Product Leaders: The Silver Linings Playbook

Industry TrendsCustomer Activation and GrowthDigital TransformationOperations and Supply Chain OfficersInnovation, Research, and DevelopmentDevelopment and Transition
min Article
May 04, 2021
5 min
Industry TrendsCustomer Activation and GrowthDigital TransformationOperations and Supply Chain OfficersInnovation, Research, and DevelopmentDevelopment and Transition
The pandemic further illustrated the need for product leaders to connect technology with overall purpose, ethics and social responsibility.


As of April 2021, over 12% of the world has been vaccinated against Covid-19. The light at the end of the pandemic tunnel is starting to shine. The beginning of the pandemic saw no time for reflection as thousands of employees were furloughed and pubs and stores shuttered. Soon, grocers and pharmacists hired thousands to keep food and medicine on shelves, designing protocols for socially distanced shopping; populations wrangled with facemasks and isolation; there was even a run on toilet paper…

But from among these horrors, some remarkably progressive changes emerged. Now, leaders are scrutinizing these silver linings and hardwiring them into their businesses. For one, Covid-19 has accelerated digital transformation. Digital solutions and products fared remarkably well, with overall ecommerce sales increasing by 44%1. Tesco scaled its online presence virtually overnight to cope with an unprecedented 4500% increase in demand; Cote built an ecommerce site to offer home cooking kits; Costa partnered with food delivery services; Pandora built digital capabilities and digital discovery tools from scratch.

These changes threw the product and technology function into the eye of the storm. Where once product and technology felt quite hypothetical, those functions now stood as standard bearers; saviors of both the organization and of any sense of familiarity. In Russell Reynolds Associates’ conversations with over 80 product leaders, we identified the positive changes ushered in by the pandemic that executives would like to retain going forward into the new world.

New relationship between product and the CEO

  • At the beginning of the pandemic, CEOs leaned heavily on tech, digital and product leaders alike to scale rapid implementation and development. No one wants to return to siloed ways of working, in which product leaders are not provided insight regarding immediate business needs.

  • There is an opportunity for CEOs to develop a new operating model in collaboration with technology to address the new, intense pace of customer-focused, technology-centric decision making.

Organizational agility and resilience to quickly pivot

  • Organizations took note of product and technology teams’ relatively seamless transition into remote working. These functional leaders were keen to emulate the same multidisciplinary, Agile approach with their teams. This does not entail elevating “Agile” up as some intangible religion, which seeks only to invite niche debates about scrums, but instead as a principal built into the way one works. It means giving employees the tools and autonomy to get things done, as well as clarity of vision and remit to work collaboratively towards broader strategic milestones. This also requires guiding teams to realize that every decision does not hold equal weight. Of course, this independence and autonomy is good, but it does require CPOs to step up with a holistic view of how all the parts make the whole.

Demonstrating the revenue potential of digital

  • Product and tech teams have proven and publicized their ability to build a scalable product, demonstrating revenue potential that is incredibly quick to market.

  • For example, McDonalds was digitally prepared for Covid-19 with its strong drive-thru mechanism, sizeable delivery integration (e.g., partnerships with Uber Eats), and with screen interaction and mobile ordering in stores to avoid social contact. Pandora, on the other hand, was less prepared. However, they pivoted quickly to build (virtually from scratch) a successful ecommerce site with digital discovery tools supported by a new product team that stretched across Europe.

  • Organizations are hooked on this rapid way of working, and product leaders are keen to keep product and digital technologies as a core program of company strategy.

Connecting technology with purpose, ethics & social responsibility

  • Product leaders aim to tie social good, purpose and technological ethics into their product development creating a more meaningful long-term relationship with the customer. This definition of human centric design is less about “growth hacking” and more about fairness and transparency. The product leaders we spoke to are keen to continue exploring this topic as part of their remit.

  • Perhaps it was the introspection of lockdown, the desire to live in a more equitable world, or the jarring ethical questions posed by Netflix’s Social Dilemma—regardless of the reason, we’ve seen an uptick in organizations considering their role in developing responsible, trustworthy, and purposeful technology.

  • Purpose can’t simply be a talking piece for the CEO and a tool for the marketing department – people see through that, both internally and externally. If employees believe their work does not reflect the purpose of the organization, engagement falls. If customers believe the product is socially irresponsible, they also disengage.

The democratization effect of video calls

  • Previously the ‘headquarter effect’ meant those working in smaller offices often found themselves competing for airtime with those based in HQ, and junior members of the meeting were impacted by hierarchical cultural norms. In the shift to Zoom, Teams, and similar platforms, all participants in the conversation theoretically have the same opportunity--literally, the same window size and figuratively, the same autonomy--to enter the discussion.

  • Video-based meetings also expanded recruiting efforts, opening unexplored talent pools in locations where the company has not had a historical presence.

Deeper connections

  • Between the shared challenge of pandemic planning and an often-unfiltered window into colleagues’ home-lives, our product leaders reported a deeper understanding of who our colleagues really are. Despite the pandemic stresses, colleagues became more willing to adapt work schedules for others, understanding their challenges and vulnerabilities, and showing their own– especially in the USA where working culture has made this hurdle larger to jump. However, there was a clear concern from product leaders about the mental health of their teams and the burden of maintaining such a pace when there is not the same access to activities that would help

Increased collaboration to align and focus on clear goals

  • The pandemic focused leadership on their business’s core priority– the customer. The need for quick decision-making meant that business leaders had no time for infighting over whose goals were executed first. Likewise, tension between product, tech, commercial, marketing dissipated as the functions aligned on customer priorities.

  • Our product leaders reported that CTOs had given their teams more space to work independent of technology. Product leaders often glue the customer facing functions, the tech function, and the business units together, acting as a diplomat for the business, and are best suited to this role.

Of course, it hasn’t all been rosy for product and tech teams. The spark, energy, and creativity accompanying office life has been difficult to recreate. Recurring zoom calls have been no supplement for spontaneous ideation over a cup of tea; none of our attendees felt that technology solved this issue, despite a wide range of attempts. It’s also been difficult to calm conflict online or over Zoom. As product leaders tend to be in the middle of the conflict, this has been a new challenge. Engaging clients and executing projects without building face-to-face rapport was an unexpected widespread problem, meaning that winning business is slow, and relationships are easy to lose. Finally, learning through ‘office osmosis’ has been impossible, particularly for junior colleagues new to the organization or looking to progress.

All said, product leaders have once again shown themselves to be the voice of the customer. Data is a solid foundation for customer understanding but reducing customer interaction to KPIs without a human element is often ineffectual. Where we have all been fighting fires and living with uncertainly, customers do not have the time and headspace they once had to explicitly share their needs and wish lists. Data is rapidly changing. Although analytics capabilities are increasing across organizations, it will be crucial for companies to empower individuals who can quickly untangle these new information fluctuations for the customer-focused post-pandemic paradigm. Those thinking, ‘let’s get through this and go back to normal’ will likely lose to those thinking, ‘let’s adapt for the long-term, protecting our employees and more meaningfully helping our customers.’ Transformation is an active, ongoing process. Stepping out of the pandemic means stepping forward on the transformation journey.


George Head is the Knowledge Consultant for the Technology Officers Practice globally, based in London. Working broadly across technology leadership, George is focused on identifying emerging trends and codifying the priorities outlined by our clients.