Leadership in project management

We asked Michael R. Hopkin, director of product management and founder of Lead on Purpose, about the most memorable leadership lesson he’s learned so far in his career. “As a leader/product manager, you cannot make people do anything, but you can inspire them to do great things,” he says. Michael recently checked in with us to reflect more on the challenges facing product managers today and to offer advice on how to overcome them. Here’s what he had to say:

Can you tell us a little about your professional background?

I got a college degree in business (B.S. in accounting, M.S. in Information Systems). While I was in college, I determined I needed to get some initial technical experience and then “get back into business” after four or five years. For the first five years of my career, I wrote code in Java and C++ as a consultant for a startup and for a major corporation. During that time, I learned about product management and realized that was my ticket to “get back into business” and yet stay in technology.

I made the transition about five years into my career and have never looked back. I have been working in roles like product manager, product consultant and director of products for the past 14-plus years.

Your blog, Lead on Purpose, is written with product managers in mind. Why was it important to you to give product managers a voice?

As I got deeper into my role as a product manager, it became clear there was not place (at the time) to get information about the leadership role of product management. That inspired me to start my blog in December 2007.

Why do product managers play such key roles within an organization?

Product managers rarely have anyone reporting to them, and yet they are responsible for the success of their products. They need to inspire developers, QA, marketers and others to work effectively together to create great software. They need to be leaders within their companies. No one is going to pay them to do it or inspire them to be great; they need to lead on purpose.

What are the leadership challenges that face product managers specifically?

For me, the No. 1 challenge that product managers face is the lack of knowledge that they need to be the leader among people who do not report to them (or their organization). A close second is the lack of information of how to be that leader.

What leadership principles do you think apply the most to product managers?

My most succinct description of these leadership principles is written here.

How do you think organizations can support their product managers more effectively?

Give them a seat at the executive table. Create the position of Chief Product Officer (or something similar) where you have product focus at the highest levels of the company.

What leaders have inspired you in your career? Why?

Many along the way. Here are a few that stand out: Steve Jobs – the greatest product guy ever. Eric Denna – a college professor who is now the CIO at the University of Maryland. Steve Johnson – a long-time trainer/consultant at Pragmatic Marketing. David Meerman Scott – author and leader in the world of marketing. My father Stuart – a cattle rancher who saw the value of technology and marketing, and taught me from a young age.

Can you share a few of your favorite product management (or management in general) resources?

Blogs: Under10 Consulting (Steve Johnson’s new home) and How to be a Good Product Manager
Books: Tuned In; The Lean Startup
Podcasts: Live on Purpose Radio and Dose of Leadership

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