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Brad Allen

Absent-minded, but always learning.

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Challenging launches. Product supply visibility. Prioritizing design reviews, market feedback, the project burn rate, and developing compelling value propositions. For recent MBAs, the role of the Product Manager can be very attractive – the opportunity to think about a product’s success from end to end, and (if successful) the excitement of seeing users appreciating in and engaging with your hard work.

Another reason for this buzz is the variation and uncertainty between companies as to what “Product” represents. PM roles change based on company needs, culture, size, and even values. PMs may come into a company with a “Product Manager” title, but find themselves doing more complimentary roles that are generally defined as a “Program Manager”, “Project Coordinator”, or “Product Marketing Manager.”

Having had these discussions with colleagues and having been a part of the Product Management function for two companies, I have seen how misaligned expectations for responsibilities can create winners and losers – for both the organization and an individual’s career progress. I decided to research if there were any patterns that highlight how “Product” is successfully grown within a company, and how the function evolves as an organization scales.

Throughout Fall 2014, I conducted interviews to learn about the PM function at 11 different US technology companies. The full sample needed to represent a breadth of sizes and growth stages (our sample has current sizes from ~30 to ~1,000) and meet 2 of 3 criteria: have an analytic or “data product” capability, have a hardware component and team, and have the primary value delivered through software. The interviewee needed to have direct experience with their organization’s “Product” activities.

In having these conversations, three key considerations emerged for how to balance Product success and Product Manager expectations:

  • Is there a practical framework for thinking about Product Management (PM) talent? (Answer, yes.)
  • How might a CEO or HR executive think about matching PM talent to a company’s needs?
  • How can a Product Manager enter a new organization and quickly establish effectiveness?

This article will explore the first question here; the second and third question can be found in separate posts.

Not all Product Management (PM) roles and PMs are created equal.

In these conversations, I found that, generally, the perception of the Product Managers’ responsibilities to fell into one of two buckets, which I define as “Lightweight PMs” and “Heavyweight PMs.” These PM roles, though amorphous, can be best understood with regard to the positions they typically substitute or complement – that is, whose responsibilities the PM will replace and whose responsibilities the PM will support. Considering this, we will provide a short definition of what type of talent fits into each role, and whether one can easily migrate throughout the matrix.

The Product Management matrix.

Lightweight PMs

A “Lightweight” Product Manager is early in their career – with 3-5 years of experience. They will likely have some technical experience and are looking for a high-growth opportunity with broad exposure to their organization. At the same time, their relative lack of experience may prevent these PMs from fully owning initiatives and executing without high-touch oversight from management.

Lightweight PMs will take many of the routinized and executory functions from the senior leadership, allowing for the senior leadership to dedicate a greater amount of time to strategic initiatives. These PMs will act as a Project Coordinator/Program Manager and ensure that all teams (e.g., legal, finance, engineering, sale, operations) are working to a synchronized timeline. Depending on their background, they will likely also perform some of the less-strategic functions of a Brand Manager or a Technical Product Manager.

These roles can be found in entry-level roles at large organizations (for example, Google’s Associate Product Manager (APM) program) or, surprisingly, in early-stage startups. In early stage startups, much of the risk in the business model is associated with the company’s first product. This risk will be owned and managed by the CEO. As a result, the CEO/Product Manager dynamic and relationship – their trust and comfort with one another – will dictate the kind of responsibility and ownership held by the PM.

Heavyweight PMs

A “heavyweight” Product Manager has the full responsibility for a product or product line’s P&L: revenue and customer engagement down to the supply chain and BOM costs. These PMs are more experienced: Product Management consultant Rich Mironov (GSB ’85) analyzed 40+ US technology PM roles and found that 76% of companies expected previous product management experience, with an average of 3+ years.

As a substitute to a CEO for the product, Heavyweight PMs allow the senior leadership to step back and focus on identifying new profit streams in the business and how to further extend the established relationships businesses have with their customers. For “innovation businesses”, this could involve building a stronger technical pipeline and expanding R&D activities, managing the “talent pipeline” and hiring process, or mitigating broader sources of risk to the business.

Heavyweight PMs will generally enter more established companies (mid-sized or multi-vertical), at a point by which the CEO is comfortable handing off that level of responsibility and risk. In growing companies (moving from small- to mid-sized), the first Heavyweight PM role may come from outside the company. As this skill set is differentiated from the Lightweight role defined earlier, there is some risk in promoting Lightweight PMs – direct promotion may be better suited for companies with more diversified business risk.

Can one make the jump from Lightweight to Heavyweight?

Since the Product function is specific to companies and has little, if any, direct line management, “Product Manager effectiveness” occurs when a PM proves their worth and establishes trust in the organization. This makes it incredibly difficult for PMs to transition from Lightweight to Heavyweight roles within the organization – it requires a LW PM to be perceived as capable of performing a very different job. The most likely path is to find a position within an established organization, gain a few years of experience, and move into a more senior role at a smaller company.

For those who are not willing to wait, and want that steeper, first-time “Heavyweight” Product Managers position earlier – it is challenging, but possible, to find these roles. One strategy, which has been employed by many pre- and post-GSB graduates, is to focus on new product development (NPD) or “special operations” positions.

Some companies are very effective in institutionalizing and communicating their NPD efforts. One tech company we spoke with, for example, has a mentality of “core vs. bold” bets. The company will take 80% of the resources towards the core business, and then spread the remaining 20% of resources between four “high potential” opportunities. One successful path is to manage one of these opportunities and yoke career growth to the success of the idea. Product Managers in these roles have the opportunity to focus on strategy, execution, and resource management, without having to focus externally to acquiring talent and capital. Other companies have made use of a management style called “schedule-based agile.” In the aerospace industry, a “schedule” is set for different iterations and developments of the hardware. By modifying this plan to incorporate a fluid SW development process, companies could marry functions and development teams that generally work to very different timelines – and by setting hard, coordinated dates for the teams to work on, the process gave more autonomy and professional opportunity to the software development team in the process.

“Special Operations” roles can be large company-wide projects that touch multiple functions (eg, Supply Chain Optimization, Engineering Finance & ECOs, or Design Reviews) or they could be SWAT teams that incubate small ideas, similar to a “pre-NPD” process. An energy startup we spoke with creates a team to explore opportunities and continually improve the efficiency of the product – building internal tools for team productivity or thinking about how to redesign the product’s backend. However, it is important to consider that these type of roles form organically between the leadership and high performing/high potential individuals.