What is a Product Manager?

Knowing What You Want is the First Step to Getting It

Despite several strong and eager candidates, there is no governing body for Product Management standards, or even broad agreement on the role of the job, other than ‘overall success of the product’.  This often leaves a great deal of uncertainty in what companies are looking for in a product manager, and can result in significant misalignment of resources and expectations.

Across a broad spectrum are numerous Product Management roles that may bear the moniker “product manager” but which require very different skills and experience in order to succeed:

'Product Management' Role  Accountable To Background Responsibility  Defend P/L By 
Product Revenue Manager CRO Sales with Strong Communication Revenue

Sales Training;
Directly Selling

Technical Product Manager CTO Engineering with Strong Project Management Functionality Personally Make Technical Changes
Product Marketing Manager CMO Marketing Client/Product Alignment Better Client / Market Interaction
Product Strategy Manager CEO Product Management and Cross-Functional Skills
Successful Full Product Life Cycle
Coordinate with all Stakeholders

In the absence of authoritative product management standards, none of these definitions is right or wrong, but each represent different needs from and benefits of the product management professional:

The Product Revenue Manager

Any person who owns a product is responsible for its profit and loss (P/L).  The key determinant is whether sales numbers represent the Product Manager's direct or indirect KPI.  When direct, top-line revenue is the most important metric, a sales-focused Product Manager can be most effective.  Examining the action that must be taken to protect revenues can be very revealing:

  • If the product response to P/L issues is to directly go out and sell product, you are dealing with a product revenue management function, and it requires a very different skills from other product management roles -- product revenue management is a sales position.
  • Other product roles will address P/L issues by changing the product or the way it is communicated.

The Technical Product Manager

This role focuses on aspects of the product at a level of detail that is beyond what users see and experience.  Prospective employers often do a good job of identifying these roles (requiring an engineering degree, programming experience, etc.), but not necessarily of differentiating how Technical Product Management differs from other product management activities within the organization (assuming the firm also employs non-technical product managers).  Organizations with a strong technical focus may assign all product management functions to Engineering, with "Program Manager" or similar titles assigned to those filling the client and market-facing product management role (this approach yields varying degrees of success).

The Product Marketing Manager

This role often has the most difficult distinction with Product Management.  Where the Product Manager typically controls what the product is, the Product Marketing Manager frequently governs how the features and benefits are communicated to clients and the market, whether and how specific user needs are being met, and the overall effectiveness of sales and marketing activities.

The Product Strategy Manager

The most critical role of the Product Office is to define both what the product is and needs to be at the high level, but also why, and to apply these factors for the long-term success of the organization.  Because of the critical nature of Product Strategy, this role is often filled by the CEO or executive team directly.  Mature organizations assign a Chief Privacy Officer to drive product strategy and overall success of the product portfolio.

Numerous roles may ewar the "product management" badge; the more clearly we differentiate product strategy and management from other company roles, the more likely we are to get the right people in each position with clear objectives and the tools they need to win.

The Chief Monday 07 January 2013 - 08:00 am | | Analysis