Challenges in managing product management

Being a product manager – and leading other PMs – are two very different positions

During the last year I had the opportunity to act as interim vP Product management at Profoto in Stockholm.

The CEO of the company has a very clear message to his vPs. “You have two positions – managing your team (of PMs), but also to be a part of the Executive management group”. I’d like to spend some lines on each of these roles starting with the Executive one.

Being an Executive

The vP of PM often has the smallest team in the management group. Very often both Development, Sales and Operations would be considerably larger. 

When it comes to responsibility for setting the strategic direction however – the vPPM indeed is the undisputable heavyweight champion. You will often have a better understanding of long term market development than the vP of sales. From your contacts to partners and other Ecosystem players you might even have a better grasp of technology than the head of R&D.

One of the reasons product management is becoming more and more important is the fast moving industries. There is no way the CEO can find time to dig deep enough creating necessary insights to set the directions for the future. A successful CEO will be putting a lot of trust into the hands of the director of product management.

The Line Manager Role

The other role is the line management function. There would be hiring and firing, coaching individuals, approving time sheets and travel reports. The administrative part of a Head of Product Management is often a minor task. Still, any new regulation or company wide activity will require your attention. It could be relocation to new premises, new rules for handling IT-systems or introduction of new employees.

I’d say that the key challenge however is the coaching of managers, who lack own authority. During my early time at Ericsson I attended a training class called “Leading without authority” – primarily targeting project managers.

In my career I had several positions managing line managers. There IS a difference being a manager for Product managers. We want the individual product managers to act as “mini-CEOs” for their product. To take the lead to guide their products to success.

In many ways the life of a line manager or project manager is more straightforward compared to the PM.  A line manager is setting salaries and would have the authority to take decisions on his/her own. The project manager often has full authority within his own project. The product manager will have to lead by other means. By showing deep understanding of markets and product opportunities. By connecting and visualizing how single requirements prioritization decisions are guided by corporate and product strategies. Leading by being a product evangelist – not only within the company but also in your entire Ecosystem. The PM is the master of networking management.

Another difficulty in PM teams is the relatively small number of staff. In R&D departments for comparison you can often find specialists taking care of eg. development tools. If you want to introduce a product planning tool you’d have to rely on the enthusiasm of an individual PM taking of additional tasks “on the side”. PM is the only function in the company with strong daily interfaces with both management, development, operations/sourcing and sales & marketing.

Depending on size – the head of product management will also have to act as owner of the product portfolio. Aligning individual product charters with the overall company offerings.

There are numerous methods for optimizing portfolios – we have collected a few of them in a white paper: 5 steps to Product Portfolio Success

If managing product managers is your challenge I strongly recommend you to read also this white paper about organizational designPlease leave a comment below with your own experience in the field. 

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About Erik Bjernulf, Profoto

Erik has extensive experience in product management, business management and development. Within the software, electronics and hardware, Erik has pursued commercial success.

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