© Linda Gorchels (2011)
True or false: Product management is an entry-level position.
False. But there's more to the story. In general, a comprehensive product manager job is not an entry level position. Most have had prior experience in diverse areas. On the other hand, some companies start with an assistant product manager (or product marketing manager) as close to entry-level, allowing the individual to move up to a full or senior position with experience. So there may be significant room for career growth.
Product managers exist in virtually all industries from consumer packaged goods (such as grocery and retail products) to industrial products (such as equipment and components) to services (such as health care and financial offerings). Some product managers emerge from specialized MBA programs (such as the Center for Brand and Product Management in the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), but most product managers transition to the role from positions in engineering, nursing, computer programming and other disciplines. Not surprisingly there are both similarities and differences in the jobs of these varied product managers– and they can all learn from each other.
In working with thousands of product managers over the past two decades, I have repeatedly heard several common areas of inquiry. Here are a few of the typical questions (and an answer in a nutshell). What are the differences between business-to-business and business-to-consumer product managers? (Business products are generally more complicated than consumer products. The more complex the product and purchase process, the more likely a product manager will need a related technical background. In addition, the go-to-market strategy may be different. Both, nevertheless, should start with knowledge of targeted customers.) Aren’t all product managers product developers? (Some companies separate product management into upstream activities focused on development, versus downstream activities focused on marketing and lifecycle management. However, the majority of product managers are responsible for both.) How many products does a "typical" product manager manage? (There is no standard here. I have worked with successful product mangers responsible for one complex product as well as those responsible for hundreds -- or even thousands -- of related SKUs.) How do product managers work? (The vast majority of product managers function in a matrix organization where they have to accomplish their goals and execute their strategies through others. This requires significant skill in communication and influence.) Where do product managers fit in the organization? (Occasionally, product managers report to engineering, product development or even product management. But most product managers still report to a marketing function.)
The product manager’s job is to oversee all aspects of a product or service line to create and deliver superior customer satisfaction while simultaneously providing long-term value for the company. Note the critical implications in this statement. First, product managers have oversight of the product. They need to accomplish their goals through others. Second, the foundation goal is to deliver customer satisfaction—not just a product or set of features. While engineers and designers might have more insights into whether something can be built, product managers should have more market insights into whether it should be built. And finally, this must all be done profitably. Successful product managers need a solid business sense from financial knowledge to forecasting to pricing to operational effectiveness.
There is no ideal profile of a successful product manager. However, several traits, skills, and experiences are frequently identified as related to product management success. Frequently cited traits looked for in product managers include an entrepreneurial attitude, leadership, and self-confidence. Acquired abilities should include organizational, time-management, and communication skills. Sales proficiency and technical competence are also important in many industries. The importance of prior experience depends on the particular needs of the product management position. If highly technical, engineering-oriented knowledge is required, a background in engineering is appropriate. If an understanding of customer applications is desired, a sales background in the industry is appropriate. If knowledge of large-market trends and competitive positioning is important, marketing research and/or advertising experience are desirable.