What’s in a name? The different shades of Product Manager.

Posted by Maziar Adl on 11/1/21 7:00 AM
Maziar Adl
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Product leaders as revenue growth drivers

shades-of-project-manager

Product Management plays a key role inside companies driven by their products; it’s instrumental for organizational growth and strategic market advantages. 

The expectation for this function is to propel innovation inside the company and, most often, the more immediate market the company operates in. 

To innovate and make an impact in the market, Product Management has to be adept at the highest strategic levels. Functionally, this involves orchestrating the lifecycle of existing products, conducting often complex customer research studies to get input directly from the market, and then extracting insights that are meaningful and actionable. 

While Product Management is arguably the most strategic arm of an organization, it’s interesting to note that it often does not have a seat at the C-Suite table. Typically, the highest Product function stops with the VP of Product (read the details below). 

Life inside Product Management

Naturally, there will be sometimes significant differences in the way this team functions and scope of responsibilities. Many factors drive these differences, including company size, industry and nature of the product, company culture, and how advanced processes and technologies are at the specific firm. Yet, a strong common thread lies at the nucleus of the Product Management function: unsurprisingly, it’s the product. 

Here are the common product-related activities that make up the Product Management core:

  • Following through with product opportunities within current markets
  • Expanding into new markets
  • Reaching new audiences with existing products
  • Coming up with incremental improvements to products
  • Creating brand new products that provide competitive advantage, or even introduce new product categories into the world

All this takes quite a bit of strategic know-how and training. 

On top of the raw strategy and analysis that essentially set the company on a specific path, Product Management sets requirements for Product Development, and is the driving force to ensure the rest of the organization is briefed on the market opportunity with a chance to contribute to the conversations and development. For all this, Product Management must have subject matter expertise on its customers (pain, wants and needs), market segments, competitive products, features and specs, as well as working knowledge of how each of the other functional areas play into the product development process.  

A Product Manager’s everyday

According to Wikipedia, “...product managers own the business strategy behind a product (both physical and digital products), specify its functional requirements, and generally manage the launch of features. They coordinate work done by many other functions (like software engineers, data scientists, and product designers) and are ultimately responsible for the business success of the product.[1][2]]”  

Let’s break that down. 

On the surface, it’s pretty simple. A Product Manager is often called the “CEO of Product,” implying full governance over the birth, life, and death of their company’s produced goods. But that is not necessarily the case. 

Many organizations will face either an absence of Product Management leadership at the executive level or a fierce power struggle for who should really be deciding what the company will develop next. While other areas, such as Engineering, Industrial Design, Sales, Marketing and even Manufacturing, will all have strong opinions about what the company should develop, none can claim to be the true expert in knowing what customers really want; it’s not their primary role. 

However, it absolutely is a focal responsibility for the Product Manager. 

Product Manager vs. Product Line Manager vs. Product Portfolio Manager

Terminology can vary, depending on industry but especially company size. Inside large enterprises, there are likely teams of each title and even additional related roles. A Product Manager is often used interchangeably with Product Line Manager, especially inside smaller companies. However, there are distinct differences. 

A Product Manager typically governs over one or more products that may or may not be related. In larger organizations, e.g., Ford Motor Company, Apple, Mattel, there are even more than one Product Manager per a single product. At smaller manufacturers and other product-driven companies, a single Product Manager could indeed be responsible for the majority of the company’s products. 

While a Product Manager oversees one or more products that don’t have to be related, a Product Line Manager oversees multiple products that are related to one another. 

And there are important differences between a Product Manager and a Product Portfolio Manager, too.

Product Portfolio Managers are often viewed as the next career step for a Product Manager; they quarterback a group of Product Managers who are each responsible for individual products. Product Portfolio Managers set the strategic direction for the portfolio as a whole—ensuring that collectively, the products contribute to moving broader organizational objectives forward. Product Portfolio Managers are also responsible for expansion into new/adjacent markets. It stands to reason, then, that a product line broad and complex enough inside a large organization would warrant the Product Portfolio Manager roleand even have multiple managers responsible for a single product; at smaller companies, the roles may be held by a single person, or the Product Portfolio Manager role may not exist at all. 

What Product Managers care about

There are many factors professionals in these roles strive for on a daily basis, all of which show commitment to advancing the company’s vision and serving customers:

  • Meeting or exceeding customer expectations
  • Innovation that makes an impact 
  • Differentiated product 
  • Speed to market 
  • Setting the right strategy for growth 
  • Planning for the future 
  • Customer experience and retention
  • Managing their existing product line(s).

Vice President (VP) of Product Management

As mentioned above, some organizations won’t have a dedicated senior-level Product Management role. For those that do, it’s generally at the VP level. This person spearheads the product management process for the entire organization (enterprise brands may be different) and leads the product planning and development expectations from initial product ideation to the final product. The VP of Product Management ensures that new or improved products meet customer needs first and foremost, as well as keeping an eye on the brand standards.

Organizationally, this role typically reports to the CEO and oversees the Product Managers, user experience (UEx) designers, and sometimes the project managers as well. This role is peers with the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), CMO or VP of Marketing, VP of Manufacturing, Chief Operations Officer (COO), Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) and VP of Product Development or Engineering. 

As smaller organizations grow and the product team expands, it’s common to elevate the Product Manager with category expertise into the VP of Product role. Whereas a Product Manager is responsible for collaborating with different functional areas to introduce the product into the market, it’s the job of the VP to make sure the whole company understands the vision for the product and its impact goals for the company, as well as the customers and marketplace; communicating, getting support for, and reinforcing the strategic direction are key functions of the Product VP.  

Vice President of Product Management vs. Vice President of Product Marketing 

The VP of Product role sometimes gets confused with the Vice President (VP) of Product Marketing. Looking at the prototypical “4Ps of Marketing,” (Product, Place, Price, Promotion), it’s easy to understand why the lines get blurred. However, functionally, they are quite different. The VP of Product governs the overall product planning and management—what products will actually be put into the marketplace; whereas the VP of Product Marketing is responsible for creating and implementing the promotion strategy for that product. The confusion often lies in the overlaps. While product leadership is firmly responsible for Product, and product marketing leadership is firmly responsible for Promotion, both typically have a say in Place and Price. Product leadership owns the geography of where the product will be launched, whereas product marketing will decide which channels, or where (Place), the product will be promoted. As for the Price, that’s also typically driven by Product, but with input from different functional areas within the company (e.g., Finance, Sales), as well as Marketing. Marketing has its own set of customer insights from different MarTech tools, research, and customer feedback, making Marketing an important stakeholder in setting product pricing. 

A key takeaway: it matters less what the exact title of the position is. What’s key is how an individual role fits into the organization and contributes to company growth and meeting customer needs—all of which should ultimately lead to advancement and creativity in the more immediate as well as the broader markets.  

Topics: product portfolio management, product management, product strategy

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