CEOs Don’t Understand the Role of a Product Manager

080908 If you are in a technology company chances are you have at least one person with the title “Product Manager”.  This post is my view on the role of the product manager and why their role is misunderstood, and I’m talking to the CEO.  You are probably frustrated with your product managers because your not quite sure how to measure them and make them accountable for the things you find most important.

The Role of a Product Manager

Product managers are CEOs of their products.  It means that product managers are responsible for the success of their products as it supports the goals of your organization.  For most it’s revenue, market share, and margin.  It is an inbound marketing role.  By inbound I mean product managers are responsible for observing what is happening in their markets and learning what problems are worthy of addressing.
Do your product managers manage their product as a business or are they experts on features?
Your product managers should be experts in the markets their products serve.  They should understand the problems that exists and how their products address those problems.  They should understand the impact those problems have on the people who experience them.  They are messengers of the market. Your product managers are people who must spend a lot more time outside the building than they do now.  Why?  You’re not going get any meaningful information about the market from inside the walls of your building.  Ever.  And you should budget accordingly for product managers to get out of the building.
If you are trying to grow market share, why are you spending so much time talking to the people who have already bought your product?
Product Managers who are not visiting at least 10 visits to non-customers per quarter and documenting their experience are not doing their jobs.  You can start by making this activity part of how you measure them and make them accountable.  This single activity will increase their understanding of the market and their credibility within your organization on an order of magnitude.  If they can’t or are unwilling to get out of the building and call on non-customers you may need to move them into a role other than product management.

Which Group Owns Product Management?

This is a fuzzy question for CEOs.  Product managers will usually reside in Development, Marketing or Product Management.  If you have product managers reporting to Sales, you have it all wrong and need to reset the table.


When product managers are in Development they won’t succeed at being CEOs for their products.  Development is about features, users and schedules, and that is what your product managers will end up doing.

Product Management

When product managers are in Product Management, they have a chance to succeed provided they have the executive leadership to go head-to-head at the executive table.


When product managers are in Marketing they also have a good chance of succeeding.  But let me share a little secret with you.  The marketing VP in your organization probably came from a marketing communications background and doesn’t have a clue about the role of a product manager.  Your marketing VP spends his day worrying about providing support to the sales channels, corporate branding and the design of the new ad campaign.  Product managers in this kind of Marketing environment end up as glorified sales engineers and never have time for product strategy or gaining important market insight.

What’s Best?

You want your product managers to be market driven and whatever group helps that happen most effectively is the right choice.  While I’ve seen product managers thrive in all of the above environments, the least likely is in Development.  My preferences is in Marketing first and then as a stand alone group.

What the Role of a Product Manager Isn’t

Let me share with you what activities your product product manager shouldn’t be doing:
  • Demo Dolly - if you have product managers doing demos, stop that activity today and hire sales engineers.
  • Product designer - that’s a role that belongs in Development not Product Management.  If your Development team lacks product design skills then hire them.
  • A project manager for Development - if your Development team can’t manage their own projects then you have a Development problem, not a Product Management problem.
  • A sales engineer - if Product Managers are going on sales calls you are making them part of the Sales team.  Stop that today and hire sales engineers.
The reason that the role of a product manager is misunderstood is they are expected to do the things no one else wants to do.  Product managers hop around from crisis to crisis filling gaps that exist in your organization.
David Daniels

David Daniels

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