This is the third of a five-part series I am writing with the aim to help a product aspirant enter the world of Product Management.
In my last post, I wrote about the difference in job roles of a Product Manager at different companies, based on their core competencies. In this post, I will be breaking down the discipline of Product Management into four parts with an aim to help Product Management aspirants understand their career trajectory within a company or in general.
To help you visualise this better, let us assume we are running a hypothetical product like Uber for Air Taxis. The company provides a platform for booking air pods on demand, for users to commute from point A to B. Please note that this article is in context of a Software-based company (booking platform) and not a company that produces physical goods (air pods).
The Product Management Hierarchy in any organization is divided into four essential aspects:
Vision, Strategy, Tactics, and Execution.
The larger the organisation, the more differentiated will be each aspect from the other. In smaller companies, all four might be done by one person, or at the very least, there will be significant overlaps.
Company Hierarchy: CEO > 1 Vice President of Product > 3 Directors > 10 Product Managers > 4 Associate Product Managers
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Taking our example of Uber for Air Taxis, the VP of Product will set the entire vision of the product, including the price at which the service should be provided to customers, the cities to launch this service in, product positioning in the market, making sure the product is not violating any regulations, setting the broad product roadmap, budget allocation through the CEO, etc. Also, the VP will be the final decision maker for every big hiring decision in the Product Management function.
VPs need to plan for the next 3 years or more. VPs of Product don’t make basic product-level decisions, their success criteria are making sure that the ‘product’ and the ‘company’ are aligned and that the product is always fulfilling the business goals.
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Their main job is to represent the company stakeholders’ interest in all products and push the product’s interest to all company stakeholders. It is more of an influencer role. Since the VP is directly reporting to the CEO in this example, the VP might also have a say in the overall company vision (the business) and not just the product vision.
Note: As the company grows, there may be more layers that get added between the CEO and VP. In large companies, there may be multiple VPs who report to a CPO or an Executive SVP or some other fancy title at an Executive level in the company. Hence these VPs have no say in overall company vision. For example, in Amazon, there will be an SVP of Amazon Web Services, an SVP of Amazon Marketplace, an SVP of Amazon Retail, and so on. Each SVP would have a few VPs reporting to him and these VPs will be heads of their respective product lines under the umbrella terms such as ‘Web Services’.
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A strategy is used to translate the vision into an executable plan of action. This part is taken care of by the Director. Usually, the Director of Product Management (depending on company size) would approve the product roadmap with milestones, timelines, and budget constraints, that will be used to decide the entire product management function of the company.
The Director of Product’s main job is to define the function of Product Management within the company and not any individual product. He works on things like staff allocation to different products, resource allocation to different products, ensuring documentation and reporting is happening properly, aiding Product Managers with support from cross-functional teams, resolving disputes between Product teams and making sure everyone is incentivised and motivated, setting up KPIs for individual Product Managers and their products, deciding when to push a product and when to withdraw it from market, etc. Directors set the broader strategy of what next to do and plan for the next 12-18 months.
In our example, the three Directors of Product Management would look after a bunch of product lines, each. Each Director will have 3-4 Product Managers reporting to him. Each Director would make sure that the Product Managers on his team are happy with their work and motivated. The Director would also be the go-to person for all technical problems that the reporting Product Managers are having while managing their product because the Director has already been through all this and can provide guidance.
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Also, the Director would be thorough with the overall market conditions, competitor initiatives, supply/demand forecasting to answer all questions that the Product Managers or VPs might ask.
Note: In most companies, there is a significant overlap between Strategy and Vision. In a small company where Product Managers directly report to the VP, the strategy might be decided completely by the VP.
Tactics are the small maneuvers you make to solve problems that are preventing the execution of strategy. In most companies, this is the role that Product Managers are responsible for.
Product Managers have a lot of independence and ownership as far as making small tactical decisions like adding/removing features going out in the next release, conducting customer surveys, prioritising bugs, etc, are concerned.
In our Uber for Air Taxis example, the Product Manager will write the Product Requirements Document (PRD) for the feature that has been prioritised within the roadmap, and discuss it internally with all the functional teams to make sure everything is covered. He will also give test cases to the testing team and do a proper PRD handover with complete designs to the development team.
The Product Manager will then conduct weekly scrums to make sure that the release is on track. He will also need to make sure that each release is received well by the customers, or else course correct. Each Product Manager is independently responsible for the product or parts of the product that he is managing. Other than making sure that releases go on time, making sure that the right releases are prioritised and proper metrics are tracked is a core part of the Product Manager’s job. Product Managers need to be hands-on where managing mistakes and measuring success/failure of each release is concerned. These metrics for success/failure are approved by the Director or VPs first, and weekly reports are sent to them.
Note: In small companies, Product Managers might be responsible for Tactics as well as Execution, while the VP takes care of Strategy and Vision. However, as the company grows, there are Associate Product Managers (APMs) or Product Analysts reporting to Product Managers, who are heavily involved with daily reports of progress.
Execution involves tracking product metrics on a daily basis, number crunching to derive insights, conducting surveys, talking to customers, looking after customer complaints received on a regular basis, using the product internally or user testing to report bugs, etc.
In a small company, all these things will be done by the Product Manager himself. But as the product grows, there are Analysts or APMs hired who are given specific parts of the product to manage. Analysts and APMs have very less leeway and they are almost always instructed what to do by the Product Manager. They act as the eyes and hands of the Product Manager.
In our example for Uber for Air Taxis, an APM might start his day by looking at all the customer complaints that came up the previous day, summarise them by issue type and count, and then present it to the Product Manager to take action on. He might sit with the Product Manager as he calls a few customers to understand the problem and then the APM might have to do the same thing with more customers to derive data from. Later, the APM might be instructed to send discount coupons on the next ride to all of the customers who faced an issue, etc. If there is nobody who reports to the Product Manager, he will be responsible for all the tasks mentioned in this section.
I hope this post helped you understand how the overall function of Product Management works in any company. In the next few posts, I will try to clear up more doubts that surround this field, that I hope will help you in your career as a Product Manager!
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What is the career path for a product manager?
Product managers, depending on their experience and qualifications, usually start at junior management level in organisations. The role varies slightly from industry to industry, and product managers in IT/ITes and e-commerce companies have additional responsibilities of coordinating updates and releases of newer versions of the products. Product managers are widely in demand today, as more and more organisations move towards digital transformation. Eventually, product managers go on to head products for the organisation or business strategy at a CXO level. Product managers can also start their own business and become CEO by leveraging their experience of managing teams.
Is it possible for a product manager to become the CEO?
It is certainly possible for a product manager to become a CEO. In fact, product managers are often said to be mini-CEOs due to the vast requirements of their role that includes managing cross functional teams, formulating different strategies and driving the business performance of a product. However, the career path one takes has several turns, and not everyone can end up in CEO positions. It takes a lot of dedication, focus, talent, leadership skills and perseverance to be able to reach the top of the corporate ladder, and even more skills to be able to stay there for a long time and make a significant impact.
What is the best career path to get into senior leadership roles early?
The best way would be to start one’s own business, which would make one their own boss. But starting a new business and making it profitable is a long journey, which is often not easy to manage, in today’s competitive and unpredictable environment. Another way would be to obtain an MBA degree from a premier institute and join a startup at a senior leadership role. However, it is strongly advisable for one to get some good work experience managing a company’s core business functions including managing teams to be able to sustain a senior leadership role. The best way to do this is to work as a product manager and then work one’s way up the corporate ladder.