Are Product Managers Really Happy?

Kirsten Schierholt

Kirsten Schierholt
Marketing Operations Analyst at ProductPlan

Product management roles offer opportunities for autonomy, creativity, and innovation. Variety is the spice of life; therefore, this should result in job satisfaction. Not many jobs feature those aspects so prominently. But how happy are product managers with product management today?

We surveyed more than 2,500 product managers for our 2020 product management report. We found many interesting insights, but two particularly relevant to this blog. What makes product managers happy at work, and what’s the most frustrating to them.

The Good, the Bad, and the Necessary

No job is perfect. Every position has points of frustration and agitation. Hopefully, outweighed by joy and fulfillment.

Product management is no exception. Let’s examine what causes product managers explicitly to experience happiness and frustration.

Product managers are happy at work (for the most part)

In general, product managers are happy at work and satisfied with their current position, rating their happiness at 3.8 on a 5-point scale. More significantly, only 9% of respondents ranked their happiness a “1” or “2,” indicating that very few product managers are unhappy.

And this happiness isn’t limited to their current work of the moment or specific role. Looking into the future, 92% of product managers are happy and want to stick with the field in their next job as well.

Examining the entire data set, we found correlations between happiness and everything from the focus of their organization’s success metrics, to time spent in the role, to limitations in people management. In short, there’s no magic formula for happiness in product management — the people who choose this career generally just like it.

There are some things they don’t like about it

Obviously, every day isn’t sunshine and roses. Product managers certainly have aspects of the job that they’re not huge fans of.

Internal politics took the top spot when it comes to sources of unhappiness. 28% of respondents rating this the worst part of their job running a close second was having to work on reactive tasks versus a proactive strategy at 25%. Lack of resources charted at 21%.

Rounding out our list of least favorite aspects of the job was the emotionally taxing nature of the job (14%), overwhelming time constraints (7%), and having very little people management authority (7%).Read our new report Product Managers in 2020 for insights on product managers ➜

Settings Make a Difference

The survey also found some key differences between product management in an enterprise environment and small-to-medium-sized businesses (SMBs).

The day-to-day life of a product manager in each of these surroundings have pretty stark disparities, as well as plenty of overlap. Delving into how these two cohorts vary can help product managers decide which setting might be preferable.

A Day in the Life of an SMB Product Manager

For this survey, SMBs are organizations with fewer than 1,000 employees. That spans everything from bootstrapped start-ups to established businesses. These product managers reported slightly higher rates of happiness in their roles (3.85).

In SMBs, 38% of them reported directly to the CEO. Being so close to the head of the company has innumerable benefits.

It gives product managers exposure and visibility to the CEO, along with an unfiltered view of what’s happening at the executive level. This structure typically means more autonomy, as CEOs seldom have time to micromanage their direct reports.

They’re likely also participating in management meetings. That means they’re helping set corporate strategy instead of just executing it. However, that strategy is more likely to change, given the size and maturity of the company.

Unsurprisingly, their least favorite part of the job is having to work on reactive tasks versus a proactive strategy (25%). Putting out fires and placating angry customers is particularly annoying when you’re so close to the high-level strategy.

Plus, smaller companies, by their nature, end up in crisis mode more often. They can’t afford to lose large accounts, and their testing and quality control is typically not as thorough and polished.

Their biggest challenge is setting roadmap priorities without having the desired amount of customer or market feedback (27%). This challenge might be because the company is still in start-up mode and doesn’t have a broad enough customer base. It could also stem from limited staffing and resources for market research and customer feedback channel development.

These PMs are typically reprioritizing their backlog weekly (35%) and plan out their roadmaps for the next 12 months (30%). Like their enterprise brethren, business-oriented metrics are the primary measure of success (32.7%).

A Day in the Life of an Enterprise Product Manager

At larger enterprises, product managers are slightly less happy in their current roles (3.79). This tiny dip in happiness ties to the inherent nature of working in a company with so many employees.

Their least favorite part of the job is internal politics (36%), and their biggest challenge is getting consensus on product direction (26%), which requires an extensive set of communication skills. These are both symptomatic of the frustrations one faces when trying to build consensus among stakeholders with many competing priorities.

Large companies are far more likely to have multiple products, divisions, and lines of business. They are all competing for resources, attention, and accolades. Getting everyone to pay attention and agree gets much harder when everyone’s focus isn’t on the same things.

Another key difference in enterprise organizations is that product managers aren’t as likely to report to the CEO. The most common direct manager for PMs is the Chief Product Office (31%). Being further removed from the chief executive can make the job more challenging on multiple fronts, but in larger organizations, it’s expected. Thriving in a cross-functional team can be a real difference-maker.

Enterprise PMs also tend to reprioritize their backlogs weekly (32%) and typically build roadmaps for the next year (36%). Business-oriented metrics are the most common measure of product success (35.6%).

It Keeps Getting Better

It’s great to hear that product managers are, across the board, generally happy with their roles — but it turns out things improve with age. The happiest cohort were those with 10+ experience as product managers.

This data makes sense for a few reasons. If people hated the job, they were likely to change careers before doing it for a decade. Additionally, after doing it that long you’ve probably mastered the necessary skills, developed a lot of shortcuts, and built up an arsenal of tools to rely upon.

And when problems do arise, it’s likely not the first time you’ve seen something similar. Leveraging previous experience lowers the stress and makes it easier to find a solution.

Finally, veteran product managers know what they like and what they don’t like. That means they can be a little more selective when choosing a company or specific opportunity to be sure it aligns with their preferences.

Room for Improvement

There are always areas that could make being a product manager even better. Hopefully, we’ll see some of these come to fruition in the future. The most popular wish for the future is a clearer purpose and company strategy (37%), which makes the job easier.

But there are some more specific opportunities to find more happiness in the role. For example, while business-oriented metrics are the most popular measure of success, product managers prefer customer-oriented metrics or product metrics.

These may not directly tie to revenue and corporate goals. But they’re more reflective of how the product itself is delivering on its value proposition.

Product managers also aren’t maximizing their happiness when it comes to prioritization. Hopefully, more will explore the plethora of available prioritization frameworks and find ones more efficient and enjoyable to work with.

Learn about what makes a product manager a product leader. Download the Free Product Leadership Book