What Makes a Great Product Champion?

08-25-22 Chris Wagenheim

A capable, confident Product Champion is integral to success—but what, and who makes the best Product Champion? In our experience, the what is a balancing act and the who can be a surprise. The good news: the traits of a great Product Champion can be cultivated.

A great Product Champion can be anyone and can come from anywhere.

This was exactly the case when Sparkbox recently partnered with an industrial automation firm on a large, fast-moving, highly technical project. Initially, there were two leaders assigned to the project. While each of them had more than enough requisite knowledge and acumen to move the project along, they had different ideas on what the ultimate goal of the project was. Shared leadership can be effective, but in this case, it was not proving to be the best way forward.

Even after being prompted to huddle up and get on the same page, things still progressed more slowly and less efficiently than the client would have liked. Neither of these team members was positioned to be a true Product Champion.

Then, a junior, fresh-to-the-team, client-side colleague came onboard.

Like a ray of sunshine busting through a cloudhead, this colleague stepped in, stepped up, and became the Product Champion that the team truly needed. The kind of Product Champion that made decisions where they were able, found people that could make the decisions they could not, and kept things moving toward the goal at a brisk pace.

This hero wasn’t sent to our project for the explicit purpose of being a Product Champion, but they took on the role all the same and it got us thinking:

So What Actually Makes a Great Product Champion?

Is it a skill or a personality trait? Is it science or magic? Here’s what we learned:

A Product Champion Can Be Anyone

We can’t stress this enough. A Product Champion can be anyone. That’s why you must be flexible to organic shifts and don’t force things just because of titles on placards. The latest research on the psychology of leadership affirms this idea: “Leadership does not depend on one’s title. Leaders can emerge at any level if they can motivate those with whom they collaborate to strive toward a common goal.”

Increase your chances of finding the Product Champion by adding a diverse range of personalities, perspectives, experiences, and expertise to your teams—especially teams that are going to interface with external clients or vendors. Most teams working on software development products are going to be multi-disciplinary and diverse. So, be open to the Product Champion coming from any of the disciplines on the team

A Product Champion Should Have a Balancing Presence

When you’re considering a Champion for your product, keep in mind it’s not just their job title that will be indicative of success, but their interpersonal strengths. Finding a Product Champion who is either too aggressive or too passive is a recipe for diminishing returns.

Sure, Alec Baldwin’s aggressive, filthy-mouthed character from “Glengarry Glen Ross” might deliver some quick, impressive results, but those results are going to be few and far between after everyone in the office refuses to work with him. On the flip side, someone that is too eager to please stakeholders may have a hard time making tough decisions when it comes time for tough decisions to be made.

One comprehensive study that looked at aggressive leadership styles found that desired outcomes were negatively impacted by extreme behaviors. On the other end of the spectrum, passive leadership “results in poorer mental health and work attitudes,” which also leads to weak outcomes.

If you can, make sure that you put a person with a balanced personality into the role of Product Champion—someone either too aggressive or too meek may ultimately be successful, but it may be a harder road.

A Product Champion Needs to Navigate (Not Seek Out) Conflict

Ultimately, Product Champions are people that can provide structured authority and can have difficult conversations without burning down the office in the process. They need the confidence and experience to make decisions that have the potential to create conflict, but the tact to engender trust in the process.

The ability of a Product Champion to gain the confidence of those around them may take some time. However, the process can be hastened, chiefly, by “actively seeking out critical comments, either from within their organization or from third parties, and consider that feedback without bias.”

In other words, the best Product Champions understand their limitations, seek the guidance of others, and always encourage collaboration. But this doesn’t mean they aren’t able to make tough decisions, even if it means a potential conflict with a stakeholder. Striking the balance between avoiding unnecessary conflict while not shying away from inevitable tensions is a key to the success of a Product Champion.

Don’t Forget: A Product Champion Can Also Be Cultivated

While there is a lot you can do to adapt to someone that organically fills the Product Champion role, a great Product Champion can also be intentionally incubated. What may seem like natural confidence and surety in tight situations can, according to psychologists, be cultivated: “The best estimates offered by research is that leadership is about one-third born and two-thirds made.”

It’s true that traits like extraversion and assertiveness might be a very natural fit for the Product Champion role, but engendering a culture of gratitude among team members and the politics of pushing back are learnable skills. So ask folks on the team if they are interested in being a Product Champion—they can learn more than they could ever be born with if given the opportunity to shine.

In fact, psychologists recommend lifelong learning to those interested in taking charge: “…if you aspire to positions of leadership, the best course is to embark on a leader self-development plan.”

So remember, Product Champions come in all shapes, sizes, stripes, and styles, but they share one thing in common: a strong desire to move a project forward. An okay Product Champion might move it forward inch by inch. A great Product Champion will have your team jogging toward the finish line. The right Product Champion will have your team setting records.

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