Leading Product Managers

Throughout my career I have always been involved with product management in one way or another. I also have had various roles in leadership, but in my current role as VP of Growth at Trustpilot it’s my first time combining the two, leading product managers.

Leading product managers and not being the product manager myself is quite different. Going from being the product expert to driving independence and success for other product managers require a shift of mindset. Many people have written about the “simple” responsibilities of CEO’s. The CEO have to make sure that there is money in the bank account and hire and fire the management group, simple as that. It’s a bit the same as a leader of product managers. My responsibility is pretty simple:

1. Make sure my Product Managers have clear goals that will make them and the company a success

Goal setting is probably one of the biggest tasks as a leader of product managers. We run our organisation on OKRs and have implemented many of the concepts from Radical Focus with great success, but the framework is the simplest part of goal setting in a 500 people company with 7 offices spread over 3 continents.

When setting a goal for a team, I want metrics that have significant impact on our company’s overall goals and that doesn’t dictate a solution. Neither I, nor anybody else in senior leadership, know any solutions to our business problems. It’s up for the product manager to discover the solution that delivers on the goal. Defining the goal is done in collaboration with the rest of the management team and the product manager herself.

The goal should always be defined so the product manager has a high chance of success. My personal goal everyday is to make my PMs successful, no matter what it takes. Sometimes you need to direct the PM in a way that they don’t agree with, keep them within a context or push them out of their comfort zone to help them become successful, that’s where leading product managers get really hard.

2. Make sure my Product Managers are independent, but help them navigate the organization

Product managers need to be independent. They are the CEO of the product. I am not the biggest fan of that saying, but they need the freedom of a CEO where you as their boss act as the “board of directors”. The Product Manger is the one to set the overall strategy of the product, but you are the one to approve it, question it, challenge it and then when it’s awesome help the product manager evangelize it in the organisation.

You need to help convince your peers in the management group, you need to talk about it in front of teams in other offices etc. You need to be evangelizing it to everybody alongside the product manager.

If the product manager meets resistance in the organisation it’s yours responsibility to help the product manager understand “why. Is the product wrong? Are the stakeholders resisting it wrong?, What we can learn? Tweak? — Help the PM out, you have more “power” in the organisation, but you need to use it wisely.

When the product manager sets the strategy it’s important that you are a part of defining it. You are overall responsible for the holistic product strategy and all your PM’s need to be aligned in the best possible way and the product needs to move in one shared direction. To do this without dictating a specific solution is a hard balance to find, go a search for it.

3. Hire, fire and developing Product Managers

As it is the CEOs responsibility is to hire and fire the management team, it’s your responsibility to hire and fire the product management team. I have not hired many product managers yet, and fired none, but I use a lot of my time on making sure that our team works, that individuals develop themselves and scouting for the next talent we need to hire for our teams.

I put a lot of effort into my team, it’s one of the places where I am also learning the most. It’s hard, and you will need help. I am lucky to have an awesome management team around me (thanks Sabina, Ole and Lars) and we use each other a lot to talk about individuals, candidates and development plans.

A product manager needs to have an octopus of skills, and needs to be able to do almost everything without being a subject expert of anything. Because of the wide skillset required to be a Product Manager the time you need to manage a Product Manager is higher than any other type of employees. It’s often underinvested in because of the independency expected from Product Managers.

You need to invest in developing your product managers.

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