How to Lead Remote Product Teams

03/25/2020 10 min read
Kleanthis Georgaris As Toptal's VP of Product, Kleanthis is responsible for the evolution of Toptal's platform and associated products.
How to Lead Remote Product Teams

Product management plays a pivotal role in modern technology and internet companies, but the prospect of doing so remotely is likely daunting to many practitioners. Kleanthis Georgaris, Toptal’s VP of Product provides strategies for adapting to the remote environment to drive product success.

Product managers play a pivotal role in modern technology and internet companies. Often described as “product CEOs,” top-notch product managers translate business and consumer needs into a clear vision, and rally their teams to ship products that WoW customers and meet organizational objectives.

Given the importance and associated complexity of the role, product managers may be daunted by the prospect of running product development for a remote team. While functions like engineering, marketing or sales tend to involve defined tasks that transfer well to a remote structure, thriving as a remote PM requires a fundamental adjustment of your approach to leadership when compared to product managers who work on-site.

As more companies embrace distributed and virtual teams, how should product managers adapt? In this article, Kleanthis Georgaris, Toptal’s VP of Product will lean on more than 5 years of remote product leadership experience to review the key traits of effective product leaders and provide strategies for modifying these skills to succeed as a remote product manager.

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 PM 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.

But taking a step back, the core competencies of a product manager fundamentally revolve around leadership. More specifically, product managers should master four key areas in order to achieve success: people leadership, communication, thought leadership, and results-oriented cultures.

People Leadership: Product managers must lead cross-functional teams of engineers, designers, operations, and data analysts, while simultaneously demonstrating leadership in interacting with their stakeholders. One of the unique responsibilities of a product manager is the need to influence and convince colleagues across different teams and levels that don’t necessarily report to them 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. You need to communicate your vision, your roadmap, get alignment, provide regular status updates, communicate the impact / results of what you have built, collect feedback, etc. You also need to set the right tone and pace for the team and set the right expectations.

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 towards achieving them.

Adapting to Remote Product Management

When done remotely, product management adds a unique set of challenges that can at first seem daunting. General considerations regarding remote management and leadership, namely issues related to self-discipline, building culture, and getting feedback and communication, are topics we’ve covered in previous posts. But in the following section, we outline tactics and processes targeting needs specific to remote product managers—tools they can use to lead teams and execute to perfection in shipping great products.

Remote People Leadership

The first challenge remote product managers must overcome is people leadership. As outlined above, this is an essential component of any product manager’s role, remote or not. Particularly because product managers lead teams who accomplish tasks that they cannot accomplish themselves: unlike a sales or engineering lead, a PM can’t answer a customer service rep’s call, write code for an engineer, or design a webpage if a designer falls behind. With this in mind, there are four areas in which remote product managers should focus in order to lead their team effectively.

Build trust: Management textbooks are awash with advice on how trust can be garnered. But the reality is that in an on-site environment, managers often get away with sub-optimal management practices by simply relying on establishing rapport through informal interactions. In other words, the offsite drinks with the team, the “watercooler chats”, the interactions over lunch and coffee breaks, these all help build relationships and friendships that can paper over mediocre leadership practices.

But in a remote environment these crutches are ruthlessly absent. The result of this is that there is simply no room for mediocrity. Product managers must be excellent leaders, otherwise they’ll fail to garner the trust of their team and performance naturally suffers. But as mentioned above, this is actually a blessing in disguise. Remote product management teams are often more high-performing than on-site teams for this very reason.

Lead by example: Perhaps the most obvious way in which remote product management can actually drive better results relates to leadership by example. Readers will no doubt be fully aware that leading by a example is one of the most commonly cited ways in which leaders can effectively drive their teams. But again, in a physical office environment, strict adherence to this mantra is often not the case. In a remote context, there is simply no way around this. The lack of informal interactions places even greater emphasis on results and actions, meaning leaders must be extremely diligent at following best-practices.

A specific example has to do with a remote PM’s online presence. In a physical office, when an important deadline is fast approaching, simply staying late is an effective informal visual cue to the rest of your team that extra effort should be put in. The equivalent to this in a remote environment is making oneself extremely available and active on communication channels. In so doing, a PM can set the example and tone for the rest of my team and ensure that the commitment, as a team, is always on point.

Proactively offer support: In an on-site environment, when a team member is worried or facing a problem, team members often sense it by virtue of being physically close to each other. But remote product managers need to proactively check in with their teams, and schedule informal meetings at a more human / personal level, offering support even when they haven’t been asked. Perhaps surprisingly, this often results in better rapport than in a non-remote context, because team members recognize the concerted efforts to proactively ascertain and tackle personal problems.

The above is vital for product managers, because, given the cross-functional nature of the role, team members should feel comfortable going to their PM for any problem they face. 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 PM about it as well.

Recognize great performance: Motivating team members—celebrating wins, empathizing with failures—is part of the role of a good PM, remote or not. But whether through celebratory drinks or enthusiastic conversations by the water cooler, motivating people in a physical office environment is much easier to handle in an organic way, and managers often don’t need to be diligent about doing this because it happens by itself. But remote PMs must 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.

At Toptal, we make sure to publicly acknowledge success and good performance wherever possible, almost to the point where it can seem excessive. But in so doing, more trust and respect can be built than in non-remote contexts.

Communication and Transparency

The need for transparency and communication is another very familiar presence in most management literature. But whilst on-site working environments benefit from these happening organically, remote teams must make a concerted effort to ensure these occur. This more diligent and planned approach to promoting transparency and communication often leads to even better interactions that are less time-consuming and more effective. Below are some specific examples of this.

Better team meetings: Team meetings are undoubtedly a crucial component of any team’s working process, whether remote or not. But in a remote context, the lack of physical presence means that team meetings take on an even greater level of importance. As such, care and effort is put into ensuring these are as efficient as possible.

Moreover, remote organizations can trend towards having more team meetings, or cross-functional team calls, than physical organizations. The danger here of course is that people’s calendars quickly fill up with back-to-backs, leaving little time for actual work. The outcome is that remote organizations becoming far better at knowing when team meetings are appropriate and when they are not. As such, the all-too-familiar all-hands in which much time is spent but little output actually derived, are largely absent in remote organizations.

The above is all the more relevant for product managers since their role is cross-functional by nature. A recommendation is to keep large group calls to a minimum, instead emphasizing focused small group or 1:1 calls where valuable discussions and updates take place.

Foster direct communication: Remote product managers should be especially careful to avoid becoming the sole point of communication between stakeholders, designers, engineers, analysts, etc. What usually happens is that these groups rarely talk to each other, and instead use the PM as a proxy. PMs 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 the Toptal team is working on a new feature the involves multiple stakeholders, we immediately create a group slack channel with everyone involved (operations, copywriters, designers, engineers) where we discuss anything related to the project. This ensures everyone is aware about what’s going on.

Always be available: Unplanned conversations between co-workers are important flows of knowledge throughout an organization. In a physical environment, if you have a quick and burning question you can always walk over to someone and ask them. But in a remote context, that burning question might be put on hold because of the lack of awareness of whether someone is busy or available to answer it in real time.

At Toptal, we get around this by promoting a culture of always being online and available, and really emphasize this and underscore it at any opportunity we have. The result is that team members feel no qualms in simply picking up the phone and calling another team member, knowing that this other team member will almost always reply. In so doing, transparency is often enhanced in remote teams, due to the strong emphasis that is placed on ensuring it occurs.

Manage timezones: Managing remote teams often means managing across different time zones, and can require working long days and oddball hours. If you gravitate towards 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. Try adapting to a more flexible schedule by including breaks between work “sprints” to keep performance over long periods more consistent. At Toptal for instance, PMs work their normal working hours in the morning and in the afternoon, then go offline but usually come back online before bed-time to respond to any messages from folks in different timezones. But as a corollary to this, we take great care in setting expectations around which hours each team member is online, and what type of problems one will address or respond to when they are offline.

Remote Thought Leadership

Thought leadership is the third pillar of leading as a product manager, and similar to people leadership it presents unique hurdles in the remote context.

Spur Innovation and Creativity: Given that great ideas are most often a result of teamwork and collaborative brainstorming, innovation becomes a real challenge in a remote organization. To overcome this, remote product managers should proactively set up idea-generation or brainstorming meetings. But again, careful consideration must be put in to ensure these meetings are as effective as possible. It’s completely different to schedule an hour meeting where you state your problem and ask people to contribute ideas on the fly, versus having 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 is essential to build great products. Feedback is necessary at all stages of product lifecycle. At the inception phase, requirements gathering, specification and user testing. Within a physical office environment, it is much easier to collect these inputs as you can easily ask questions, show a demo to a colleague, invite someone to your desk. Remote product managers need to be disciplined in requesting feedback, and keep their teams involved.

At Toptal we usually record a demo of any new feature we are about to launch and send to all stakeholders and team members for feedback. We also have live demos with larger groups to get real feedback.

Build credibility: A PM needs to be trusted, respected and come across as a leader in his area of expertise.  As a PM, you should always look for the chance to present the results of your work, your vision, your roadmap, and any analysis you might have conducted. Once again people don’t see you and will judge you not from your presence but on what you actually do. It’s much harder to come across as a thought leader and expert in a remote environment when you don’t have the chance for water-cooler discussions.

Here at Toptal, we encourage all PMs to create a presentation of any important new initiative or feature which is backed by data or user research, and present this to their cross-functional teams.

Focus on Results

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 companies employ a de facto hybrid approach where managers subconsciously observe how hard their teams work and then assess the quality of that work.

But in the remote context, this doesn’t apply. Lack of physical contact gives managers only one way to evaluate performance: results. And this is good. This is how it should be in all companies. In remote companies, the nature of the game forces you to work in this way.

But the above of course means that the process of setting objectives and evaluating results is critical for remote product management teams to function effectively. So getting it right is key. One useful framework is Google’s OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). By pairing higher level objectives with measurable results, the OKR system has become an integral part of the Google playbook since John Doerr originally introduced it to the company’s leadership in 1999.

Whatever system or framework one ends up choosing, the key takeaway is that this should be weaved into team culture and processes as early as possible. On-site companies may well survive without a result-oriented culture, but our view is that anything less would be a recipe for disaster for a remote company—an OKR like framework should be implemented Day 1.

Remote Product Managers Win Through Leadership

It is far from easy to make the adjustment to remote product leadership. But 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 transferrable to non-remote environments—while creating the conditions that lead to sustainable development of fantastic products.

Kleanthis Georgaris As Toptal's VP of Product, Kleanthis is responsible for the evolution of Toptal's platform and associated products.