Becoming a product leader is simpler than you might think.
If you have ever had to explain what you do as a product manager to people you work with, you are in good company. Most product managers find this necessary. Further, the role means different things in different organizations. The leaders of your organization may have a perspective of the role that is not really accurate, or as I have seen more often, they don’t understand the leverage the role provides them.
In this discussion, we explore what organizational leaders need to understand about the role of product manager. But, we don’t stop there as product managers also need to have a clear understanding of the needs of the organization.
This discussion will help you better talk to the leaders of your company about your role and to understand your very important role more deeply.
To discuss the topic, I invited Kirsten Butzow to join us. She is a product veteran, serving as VP Product Management at Person and Blackboard and has held other product roles. Now she is a product coach for Pragmatic Marketing.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[5:09] What are some of the pain points you encounter most frequently when working with organizations?
One of the primary challenges we hear is that people have too many things to get done — too many features and too many products we’re trying to put into the marketplace. There are not clearly defined allocations of responsibility and accountability. It’s a byproduct of the fact that product management is still in its infancy. We are still trying to figure out the right formula and how to prioritize all the things that need to be done.
[12:19] Have you seen changes in the role of product manager?
When I started my career, technology product mangers were very focused on technology, then they became more business focused. Now we’re seeing more of a focus on user experience and user interface and product managers are getting pulled back into technology a little more deeply. People are expecting them to have a perspective on design. Over time, product managers became product owners too, as organizers adopted agile. I would like to see product managers come back into true leadership positions.
[17:09] What do you want organizational leaders to know about product management?
Organizational leaders need to rationalize all the work that needs to be done. Someone needs to be responsible for understanding the problem that needs to be solved and the people who have that problem. The product leader should be setting the strategy and direction for understanding the what and the who of the problem; the rest of the organization should deal with the how of the design, building, and validation. However, that only works if we give the product leader the clarity and the resources to do it.
[22:40] What should product managers understand about the needs of their organizations?
Product leaders should be business leaders, which means they should have basic financial acumen. As product managers move into engineering roles, they don’t know how to calculate a gross margin or know the difference between fixed and variable expenses. It’s difficult to run a product line with financial goals if you don’t know how to track and analyze those goals. I always encourage MBA students who want to go into product management to take a finance class.
[25:26] Can product managers be effective in cross-functional roles?
There are 37 activities that need to be completed in the Pragmatic Marketing framework. The product manager’s role is to make sure all of them are getting done, but not to personally perform all of them. They should partner with the appropriate people in the organization to get things done efficiently. Product leaders should be leading cross-functional teams that include stakeholders from every part of the organization that has a role in the product’s success. You can think of it like a conductor leading a symphony or even a member of a jazz ensemble. Jazz is about on-the-fly iteration and less sequential feeling, which is similar to how products are developed.
[29:16] What advice do you have for product managers who want to become product leaders?
Elevate yourself, don’t sit around and wait for someone to do it for you. Start conversations with data and gain a deep understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. We like to overthink strategy; the essence is our ability to answer the questions of who we are going to delight and what we are going to build to delight them. Having the answers to those questions will set you up to move into a leadership role.
“Reluctant mutators in quickly changing times are also selected against.” -Carl Sagan
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it on your favorite social network.