Guest post: Help CEOs see the value of product management

Anton Reut writes...

When I read Steve’s ebook, Product Management Expertise, on the four types of product management skills, I thought to myself (and tweeted) “this is a good framework for CEOs (without product management experience) to evaluate product leaders.” By talking to CEOs, reading blogs, and following product management topics on social media, evaluating product managers is a big challenge for most companies (right behind hiring them). This is especially difficult in companies that have only a few product managers.

I’m sure this isn’t a surprise—most non-product managers have a hard time articulating what product management does, much less a way of evaluating it. In their defense, it’s often easier to see signs of success (or failure) in other parts of the organization:

Engineering/project management— “Are we making dates?” “Are the launches high quality with few bugs?” Marketing— “Are we increasing leads/customers/traffic?” Sales— “Is revenue increasing?” “Are we closing deals?” Customer Service— “Are we handling calls/emails/chats?” “Are wait/response times decreasing etc?”

We all have a stake in helping organizations develop evaluation methods for our discipline and it wouldn’t hurt if they were easy to “see”—the more tangible the better.

So using Steve’s framework as a jumping-off point, what should a CEO “see” if a product manager is succeeding?

Technology Expertise

From Product Management Expertise: “Technology expertise is about how the product works. From their daily interactions, product managers pick up a deep understanding of product and technical capabilities; they achieve this by playing with the product, by discussing it with customers and developers, by reading and reading and reading. For a technology expert, the product almost becomes their personal hobby. They think of themselves as product experts.”

In my experience, a product manager’s relationship with the development team can hinge on the product manager understanding how the product is/will be built. If a product manager has a strong technical understanding, they are less likely to make “painful” requests and take the team down rabbit holes.

What the CEO “sees”: —Positive feedback from team leads on product manager performance —Smoother, on-time release cycles —Engaged (not grumpy) engineers

Market Expertise

“Market expertise is a focus on geographic or vertical markets, either by country or by industry. They know how business is done in that market. They know the major players, and the jargon or colloquialisms of the market. Market experts define themselves by the market they serve: “I’m a banker” or “I support BRIC.”

A product manager's grasp of the dynamics that make up a market (customers, suppliers, partners, logistics, purchase cycles) tends to manifest itself in the product choices they make which, unfortunately, aren’t always the obvious optics we’re hoping for. One way for a CEO to evaluate market expertise is to have the product manager explain product choices in the context of the overall market. Having the product manager break down a competitor’s product/feature set and tie them back to market specifics is also a great way to measure a product manager’s expertise.

What the CEO “sees”: - Product choices mapped to market knowledge - Competitive breakdown

Domain Expertise

“Domain expertise is about the discipline your product supports, such as security, fraud detection, or education. Domain experts know (and often define) the standards for the discipline and can explain the latest thinking in that area. They understand the problems that your product endeavors to solve, regardless of the market or industry. And for a domain expert, your product is merely one way of addressing the problems of their specialty. Domain experts define themselves not by the product but by their topic area.”

This can be tricky to differentiate between market expertise so I distilled it down to ”Is the product manager a thought leader?” From this vantage point, evaluating expertise has two components—internal activities and external activities. Internally, much like demonstrating market expertise, CEOs need to evaluate a product manager’s ability to evangelize within the organization. Externally, I would expect to see a product manager as a thought leader at conferences and meetups, on social media, and writing blog posts and white papers.

What the CEO “sees”: - product manager leading internal discussions furthering the organization’s collective knowledge - Public activity within the industry and social platforms

Business Expertise

“Business expertise is where your traditional business leader or MBA graduate brings strength. These experts know the mechanics of business and can apply that knowledge to your product. A business-oriented expert knows how to use research to determine product feasibility, can determine how the product generates profit with lots of financial analysis to back it up. Ideally these business skills need to be combined with one of the other skills or provided as a support role for the other areas of expertise.”

Product managers without an MBA or a business background often struggle with incorporating this type of thinking into their strategy. Product managers who can lead financial reviews of their products performance (and the competitions), understand pricing strategies (ecommerce product pricing, subscriptions vs one-time, freemium vs premium) and speak to a product’s profitability are exhibiting this expertise.

What the CEO “sees”: - Product managers leading financial reviews - Deep understanding of product pricing strategies - Speaks the language of P&L

Next steps

The easier we make it for managers to evaluate our performance the clearer our value-add will be to the organization. In the end, product managers will always be judged on product outcomes but it’s our duty to help our bosses see our expertise in practice everyday.

About the author

Anton Reut started building ecommerce and media sites in the mid-90s (yikes!) including founding, launching and most recently as VP, Product & Mobile at US Auto Parts. When he isn't writing about product management, he is consulting for startups, large corporations and everything in between in Los Angeles. Learn more at