuss any topic beyond work, creating a virtual shared office environment where people continue doing their job but can interact with another person in the team on the fly. This provides opportunities for spontaneous but productive conversations, brings the team together, and increases the intimacy of their relationship.
Another trick here is to make scheduled calls less utilitarian, reserving the first few minutes of all calls and video conferences to simply chat about pets, kids, weekend plans, movies, etc.
Foster direct communication. Remote product managers should be especially careful to avoid becoming the sole point of communication between stakeholders, designers, engineers, analysts, etc. This can lead to groups operating in silos where they only communicate with each other through the PdM. PdMs should encourage open and direct communication between the members of their cross-functional team, as would happen in any physical office environment.
For example, when a team launches a successful new feature, the PdM should close the communication gap between engineers and stakeholders, serving as the conduit that lets engineers “see” the day-to-day impact of their hard work.
Manage timezones and expectations. Managing remote teams often means managing across different timezones and can require working long days and oddball hours. If you gravitate toward a 9-to-5 mindset, or if your energy flags after a “normal day,” maintaining a tireless stream of energy and enthusiasm may sound like a direct route to burn out.
The reality is that PdMs spend a significant part of their day answering questions and removing roadblocks, and these queries often arrive during off hours. One tactic is reserving one to two 15-minute slots after office hours to log in again and answer important questions. You must also set expectations to your teams regarding which hours you are online and what type of problems you will address or respond to when you are offline.
Cultivate a spirit of collaboration. Simply telling people they need to work together won’t cut it. Successful remote leaders must find ways to enable people to collaborate, which may mean removing formidable obstacles. For example, team members need easy access to the right tools so they can get questions answered, documents posted, and ideas shared. They also need to create a team environment that encourages open and frequent communication among those who most need to work together.
Focus on Results: There Is No 9-to-5
In an ideal world, all companies would have a results-oriented culture where teams are assessed and evaluated against measurable objectives. In reality, this is rarely the case. Many managers subconsciously observe how many hours their teams work and then assess the quality of that work.
Resist the temptation to micromanage employees. You cannot force a mediocre worker into a more productive state by measuring hours of work or overbearing check-ins. In remote work, PdMs need to focus on the results of their team. Are team members doing what they say they will do? If you trust your team, there is no need for concern about a lack of face time, you will quickly discover if project milestones are being met.
Remote Thought Leadership
Thought leadership is the second pillar of leading as a product manager, and similar to people leadership, it presents unique challenges in a remote context.
Spur Innovation and Creativity
Given that great ideas are most often a result of teamwork and collaborative brainstorming, innovation becomes a challenge in a remote organization. While in a physical office, a team can cram into a meeting room for several hours or have multiple brainstorming sessions or even “watercooler” discussions, with remote companies this is not normally the case.
Remote product managers should set up meetings to discuss their ideas and brainstorm with other folks and do this in a way that will allow them to get the most out of it. The most effective way to do this is to have a preparatory call to introduce people to the problem, give them time to think, and then come back for a main session without duration constraints where people come prepared.
Promote Feedback Loops
Team feedback at all stages of the lifecycle is essential to building great products: at the inception phase, requirements gathering, specification, and user testing.
Remote product managers need to be disciplined in requesting feedback and keep their teams involved. When you have people sitting next to you, it is much easier to make this happen, but in a remote environment, PdMs might become too complacent to organize the required logistics.
A PdM needs to be trusted, respected, and come across as a leader in their area of expertise. To build this type of trust and credibility, product managers need to regularly interact with their teams and share their vision.
Thought leaders understand that an inspiring and shared vision can create teams out of strangers. Creating a group narrative and mission and having your team contribute to that can make a difference.
Remote PdMs Win Through Leadership
It is far from easy to make the adjustment to remote product leadership. If handled with care and attention, the challenges inherent to remote product management provide a growth opportunity for both individual product managers and organizations.
By honing leadership tactics that work in the remote environment, product managers will develop formidable skills that are transferable to non-remote environments—while creating the conditions that lead to sustainable development of fantastic products.