Effective product leadership requires humility, vulnerability, and integrity
When Apple TV+ released its award-winning show, Ted Lasso, I’m willing to bet they didn’t know how many people would cite it as an example of effective leadership, but here we are. When I first saw the show, I couldn’t help but see parallels with successful product leadership in particular.
Product leaders don’t have an easy job. In my opinion leadership is a practical skill learned over time. When I was growing up, people told me I had leadership ability. As I entered the workforce, I could tell which of my colleagues and bosses were good leaders and which were absolutely not.
But once I stepped into a leadership role, I realized that an inclination toward leadership does not make you a good leader. It just sets you on the path. YOU need to learn what’s needed to inspire and influence others so that they actually want to follow you.
Why Ted Lasso is about leadership
Enter the show, Ted Lasso, which I know not everyone has watched. In fact, most of the people on the Standard Beagle team hadn’t seen it because they don’t have Apple TV+. I never understood the hype from fans until I actually sat down to watch the show. Now I sound like a raving lunatic extolling its virtues.
What’s really fascinating is how much has already been written about Ted Lasso’s leadership lessons. When I googled “ted lasso leadership lessons” I got back almost 500,000 results. That’s far less than the more than 5 billion (B) results returned on my search for “leadership,” but still impressive. There’s even a podcast dedicated to being a leader like Ted Lasso.
What is Ted Lasso about?
Ted Lasso is about an American football coach who is recruited to coach the British soccer team, Richmond AFC. Ted’s arrival in London causes a huge uproar, because he barely knows anything about soccer and he’s coaching at the professional level. But despite the naysayers and doubters, Ted moves forward coaching the team in his own style. He immediately spots problems in team dynamics and works to help every individual be their best self, no matter if they win or lose.
Ted treats everyone with respect and dignity, on the field and off. Over time, he captures the hearts and minds of almost everyone he comes in contact with — even his most vocal critics. You can’t help but root for him.
(I wish I could share images, but I don’t want to violate copyright and trademark laws.)
Why does Ted Lasso have anything to do with product leadership?
Leadership in the product world has a lot of similarities to leadership anywhere else. Leaders set direction and the people that work with them follow in pursuit of that goal. Product leaders set the tone and direction of a team of people. Sometimes they walk into teams with existing dysfunction and have to figure out how to create a great product despite the people dynamics. Dysfunction can hamper a team’s ability to be productive and profitable.
On Ted Lasso, Ted spends most of the first season working to help the team fix its toxic culture. At the beginning of the series, the team is perpetually losing. By the season’s end, each member of the team feels a sense of ownership and are inspired to work together.
How does Ted do it? I’ve identified five methods he used for inspiring the team to perform at their best — these lessons are helpful for any leader, including those leading a product team.
Lesson 1: Invite critique (but don’t let it get you down)
Ted’s lack of soccer expertise — as well as being American — lead to a number of running jokes in the series. Fans initially don’t believe in Ted and they call him all kinds of names. Instead of shying away from the public, Ted spends time in the community, listening to them. Despite the open hostility at times, Ted takes it with a smile on his face. He hears them out and calls the critique fair.
We laugh about the running jokes and name-calling, but Ted is showcasing the importance of humility in leaders, and why open criticism is good.
The importance of critique in product leadership
Everyone needs feedback. Often, we think about the reviews managers need to give their employees. Employees need to know where to improve so they can grow, and that’s only possible if they can positively receive feedback on their performance. Employees who are open to feedback benefit an organization and culture because
- they are more willing to listen to their teammates,
- more effective communicators,
- and are generally more trainable.
Not everyone is open to feedback, but this behavior can be learned. Product leaders can help the process along by modeling receptiveness to critique. When employees see it as a positive, they are more likely to learn the behavior. Encouraging a culture of open-critique helps develop an inclusive workplace where all insights are valued.
The challenge of feedback in product leadership
It’s not easy to hear criticism, especially if you have many more years of experience than the person doing the critique. I’ve found that it helps to build in a regularly scheduled meeting for feedback. Here are some ways we’ve done it:
- Leader-employee face to face
This meeting needs to take place regularly. When an employee first starts on our team, we start with weekly face-to-face meetings. Then, over time, that might go to once every two to three weeks. These are meetings where the person can tell me what’s going on in their world. I also specifically ask for them to tell me what I can do better. And when they tell me, it’s my job to follow through and take action on it. Either I need to make the change or consider it and follow up.
- Weekly team meetings
In our company, we have two kinds of meetings — a retrospective following each sprint and a weekly team meeting where we tackle issues that hold us back. The point of both is to learn and improve. I try not to facilitate either meeting. Instead, members of the team lead. This way they feel ownership. We encourage and model open communication at each. And when we hear feedback, we say thank you.
- 360 reviews
A 360 review is when direct reports review their supervisor. It’s best done by a third-party. My business coach offers this. He frames the results in a way that helps me improve rather than makes me defensive.
Safety for teams
All in all, it’s important to remember that a product team will only give you feedback if they feel it’s safe. So if you want to encourage your team to critique you, you must make them feel safe.
- Don’t play the victim
- Be careful not to react impulsively
- Don’t take it personally
Product leadership requires mental toughness. It requires the ability to learn from mistakes and move on.
One of my favorite pieces of advice in Ted Lasso is: Be a goldfish. Ted tells his players that goldfish have the shortest memories. When you have a tough day, instead of holding onto the negativity, be like a goldfish and put it behind you.
Lesson 2: Sometimes you gotta do the right thing, even if you lose
Another favorite lesson is from season 2 when Rebecca faces a conundrum. She must decide whether to keep a player on the team and lose a sponsor, or let the player go and keep the sponsor happy. It’s a lose-lose situation.
As Rebecca agonizes over the choice, the lesson comes from Rebecca’s goddaughter, Nora, who tells Rebecca that “sometimes you have to do the right thing even if you lose.” Rebecca decides to keep the player and stands up to the sponsor.
Product leadership means tough decisions
Leaders need to balance resources, timelines, stakeholders, and many other variables. We are under pressure to succeed. So when the heat is on, leaders face one of the most difficult adversaries: ourselves.
Our own brains are wired to favor shortcuts. It helps us be more productive while conserving energy and working more efficiently. But if we aren’t careful, these shortcuts can lead to bad decisions and even harm those around us. This is why many business coaches talk about the concept of integrity in leaders.
What does integrity mean for product leadership?
Integrity is like a guiding compass. It’s like a set of values that motivates people to do the right thing. Rebecca’s impossible choice tested her integrity. The sponsor wants her to dump her player because the player doesn’t want to be in an ad campaign for the sponsor — it turns out that the sponsor’s subsidiary is responsible for corruption and environmental damage in his home country. But if Rebecca doesn’t let the player go, she could lose out on needed sponsorship dollars.
It’s hard to do the right thing when stakes are high. Even when product leaders face high pressure, they can demonstrate integrity by:
- Being deliberate about saying no
- Clarifying what they stand for
- Pausing to consider the other side of the argument
The downside of integrity
Sometimes doing the right thing means eating a little crow. I’ve had to do that when I’ve admitted to a client when my team made a mistake, owned up to it, and fixed it.
It sometimes also might mean telling a client that’s been rude or out of line that we’re no longer the right fit for them. These decisions are hard to make, because sometimes we end up losing something as a result. We don’t want a client to spend their money elsewhere.
Lesson 3: Have courage to make tough (and unpopular) decisions
And that’s where lesson three comes in. It takes courage to actually make that tough decision. Product leadership requires bravery.
In one episode, Ted makes a really tough decision: he decides to bench the star player because he wasn’t playing as a team member. It turned out to be the right decision, but at the time, almost no one agreed with it. Ted took a lot of heat. It wasn’t until they won the game without the star player that people decided his decision wasn’t bad.
What decision have you been putting off?
When you have a hard decision to make do you have the courage to act on it?
This was the topic of discussion in my last peer group meeting. Our facilitator asked us what decision we had been putting off and why. We put off making decisions for a variety of reasons: timing, logistics, and money are just a few. But what really stood out to me were the emotional reasons we avoid making tough decisions:
- Perception of others
- Loss of status
When emotion gets tied up in decision making it can be all but impossible to take action on something. Decision-making frameworks are intended to help leaders use objective information when making decisions. But what if emotions are in the way? Sometimes, we just need a shot of courage.
A personal example of courage
I set up several same page meetings with her to address her complaints and listened to her feedback. But eventually, I was at the point where I needed to make a tough decision: fire her and move on, saving my sanity and helping my team, or finish out the project so we wouldn’t lose the client and potentially harm our reputation.
I agonized for several days and nights. I finally decided I needed to fire the client, but I felt a lot of fear. I sought out support from my partner and network and scripted how I would have the conversation.
Before Ted benches the player, he runs up into the stands to ask Rebecca, his boss, if she supports his decision. Sometimes having the support of our colleagues helps give us a little shot of additional courage product leaders need.
Lesson 4: Treasure accountability
Accountability is a central theme in Ted Lasso. In various story arcs, characters discuss the impact of accountability or not being accountable. In one example, Keeley finds out that Rebecca has lied to Ted about hiring a paparazzi photographer to take pictures of him and embarrass him publicly. So Keeley demands that Rebecca take accountability and tell Ted what she’s done.
Product leaders need to do more than say accountability is important. They need to treasure it.
Why accountability is important
In Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the avoidance of accountability is one of the key reasons teams struggle. According to Lencioni, accountability means the willingness of team members to call each other out on actions that could have a negative effect.
And the effects can build up. When teams don’t have tough conversations, they may not speak up when they feel like they are doing more work than other people. Or they may not understand expectations. Or there might be tension in the air. This kind of toxic work environment can be hard to deal with.
Product leadership includes shaping the culture of the team to encourage accountability. They should:
- Be clear about expectations
Publish expectations in a central place and make sure everyone knows them.
- Review team members’ progress regularly
Nothing should be a surprise. When a team member isn’t meeting expectations, leaders should let them know sooner, rather than waiting months for an annual review.
- Take responsibility for improvements
Create an environment where the team can have open and honest conversations. Don’t allow negativity to fester. Deal with it openly and appropriately.
Accountability lesson learned
I learned this lesson the hard way. For years I tolerated an employee who was speaking negatively about our clients behind their backs. This person influenced other people on the team, and I noticed that our overall performance was dropping. It also started to affect our reputation.
Here’s how we dealt with the situation.
We set clear expectations about how we speak about client work and handle their requests. We established a core value called “empathetic listening” and encouraged the team to lean into client requests with curiosity. Then we talked about the core value’s meaning regularly.
Next, we established a weekly team meeting to deal with issues and hold team members accountable. Eventually the employee left.
It turns out a side effect of accountability is that the right people stay on the team, and the wrong people tend to move on to their next role.
Lesson 5: Be vulnerable
Another favorite quotable line from Ted Lasso comes from Dr. Sharon Fieldstone, the team psychologist, when talking about the benefit of sharing and remembering tough memories: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
Vulnerability is a central theme of Ted Lasso. There is a masculine mystique around hiding feelings. But the show illustrates how tough but also beneficial it is for everyone to embrace vulnerability. At its core, the characters that show vulnerability benefit by developing trust and growing friendships.
How do you feel about vulnerability?
There are leaders who feel emotion and vulnerability are weaknesses. In fact, I have a peer that thinks I share my feelings and emotions a little too much. I have no poker face. That means that my team can tell when I’m having a tough day, even when I don’t intend it. As a leader, I know that if I don’t say anything about what I’m feeling, my team will assume I’m upset with them. This could really hurt their productivity and lead to wrong assumptions.
Instead, I’ve learned to let my team know what’s happening. I’ll admit when I’m having a tough day. I may not share every detail, but I share enough so they know what’s going on. For example, when I’m worried about a client or dealing with family stuff, I might share it.
Being vulnerable is a superpower
I’ve found that vulnerability isn’t a weakness. It’s my superpower.
Vulnerability is how I connect with my team and help develop trust. It shows my team that I make mistakes, too. And when I make mistakes, I’m willing to own up to them and be accountable.
Being vulnerable may be harder for some product leaders than others. I’m comfortable sharing because I’ve had lots and lots of practice. But many years ago? It wasn’t so easy. And it’s certainly not easy when faced with people I respect and don’t want to disappoint.
Vulnerability requires courage
Ted learns this lesson over an entire season of the show. He’s afraid to open up and share about an event in his childhood. It takes time for him to learn to trust Dr. Fieldstone. Once he does, he starts to feel better and to heal.
As you can tell, I love the show Ted Lasso. There are many lessons we can learn in product leadership, and these are just five of them:
- Invite critique
- Do the right thing, even when you lose
- Have courage to make tough decisions
- Treasure accountability
- Be vulnerable
If you’re interested in looking for your own lessons, Ted Lasso is streaming on Apple TV+.