In my last article (Product Management vs. Product Marketing) I discussed why product management is very different from product marketing, and how critical it is to have capable product managers. The note seemed to strike a chord in that a record number of you wrote to express your agreement and the need to educate companies about this issue. However, quite a few managers of product management mailed me to say that while they agreed, they had inherited an organization where many of the people with “product manager” titles were really product marketing people with all the problems I described, and they were struggling to correct the situation.

So I thought now would be a good time to discuss the role and responsibilities of those that manage product managers.

Typically this is a Director of Product Management, but in larger companies you’ll also find Group Product Managers and/or increasingly, a VP of Product Management. In any case, this job is among the most important positions in any high-tech company. Few positions will have more impact to the future success of the company than the head of product management. A successful product can literally redefine the course of the business. Yet a few failed products can sink a company. As a result, this job is characterized by massive success, massive failure, and little in between.

These people have two essential responsibilities. First, they must build a strong team of product managers. Second, they are responsible for the company’s overall product strategy, and the various products in the company’s portfolio. I’ll discuss each of these responsibilities in turn.

– Building The Product Management Team

It is the primary job of every manager to build and develop the capabilities of his team, but this is especially crucial for this role because of the high impact nature of the product management position. An inadequate product manager is nearly certain to result in wasted product cycles, frustrated users, and lost customers. For many positions in the company, the truth is that you can often get away with sub-par employees because there are others to pick up the slack. Given that most products just have a single product manager, there is rarely the situation where another product manager can cover. Your only real hope is that someone else on the product team, like a lead engineer, steps up to do what’s necessary.

So if you find yourself managing a team of product managers where some are not up to the task, then you have to correct the situation. There are certainly some people that will never be successful product managers. They are in so far over their heads that no amount of training or coaching is going to change that. However, I’ve found that for many of our product managers, you can in fact significantly improve their performance. I don’t want this to sound self-serving since it is no secret that I spend a good deal of my time helping companies develop the skills of their product managers, but one way or another the manager does need to get his team up to speed.

I argue that every new product manager needs roughly three months of hard learning before they should be entrusted with the responsibility of guiding a product. During this time, the new product manager needs to immerse himself with target users and customers, educate himself on the relevant technologies, and study the market and competitive landscape. The manager should be facilitating and overseeing this time. Note that this already assumes the product manager understands the actual skills and responsibilities of a product manager. These three months apply even with experienced product managers. They still need to learn about your customers and your domain.

When you hire a new product manager to the team, establish a program so that the new product manager can get the exposure to users and technologies that he needs. For those product managers that you already have and are already in the midst of managing their products, if they’re not up to the task, then you will want to make sure that they start a program like this in parallel with their other responsibilities. But make sure they understand their need to get up to speed.

And of course if you determine that the product manager is unable or unwilling to do what is necessary, it is your job as manger to find someone that is. To anyone that has ever had to do this, you know this is no fun. But this is the reason for your higher pay, and you owe it to the rest of your team and your company to correct the situation. Do everything you can to help the person find a job they can succeed at, but in any case you must get people in place that can do the job that is necessary.

Once you are convinced that the members of your team are capable of success and properly equipped to succeed, then you will need to let these people do their job. If you micro-manage your product managers they will not step up and take ownership the way you need them to. If you can’t trust your product managers, you need to find product managers you can trust. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask questions and be constantly available to help; you absolutely should. But if you empower strong people I promise you that you’ll be amazed at what they can do.

Note that we first made sure we had strong people before we empowered them.

If you empower people that aren’t capable, you are essentially abdicating your responsibility as manager. If you micro-manage people that are not capable, you are essentially doing their job.

I have written elsewhere (How’s Your Manager Rate?) about what makes a good manager so I won’t repeat that here, other that to say that every good manager knows that the best way to look good is for the members of his team to look good. As such, always hire people that you believe are smarter than yourself, and then do everything you can to help them succeed.

– Defining The Company’s Product Strategy

Nobody is more responsible of more accountable for the suite of products a company offers than the head of the product management organization. This person needs to decide what products are are pursued, and review closely the strategy and execution for each product.

The head of product management must have a deep and current understanding of the company’s business strategy, so that he can ensure that the product strategy directly supports the business strategy. He also takes the leadership role in defining the product vision and working with the product managers on his team to deliver on this vision. The product principles (see The Product Manifesto) are typically established by the full product management team, but the head of product management leads this effort and ensures that the products adhere to these principles as much as possible.

Even with the best team of product managers all doing an outstanding job you will still have cross product conflicts as each product manager works to optimize his product, and the head of product management must work to identify and resolve these cross-product issues.

Similarly, the head of product management is responsible for the portfolio roadmap – looking overall at the many product releases that are planned and considering the business needs and the customer impact.

Finally, the head of product management will need to manage the executive relationships. It is essential that all of the key players in the company, including and especially the CEO, have a good and trusting relationship with the head of product management. The whole company depends on this person, and he must be open and transparent with his decisions and reasoning, accessible and approachable by all. He must be receptive to new ideas from any source, but also respected enough that he can push back when appropriate on conflicting or vacillating priorities.

As you can see, this is an extremely demanding job, but great product companies have great people in this role, and it is not a coincidence.

Note that important contributions to this topic came from Ben Horowitz, CEO of Opsware, recently acquired by HP, and one of the best VP’s of Product Management i’ve ever known. And now hopefully Ben can return HP to its former glory.

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