Transitioning from Managing Products to Head of Product Management

Considering the leap from being a product manager to head of product management, but not sure what’s involved in managing product managers? You’re smart to look into this. The responsibilities of product leadership and the skills required are very different from those of a product manager.

Managing product managers can be an exciting and rewarding career. But before we jump into the details, here’s one key point that might change your perspective.

Managing others doesn’t have to be the next step in your product management career

As product management consultant Joni Hoadley says: you can define your own product management career path. You don’t have to climb the ladder and go from junior product manager to product manager, to senior product manager, to director or VP of product (unless you want to).

What if managing products inspires you? What if you enjoy problem-solving and working with developers? If so, you might want to continue as an individual product manager rather than trying to move up the department ladder. As a head of product, you will give up many aspects of your role to focus on other things.

So, we’ll start by reminding you that moving up on the company org chart isn’t always the right strategy for everyone. To get a sense of what’s best for your career, let’s discuss these roles and how they differ.

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Product manager vs. head of product management

Which would you rather manage: products or people? Your answer should give you an idea about whether you’d rather be a product manager or a product leader. To further clarify what it takes to manage product managers well, let’s break down the differences between the product management role and that of, say, a director of product management.

The product manager’s role:

Product managers perform a strategic role in their companies. They drive product development and are responsible for their products’ successes and failures.

Product managers advocate for their products with executives and other stakeholders. They communicate their product’s strategy to relevant teams such as development and sales. And they set priorities based on market research and other factors.

A head of product or other person who is a product management manager, by contrast, oversees the entire product organization.

The head of product management’s role:

This is a strategic and people-management function that involves:

  • Building a high-performance product management team.
  • Mentoring new and junior product managers and helping them succeed.
  • Defining and communicating the company’s product strategy.
  • Serving as a liaison between the product team and the company’s stakeholders.
  • Managing resources across the product team ensures all product managers and products have what they need.
  • Helping product managers stay focused on their strategic priorities and not get pulled into distractions

You might have noticed something missing from the above list. The head of product doesn’t have to know all details of every product in the company’s portfolio. Instead, they have to build a process that ensures the company’s product managers can give their products the strategic attention they need.

The key difference between the head of product management and product managers

As product management expert Rich Mironov puts it, “Rather than being super PMs, [PM directors] worry about the process of product management: building launch teams, balancing staff assignments, standardizing reporting, fostering cross-functional cooperation, setting product-line-level strategy and resource allocation. Directors encourage risk-taking and dismantle organizational roadblocks. They keep the trains running and the products flowing. A good director makes product-level decisions only to settle disputes or demonstrate technique.”

Another important aspect of the product team manager’s role is defining and overseeing the company’s overall product strategy.

As Marty Cagan explains, the head of the product management organization decides what products are pursued. That means this person needs a thorough understanding of the company’s business strategy to ensure the product strategy directly supports that business strategy.

What does managing a product team entail?

In his 1954 book, The Practice of Management, Peter Drucker suggested managers serve five important functions. These functions help managers accomplish their primary objective: making people more productive. According to Drucker, these functions are:

  1. Set objectives and establish goals
  2. Organize tasks and execution
  3. Motivate and communicate
  4. Measure results and progress toward goals
  5. Develop people

Now let’s break down each of these functions and look at how they apply to managing product managers.

1. Set objectives and establish goals for your product managers.

Product managers often find themselves distracted by requests and demands from many sources. This is more likely when the team doesn’t have a clear set of strategic goals and objectives to guide them.

To be an effective product leader, you must set specific goals and targets for each product manager. This will help keep your team on track and make it easier for them, when necessary, to say no to a request.

2. Organize tasks and execution.

As the head of your product team, you will enjoy a vantage point no individual product manager has. You’ll see the bigger picture, for example, in terms of company resources available across all products. You’ll also have a unique insight into where some skills and development work on one suite of products might benefit another. Because they are so focused on their own products, your individual product managers might not see these opportunities.

You should use this unique view to coordinate tasks, resources, and deadlines to help the company achieve its business goals.

3. Motivate and communicate.

According to Rich Mironov, product management directors “focus on people issues: coaxing cooperation, aligning incentives, mentoring, cooling down egos. They relentlessly present product strategy and roadmaps to other departments to boost understanding of what [product management] does.”

You’ll need to build strong communication among your product team, keep them motivated, and break down barriers between your department and the rest of the company.

4. Measure results and progress toward goals.

A product leader also needs to assess the team’s progress and whether they are succeeding.

As the head of the product team, you must track your product team’s progress and meet with them to review the results. The metrics you set can involve deadlines, development work, budget, or other objectives.

5. Develop successful product managers.

One of the most important parts of your job as a product leader will be to help your product managers become successful.

For newer product managers, this means mentoring and teaching them what you know. For seasoned product managers, it means clearing a path to do their best work and staying out of their way so they can perform.

As a product leader, you should put a significant amount of time and energy into this aspect of your job. Helping product managers succeed is an awesome responsibility. It’s also rewarding if you do it right.

As Product Manager HQ’s puts it, “One of the biggest gifts I’ve received in my life is product mentorship.”

The product leader role is not a product management position

Transitioning from an individual contributor product management role to one where you’re managing product managers can be a rewarding step in your career path. But this transition means saying goodbye to many of the product-specific aspects of your job as a product manager.

Rather than focusing on products, you’ll be overseeing people. Instead of learning all about one user persona, you’ll look for opportunities to share information across the entire team. And you’ll also be responsible for helping your product managers succeed—both at your company and throughout their careers.

We hope our suggestions in this article are useful in helping you succeed if you choose to take that step.

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