Lateral Leadership:
A Practical Guide for Agile Product Managers

Lateral Leadership:
A Practical Guide for Agile Product Managers

Lateral Leadership Book Side View

The book will teach you to

  • understand the definition and impact of lateral leadership.
  • lead an agile team of domain experts as a generalist.
  • solve conflicts when you're not the boss.
Martin Eriksson Lateral Leadership Book Recommendation

Product Managers tend to have all the responsibility and none of the authority, yet we don’t talk enough about how to lead teams without that explicit authority and leadership. In this book Tim gives us a roadmap for how to use empathy and alignment to better lead the people that make up our teams toward common goals, and build better products because of it.

Martin Eriksson Co-founder Mind the Product & co-author Product Leadership

My book on Lateral Leadership for Product Managers was published by Sense and Respond Press - The publisher for short practical business books.

The book helps you master the challenges of being a lateral leader - In small-scale startups and large corporations alike. It will guide you through chapters on strategic alignment with your organization, process alignment within your team, and individual alignment with other team members.
By also recognizing empathy and escalation as helpful tools, you’ll be able to maintain and strengthen your leadership role.

It is not a dissection of theoretical traditional leadership principles or psychological frameworks you get taught in ‘leadership workshops’. Instead, I will share first perspective stories from my 8 years of experience in product management and provide hands-on advice for your daily work with agile teams.

"Lateral Leadership is the art of influencing peers and team members without formal authority."

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More Resources on Lateral Leadership

'You're not the boss of me' Webinar with Digitale Leute

In this webinar with the magazine Digitale Leute I introduced the concept of lateral leadership, as well as how to master it, how to create alignment und why you should see escalation as a tool to make progress instead of a weakness.

The Agile Peer Canvas

Agile frameworks often times focus way too much on the process and role side of collaboration. But ultimately, your product won't only succeed because of following a given process, but when you can channel the motivations of your peers into meaningful work.
To support you on that quest, I created the Agile Peer Canvas. It combines the process and empathy component of agile collaboration for a holistic perspective of your peers.

3 Questions on Lateral Leadership answered

In this interview series with Jeff Gothelf I answered 3 of the most common question on Lateral Leadership:

  1. What is lateral leadership and how is it different from other leadership concepts?
  2. What is the first thing you would recommend for someone to do who wants to practice lateral leadership?
  3. What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you in the context of work?
Tim Herbig Lateral Leadership Training

Lateral Leadership Training

This masterclass will help you master the challenges of being a lateral leader. It will guide you through strategic alignment with your organization, process alignment within your team, and proper alignment with other team members.
By also recognizing empathy and escalation as helpful tools, you’ll be able to maintain and strengthen your leadership role.

My lateral leadership training is not a dissection of theoretical leadership principles or psychological frameworks you get taught in traditional ‘leadership trainings.’ Instead, I will share first perspective stories from my eight years of experience in product management and provide hands-on advice for your daily work with agile teams.

Lateral Leadership Keynote at Mind the Product Engage 2018

In this talk I gave at MTP Engage 2018 in Hamburg, I share advice on how product people can lever lateral leadership for managing agile teams. Lateral leadership describes the art of efficiently influencing others around you without formal authority.
It is essential for succeeding in the implicit leadership position product managers find themselves in. 

‘Leading Agile Teams when you’re not the Boss’ Webinar

‘Leading Agile Teams when you’re not the Boss’ Webinar with Jeff Gothelf
In this webinar with Jeff Gothelf of Sense & Respond Press I share my tips to maintain a leadership position in agile environments, where everybody operates on eye-level:

  1. A simple trick to recognize your actual lateral leadership environment and responsibilities.
  2. How to bond with peers without stepping on their toes.
  3. A framework which provides autonomy for domain experts while keeping lateral leaders in touch with results.

What is a lateral leader?

As a lateral leader, you're responsible for the results produced by a team without formal authority over the team members. Let that inform your way of influencing (and ultimately leading) them.
Which means that you can't rely on hierarchical management tactics like command & control or disciplinary measures but have to work at the intersection of alignment and empathy.

Why Lateral Leadership matters

Agile requires a radically different approach to leadership, one that puts business, design, and engineering at equal levels-where they must work as peers.

This situation creates a challenge for team leaders. Agile leadership requires teams to align with a committed vision and support it in the best possible way. And even though agile leaders lack the expert knowledge of their new peers, they have to succeed with their mission without the traditional safety net of hierarchical power.

This sort of change is the result of agile methodologies spreading beyond the product and technology context. As individuals and departments adopt the benefits and underlying principles of agile methods, this, in turn, gives rise to entirely agile organizations.

Leading teams within these organizations without traditional hierarchical systems is called lateral leadership. It’s the most impactful way of leading agile teams and will become crucial to success in future business environments and ways of working.

To understand why product managers are lateral leaders instead of hierarchical leaders, I want to emphasize how companies around product managers are usually structured:

Even though (SCRUM) teams are intended to work as a unit by itself, the team members taking care of engineering and design are most often only ‘led’ by the product owner within the construct of a development team. Every team member has other people managers who are overseeing the respective departments across multiple development teams and sometimes even business units.

What that means is that your team needs to accept you as the one who defined what is done, but someone else is responsible for the how. And that’s where the point of lateral leadership comes in. While the heads of department have managerial tools to lead people (even though that should be the exception), you have to convince your team members to follow you without administrative ‘superpowers.’

Quite the contrary, key factors for achieving lateral leadership are furthermore things like:

  • Strong and explicit communication
  • A clear vision
  • Empathy
  • Passion
  • Trust

There’s an excellent book by Daniel Pink called ‘To sell is Human.’ In it, Pink even refers to this skill as the ability to “move” people from one mindset to another. Successful product people need to spend time and effort on these ‘moving’ activities, bringing everyone together around a shared understanding of the customer or business problem. So that ultimately, everyone can be involved in helping solve it to further the business goals.

Sounds familiar? Good, then you recognized the pattern of alignment. Closing the loop on the fundamental challenge the product owner faced, a likely reason for a development team not accepting a task is the lack of context. More precisely the meaning around why this task matters in the grander scheme of things and how it’s execution moves the needle.

The Three Cornerstones of Conflict in Lateral Leadership

When I took over my first ‘grown-up’ development team as a Product Manager, it wasn’t clear to me that I was expected to lead them. Furthermore, I saw us as one happy cohesive collective of agile-minded people.

While this is not necessarily a wrong perspective, I heard and noticed about some of the developers seeking guidance with their tech lead during our first sprints. Apparently, they looked more to him than to me for the direction we were headed. And to be totally honest: So was I.

Especially product managers are often put in implicit leadership roles when they get asked to fill the ‘classic’ product owner role within agile teams. Lacking the comfortable safety of hierarchical power, they are tasked with leading a team of domain experts to meaningful outcomes.

But experts like software developers or product designers usually only tend to accept leaders which surpass them in domain knowledge and skills. This is why they directly report to a dedicated team lead from within their domain in addition to being part of an agile team which is led by the product manager.

When one tries to understand the craft and challenges of peers in agile teams, the most significant mistake is to step into their playing field. When you try to build-up practical knowledge about wireframing or deployment pipelines, the chances are high that you also start to intervene in the day-to-day business of your colleagues. The ‘perfect’ foundation for receiving more push-back instead of becoming part of the conversation while being respected as a leader.