Your first days... as the head of product management

Take time to work on the business, not just in the business.—Richard Rhodes


Do you lead a new product management team? Where should you begin?

In The Earth is Flat, Thomas Friedman expressed his view of the government’s primary role: to provide infrastructure. Make it easy to start a business, protect our persons and property from harm, provide ways to get products from point a to point b (ie., roads), and enable information transfer (such as phones and internet).

What is the role of senior leadership, particularly the head of product management? Isn’t it the same? To provide infrastructure.

In my experience, decisions are being made at all the wrong levels of most organizations. Executive teams are dabbling in product and portfolio prioritization while product managers are trying to determine (or guess) the product strategy. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

The product manager is expected to represent the business of the product so your dev teams can make technical decisions. At the start of a project, the product manager (or product owner or product leader) should express the strategic direction, the roadmap, and the business issues. But what seems to happen in real life is product teams make decisions in the absence of any meaningful insights from management about the product and portfolio direction.

What should you tackle in your role of VP of product management?

Think infrastructure.

Optimize your processes. What processes do you have in place to turn ideas into products? And how do new products get to the market? Fundamentally, product management needs repeatable processes to define and launch new product capabilities. Development teams have adopted agile methods to optimize their delivery of new products. Shouldn’t you do the same?

Clarify roles and responsibilities. What is the product manager’s role? How about product owner and product marketing manager? Do they have different responsibilities? Just as you need optimized processes, you need clarity on the roles and responsibilities of product management. Profiling your team will identify where individuals need help as well as skill areas for future staffing decisions. For instance, if you’re strong in technical expertise, maybe you need to staff up for business expertise. 

Identify up-skilling requirements. Identify the strengths and weaknesses on your team and develop a plan to bring each employee up to speed. HR professionals often recommend allocating 3% of an employee’s annual compensation for training and coaching.

Improve internal perceptions. How do other departments perceive your team? If their perceptions aren’t favorable it’s often because they have expectations that are out of sync with yours. While many departments expect product management to provide product and domain expertise, most leadership teams rely on product management for business and market expertise.

* * *

In my experience organizations are unclear about the roles and responsibilities and titles of product management. Some product managers are technical; some aren’t. Every product manager uses different templates, tools they’ve found or developed or brought back from training sessions, each with a different look and feel.

As an product management executive, you want a common set of methods so you don’t have to “learn” each deliverable every time. Clarifying responsibilities, processes and deliverables are the first steps to optimizing product management. 

See Rich Mironov's "What We Need in a VP of Product Management" for a different take on the success profile of a product management leader.

How to prep your team for an annual review

In my first job out of college, I was a programmer in Fort Worth. The job was challenging but not very clearly defined so it took me a while to find a good working scenario. By the end of my first year, I knew what I was doing but I wasn’t too thrilled with it. At my annual review, my boss said, “I don’t think you should continue working here.” (YIKES!) But then he added, “I’d like you to interview with a friend of mine in Dallas.” He looked at my skills and performance, and realized that I would be better suited as a sales engineer than as a programmer. Now that’s a manager!

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the annual performance review is a required event at many companies. Many on your team see the annual performance review as a healthy discussion about their careers. Or else face them with dread, fearing you’ll have nothing helpful to say.

They also think you spend a lot more time on these reviews than you probably do. From their standpoint, you hold their career in your hands. They don’t realize that you have to do one of these damn things for every person on your staff and the work is more annoying than anything else.

From “Invasion of the Annual Reviews” by Phyllis Korkki

The annual performance evaluation is “this weird form you fill out every year that has nothing to do with everyday life,” said Robert Sutton, a professor and organizational psychologist at Stanford and co-author of the forthcoming book “Scaling Up Excellence.” Sutton is wary of rankings and yearly evaluations in general. Many organizations, he said, would be better off if they provided continuous feedback, with formal evaluations coming into play mainly if a worker is being eyed for promotion or has shown substandard performance.

Your people should value your feedback. Good or bad, knowing where they stand can only be helpful.

Start with current status. Do you have a product status dashboard or score card? You should have a one-page summary of the state of every product your team manages. (If not, see mine here). Could you use a similar approach for your team’s accomplishments? Whether by person or by product, a summary cheat-sheet is a helpful tool to get you prepared for your evaluations.

Get a success memo. I suppose in an ideal world we’d keep a log of all the good and bad things employees did throughout the year but I certainly never have. As managers, we tend to have short-term memory; we can probably only remember the last thing an employee did, or perhaps the last bad thing an employee did. We surely don’t remember some of their successes from six months ago. So ask them for a “success” memo. Get your folks to write a list of accomplishments: the projects they worked on, their product deliverables, their goals achieved. You’ll likely be surprised at some of the things they tell you about—things you’ve long ago forgotten but were really big at the time.

Discuss growth and stretch goals. In your face-to-face discussion, talk about their career plans and help identify specific activities to help them achieve their goals. One product manager wanted to better understand the mechanics of trade shows so putting that item on their next year objectives made sense. Another wanted a closer relationship with sales people so we discussed good and bad approaches for working with the sales team.

Discuss how to move to the next step in the career ladder. There’s an old rule of management that you need to be grooming your replacement if you ever want to be promoted yourself. Your existing team members are likely the best candidates to take over your job. Discuss where your employees want to be in the next few years and give them specific tips on how to get there. I used to ask my team to write next year’s resume and then we’d work this year to make it become true. In fact, a current resume is a pretty good tool for discussing where your team members’ pasts and potential futures.

Share your own challenges. Be sure to take some time to solicit help and advice from your product managers. It’s always easier to see things from the outside and you may be amazed what observations they have that you’re too close to see. After all, you hired your people to help you solve business problems; let them help you solve your business problems!


As a manager, you owe it to your employees to give them career counseling. But don’t do all the data gathering yourself. Use existing information or get your employees to pull the raw data together. Then use your management skills and career experience to analyze the data so you can provide specific recommendations. Your team will appreciate that you cared enough to prepare a meaningful assessment.

Inspiration: Apply people where their skills and talent can really shine

Apply people where their skills and talent can really shine. That's what management is all about.—Tom DeMarco. Everyone has the ability to succeed. And some of your people aren’t doing what they should.

I’ve known sales people who hate selling but that’s what they were trained to do. I’ve talked with product managers and product owners who didn’t like working with engineers and developers. I have friends who’ve been doing the same job for 20 years and can’t stand it.

Everyone has talent and many of us need help identifying that talent.

That’s what parents and teachers and managers were supposed to do.

Have career discussions with each member of your team before making organization changes. Obviously, you want the right people in the right place—where they can succeed professionally as well as personally. But it’s definitely worth asking the folks on your team what they like doing and where they want to grow. Don’t just move them around based solely on what they are currently doing.

We often look outside to find new sets of skills but there are many in your organization today who have the skills you need on your team. You just need to take the time to find them and groom them for these new roles.

I know it takes time. Talent management is one part of managing that often gets neglected when you’re doing all the other aspects of your job. When so many managers today are busy with other work, they often neglect the people management aspects of their jobs.

Being a manager of people means helping them identify their talents and their aspirations. Build professional development plans to help them achieve their goals. And you’ll be doing yourself a favor: you’ll be creating the team you need to move the organization to the next level.

Inspiration: Strategy without tactics...

sun-tzu_225Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.—Sun Tzu, philosopher, author, The Art of War “Strategy.”

What a word.

If I say “these activities are tactical,” people responsible for those activities get upset. If I say, “this is strategic,” people relax and feel better about themselves.

There’s a sense that strategic is somehow better than tactical.

I ran a meeting about roles and responsibilities and one of the team members said, “Okay, I admit it: I’m tactical—and I like it. I like supporting sales people; I like doing demos. And what’s wrong with that?”

Indeed. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Strategy, objectives, mission, vision—these terms get bandied about without real clarity on what they actually mean.

From "The management framework that propelled LinkedIn to a $20 billion company":

“Vision is the dream,” says Weiner. “A company’s true north. It’s what inspires everyone day in and day out.  It’s what you constantly need to be aspiring to.”  He defines LinkedIn’s vision as “Creating economic opportunity for every professional,” where ‘professional’ refers to every single one of the over 3.3 billion people in the global workforce. The mission, on the other hand, defines how the company strives to fulfill that vision. Read more

I think of strategy as a filter. Strategy provides guidance on whether we should do a thing or not do it. It is how we know to say “no” to many things and say “yes” to just a few.

Do we want to build something that looks good or is actually good? Is feature set more important than quality? Are we focused on getting new customers or retaining old ones? Do we want be a big player in a small segment or be a small player in a big market?

Every day people at all levels of your organization make decisions. A strategic vision ensures that they make the right decisions that align with the company goals. It’s important. Because without a strategic vision, people make decisions that align with their personal goals.

Next steps: Define a strategic vision that includes what you want to achieve and also what you don’t care to achieve; who you are and who you are not. Share it with your teams so you can all align around a common goal.

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