What it takes to be a Product Leader

Alain Kowalczyk is a senior interi​m Product Leader and Agile Coach, with over 20 years of experience in the fintech and digital commerce space.

Since October he has been working as an S&S Associate and Product Owner Coach at VocaLink, the global payments company that became part of the Mastercard group this year.  Alain previously worked at Vocalink back in 2004, taking on various product roles up until 2010 when he joined UK fintech company Monitise Group. He spent over seven years at Monitise before it was acquired by Fiserv in 2017.

S&S sat down with Alain to hear about his journey into the S&S Community, what it means to be a Product Manager and why companies should invest in Product Strategy. Alain also reveals his predictions of the gig economy and his leap from permanent to interim.

What does your current role as an interim Product Owner Coach at Vocalink entail?

“I was beginning to explore a different role focused on coaching and mentoring, which I have done on an adhoc basis throughout my career.

There was a recognised need at VocaLink to apply specific Product Owner focussed coaching as part of a broader transformation programme.

I am essentially the glue between product and engineering. My focus for the last six months has been building out the talent acquisition process for product owners, recruiting them and then supporting them to optimise ways of working.

The role itself is not only very transitory but very self-directive. I shape what I think I should do, then I make sure that stakeholders are informed and supportive, and then I go and execute.”

You’ve been an interim for three years. At what point did you make the switch from permanent to interim?

“I did a two-year contracting stint a long time ago. I quickly realised that I still had a huge amount to learn, so I purposefully took a permanent career path to seek out mentors and leaders to acquire a broad range of soft skills and learning techniques.

I now feel as I get tested in terms of tough challenges, I do find I am reasonably successful in meeting those challenges because of a well-formed backpack of techniques and tools from a range of industry engagements. I will take the right weapon of choice to help and support individuals with where they need to go, given the organisational context and career phase.”

How is being an interim different to being a permanent employee and what advantages does it bring over the latter?

“You are less beholden to organisational constraints at the outset. This affords more freedom to make an impact much earlier on. If you go into a permanent role, especially a leadership role, you have to be so much more mindful of the political constructs, especially those ones that are less visible. You tend to be a touch more cautious driving the outcomes you believe are the right ones for your business.

As an interim, you are expected to hit the ground running and make a big impact. But you still have to work at a pace that is comfortable for the people you’re working with. There’s no point charging in and going “this is all wrong” or “this needs to go”. You’re just shoving boulders straight up 4000m mountains. You have to set your pace according to the organisational context in order for the outcomes to be sustainable after you’re gone.”

What are your predictions for the future of the gig economy?

“To ensure ultimate success and sustainability of a gig economy is, you need to ask yourself: are you really providing the level of independence and self-direction for those individuals? In other words, do they really have a choice? If you’ve got those zero-hour contracts and you happen to be self-employed, that’s where I see potential kickback in the next five to 10 years.

As you move up the ladder of the knowledge economy in terms of skills, expertise and the level of creativity you need to deliver value, then I see that undoubtedly flourishing.”

Why do a lot of corporate companies underinvest in Product Strategy?

“Your typical corporate product company will be carrying a portfolio of products, each watered and fed by a unified community of cross-functional people whose key purpose is directly attached to the continued survival of that product.

The success in reaching this point makes for a terrible teacher, encouraging a status quo of similar, adjacent products initiatives. Stakeholders get the business case, the rationale and the target outcomes are easy to grasp and measure. The idea is: “It’s just like product x, but with this new twist to serve this new segment.” Successfully challenging the status quo requires courageous, visionary individuals.

Instead, typically you have an annual 4-6 week public exercise to sense check and rubber stamp existing long-term strategy and objectives – time and effort boxed. It’s a much easier sell for a CPO across a commercially performant business than investing more deeply in an ongoing, dedicated effort throughout the year – one of the key triggers to ensuring a healthy pipeline of new product ideas ready to grow.”

What is the difference between a product owner and product manager?

“Get 10 product managers in a room, and my experience suggests you will get 15 different views on what it means to be a product manager. Add to this the latest entrant in the form of the agile Product Owner, any definitive answer is moot.

At the heart of the role should lie the primary dual objectives of being the voice of the customer and maximising business value from product development.

A more pertinent question would be –  as a product leader, do I have clear benefit by accommodating both roles?

The ideal approach is the transparency, traceability and accountability of a single individual being the voice of the customer, owner of the vision, and which features should be prioritised to deliver the most value to your customers and the business.

I have worked in organisations operating a variety of models – single product owner, external facing product manager/ internal facing product owner duet, internal (component) product owners/external product owners. Which one works best is really down to a host of organisational and business model factors – phase of organisational maturity, product centricity, scaling requirements, go to market model, product complexity amongst others.”

What makes a great product manager?

“Product management is, through its inherent nature, a multi-faceted discipline. Helping sales close a deal one day, writing contract schedules with legal the next, and sitting with your engineering lead to elaborate an epic the day after.

A good product manager is well versed on the range of generic techniques and tools used managing a product through its lifecycle – business case modelling, user journey mapping, value proposition definition, design thinking, market segmentation, product strategy validation, managing OKRs,  backlog prioritisation, roadmap and release planning etc.

But in order to separate good with awesome, you need the blend the following two facets:

  1. excellent soft skills – honed active listener, high EQ, accomplished negotiator, solid planning skills, recognised leadership, masterful communicator
  2. self-awareness to constantly balance generic product skills with the required in-depth knowledge and expertise of a specific product or industry vertical.”

How do you view the payments sector will look in 5 years?

“The democratisation of payments, triggered by both regulatory and technology initiatives such as PSD2 and blockchain, will lead to a more profoundly disrupting phase in the demystification of payments as an industry.

Once the protected preserve of clearing companies and large financial institutions, the humble payment transaction will increasingly be relegated to a commodity service, as it becomes easier for new entrants to access and disrupt existing value chains with innovative customer-centric propositions.”

So where does the next opportunity lie?  

“Digitalisation is powering the information economy, and this paradigm is expected  to emerge in the payments space – delivering value to corporate and personal customers through enriched information and value-add overlay services wrapped around the humble payment transaction.”