Making the Transition from Product Manager to Product Portfolio Manager

Think being a product manager requires a lot of strategic thinking and long-term planning? You’re right. But you’ll need to tap into even greater strategic superpowers to make the transition from managing one product to product portfolio management.

In this post, we’ll explain the differences between being a product manager and a product portfolio manager. You’ll hear from a software PM who made the leap to managing a portfolio of products. Then we will discuss some skills you’ll need to become a successful portfolio product manager.

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Product Management and Product Portfolio Management: What’s the Difference?

Product portfolio management is the practice of strategically overseeing all of the products in a business’s portfolio.

A product manager (PM) is responsible for the outcome of a specific product (and in some cases, more than one product). A portfolio product manager has much broader strategic responsibilities. For example, the portfolio manager must ensure consistency among products and deliverables across the portfolio. They also need to prioritize the resources for each area according to its contribution to the portfolio.

This is why, as the PM community, explains, “product portfolio management is about managing multiple projects or products and is more concerned with managing shared resources—including budgets and teams or facilities.”

The portfolio manager is also responsible for telling a broader solution story to the market. They explain not only what each product offers but also the combined value proposition of the entire product suite.

Another important distinction between these roles involves the personas each PM targets. For a B2B software company, for example, the single-product PM might focus on end-users and their managers. A portfolio manager will focus instead on a much higher-level buyer persona, such as a C-level executive.

The Adobe Creative Suite Example

Think about design software maker Adobe. The company probably has several product managers responsible for its Photoshop tools. Those PMs focus on creating value for a specific set of user personas, such as graphic designers and artists.

Now let’s assume Adobe also has a portfolio product manager for its entire Creative Suite. That person has a much broader focus. They oversee a wide range of tools that serve photographers, artists, filmmakers, web designers, illustrators, and other creative professionals.

A product portfolio manager for Adobe’s Creative Suite might have responsibilities that include:

  • Making sure all individual software tools in the suite have a consistent interface, look-and-feel, and overall user and product experience.
  • Making sure all tools in the suite offer distinct functionality and value propositions, and that none of these tools is too similar to another.
  • You are ensuring compatibility and integration across all tools in the suite.
  • You are working with the marketing and sales teams to deliver a compelling story to the market about the portfolio’s overall value proposition.
  • It is managing priorities to bring the right level of attention and budget to the projects that will have the most significant impact on the portfolio.

What Does the Transition from PM to Portfolio PM Look Like?

ProductPlan sat down recently with software PM Carey Caulfied. Carey worked for years with software maker Citrix and stayed on when the company merged with LogMeIn.

Carey has worked as a principal product manager for large technology products such as GoToMeeting, GoToWebinar and GoToTraining. She also has experience as a product portfolio manager. Here are a few of her insights about making the transition from single-product PM to managing a portfolio.

“As a portfolio manager, you’ll be working with more architects at a higher level, who are also overlooking the entire suite.

The transition can be challenging in the sense that you don’t have your hands in the day-to-day progress [as you did when managing just one product]. You’re working through others, through teams, and focusing on the big goals for the year for the entire suite.

You also have to become a lot more cross-functional. When you’re responsible for an entire portfolio, you’ll be spending your time with engineering, sales, marketing, retention. And you’ll need to keep your focus at a much higher level because you won’t have the time to delve into the tactical details.

Another big difference when transitioning to a portfolio manager is that now your focus isn’t so much on surfacing specific market needs and voids and figuring out how your individual products can meet those needs. Your product managers will be bringing those insights and opportunities to you; that’s their job. Your role now is figuring out how to prioritize your portfolio’s resources—where to put your team’s limited time, attention, people, and money.

What I’ve also found unique to the portfolio-manager role is that we think about selling the entire suite of products, usually to an IT buyer or exec. That sale requires a different strategy, a different type of story than selling an individual product to an end-user at that company.”

What Skills Should You Develop to Become a Successful Portfolio Product Manager?

Carey also told us what she believes are the most essential skills required of a portfolio product manager. Here is her short-list of the traits you’ll need to make this transition:

1. Outstanding communication skills.

“You’ll have to work with so many different people, across so many departments in your company. That means you’ll need to be great at communicating with different groups, each in the way they understand and process information.”

2. Great listening skills.

“You’re going to need to understand what your product managers are telling you about their products. Why are they suggesting this functionality should be prioritized (or deprioritized)? Why did they develop their product roadmap in that way? What ‘Jobs Need to Get Done’?”

3. Ability to prioritize, take a high-level view, and adjust when needed.

“A big part of this role is setting and tracking broad business goals for the portfolio as a whole. That means you need to be able to make adjustments to your big strategic plans at any time—for example, shifting focus from a poor-performing product or area to one that shows more promise. You need to become somewhat product-agnostic and move your resources to where they can do the most good for your market and your company.”

Why Every Organization Should Use the Product Portfolio Management Strategy

1. It encourages ideas.

Take a more comprehensive view of the solutions your company can offer. As opposed to specific products you can build, help your team come up with more ideas to solve problems for your market.

2. It helps the team share learnings.

The product portfolio manager can unite the organization’s individual product managers and other teams. When an idea or product anywhere in the company succeeds or fails, that portfolio manager can help distribute those valuable learnings to everyone, so the entire company benefits from this new business intelligence.

3. It helps the company manage resources more effectively.

Because they monitor the status of all products, portfolio product managers have a better view of the company’s overall project prioritization than any individual product manager. They will also have a better sense of objectivity about a given product’s contribution to the whole than that product’s PM might have. This allows a portfolio manager to guide resources accordingly—for example, to move developers and budget away from declining products and toward products in the growth stage.

4.  There’s opportunity for a higher value deal size.

Companies want to consolidate on tools. If your company brings a suite of solutions to the table, you might be perfect fit for a prospect. Additionally, once they determine that you meet their company needs and ideal business outcomes, they’re likely to invest more time and money with you.

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