A review of Empowered, Marty Cagan’s latest deep-dive into product leadership

“In most product companies, the role of true product leadership is largely missing in action. Instead, there are mainly facilitators, responsible for staffing the in-house (or even worse, outsourced) feature factory, and keeping the trains running on time.”

Originally published on Productboard.com

Based on his previous book's success, Inspired, Marty Cagan was invited to meet with many organizations far beyond Silicon Valley to discuss how their product teams are being run. In his latest, Empowered (with Chris Jones), he admits that what he and his team at SVP Group found "wasn't pretty."

No product strategy. A view of technology as an expensive adjunct. Little in the way of coaching and misguided approaches to hiring.

This all adds up product teams filled with unmotivated people, feeling disengaged from the customers they're supposed to serve, and failing to deliver the innovation their companies desperately need to stay competitive.

Leading ordinary people to make extraordinary products

It's usually tempting to breeze past the page where an author dedicates their book to someone. In the case of Empowered, Cagan pays tribute to someone whose philosophy informs much of what's covered later on: the late Bill Campbell, a business coach who advised companies ranging from Apple to Amazon and Google.

Cagan offers a key quote from Campbell that helps define "empowered" product teams and how they are developed:

Leadership is about recognizing there's greatness in everyone, and your job is to create an environment where that greatness can emerge.

Of course, we all know this is often not the case in many organizations. Managers often see their job as living in the strategy (clouds) and then, when it's necessary, to conduct one-on-ones with team members. At worst, new hires are thrown in the deep end with a sense of, "If you can swim, there's a paycheck waiting for you." Cagan emphasizes that it's the manager's job to get their team onboarded and up to speed to succeed in the organization.

Throughout more than 80 chapters, Cagan focuses not only on coaching techniques and PM development plans but also on considerations around team topology, setting objectives, improving cross-organizational collaboration, and, ultimately, the hard work that long-term business transformation requires.

Key takeaways from Empowered

Some of the best advice in Empowered might seem familiar, even obvious, but the trick is in following it. This includes:

  1. You need to be very specific when identifying the most critical business problems a product team should solve.
  2. Your role as a leader is in helping everyone on the team achieve the competence necessary to solve those problems.

As Cagan points out, many leaders haven't reflected deeply enough on what will truly move the needle for their business. You could choose goals like "drive more revenue," for example, but double click on that, and you may realize the real problem is that not enough users who try your product are sticking around and converting into paying customers.

In other words, empowering product teams starts with giving them meaningful work — all while doing your part as a leader to ensure they have the right skills to win against the problem space assigned to them.

This second point — about getting people to competency — was driven home repeatedly in a session where I got to hear Cagan speak in Hamburg a few years ago. He stressed that, while it's easy to say, "This person isn't a good fit," you have to ask yourself what you as a product leader have done to help that person get to where they need to be.

Leading an empowered team, Cagan argues, means identifying where there's a skill gap that needs to be closed either by reshuffling people, hiring for a new role, or both. The book goes deep into every aspect of staffing, making the links between competence and character, the importance of onboarding, and even conducting performance reviews.

This leads naturally into chapters that delve into arming empowered teams with a strong product vision and principles, a strategy that employees can rally around, and evangelizing the value product teams bring to the organization as a whole. This isn't just about culture, he adds:

It comes down to the views they have on the role of technology, the purpose of the people who work on the technology, and how they expect these people to work together to solve problems.

Cagan acknowledges that these kinds of transformations take time and suggest approaches to minimize the "blast radius" of essential changes by running a pilot program.

The ideas in Empowered are backed up with a series of leader profiles. These include Shan-Lyn Ma, CEO of wedding planning startup Zola, DesignMap partner Audrey Crane, and entrepreneur/VC Avid Larizadeh-Duggan.

Who's the book for?

Empowered could appeal to a cross-section of business professionals, but they would probably fall into one of three groups.

First would be a startup founder or new CEO. If you were in the process of getting a startup off the ground, Empowered would give you a great idea of what you should expect from the product leader you'll eventually hire.

Of course, the CEO is often the first product leader because of startups' nature, but Cagan's book could help ensure they can have a shared vocabulary as they begin handing off that work to someone else.

Meanwhile, for aspiring product leaders, Empowered offers a window into how they can grow in their careers. The book covers many topics that don't come up a lot in everyday conversations in organizations.

Even if you're already in a product leadership role, there are always areas to improve. In that sense, Empowered could be a jumpstart guide into thinking about different aspects of what it means to help your team — not just in terms of articulating a vision but the details of managing people.

Should I buy it?

If you want to be a better product leader or become a better leader in general, I think this book is the most substantial and affordable resource that's out there. It's a no-brainer to buy it in terms of the breadth that's covered and the knowledge and insights. It's also a fast and easy read, given that it compiles what primarily began as a series of blog posts.

Most companies start with the CEO and the senior team as the organizations' key subject matter experts. As you grow, though, you need to find ways to develop that same expertise in other people. That usually happens by giving them opportunities to solve problems that matter — and, as Cagan writes, by helping them to feel allowed to work the way they need to deliver extraordinary results.