Product Management Leader

Perhaps your VP of Products has decided to join a hot startup or you just realized that it’s time for your product management group to have its own seat at the leadership table. Regardless of the circumstance, you find yourself in need of a product management leader.

You can picture who you want to step into this role:

  • someone in sync with the company vision and goals
  • an effective leader who will focus the product management team
  • someone who can earn the respect of development
  • a professional who really gets product management
  • they know it is also a market facing role and won’t let the team get bogged down in countless meetings

So how do you get from here to there? Should you hire or “grow” your next product management leader?

Of course the answer to this question is… “it depends!”  It’s possible to succeed or fail spectacularly down either path. The key word is “your.” What’s the right choice for your organization, for achieving your company’s objectives, and for you personally?

So if either path can lead to success or failure, let’s pull from the experience of others to improve your chances.

When hiring product management leader from the outside works well

Who this option is for: In my observation, the companies that have successfully hired and integrated product management leaders from the outside often have some or all of the following characteristics:

  • high-growth mode
  • product management experience is light within the existing team
  • product vision that needs work
  • high level of domain experience

How they did it: You have no doubt heard that we should be “slow to hire and quick to fire.” That may be true, but the “slow to hire” part doesn’t work if, once she is all signed up, you let your new leader fall flat on her face without sufficient support.

The organizations that have succeeded in transforming a new hire into the product leader they wanted have thorough onboarding processes.  They take the time to bring the new person up to speed on the products, the market, the team, and the objectives. Furthermore, they develop a simple but thorough feedback loop so everyone knows what’s working and what needs adjustment.

If you are choosing to hire from the outside precisely because you need someone to establish a professional product management practice within your company, that’s fine. But make sure you work with that knight in shining armor vs. fold your arms and wait for magic to happen.

When “growing” a product management leader from within is the way to go

Who this option is for: One of the most rewarding acts is to promote a team member to a leadership position. He appreciates the recognition and opportunity, you get to keep his institutional knowledge, and others in the organization notice that hard work is rewarded.

All these advantages don’t come without risks. Other executives may seize the opportunity to treat the “green” peer as they always have. Even worse, he might be happy to defer to others who were previously senior to him.

The organizations that are successful in promoting from within the product group are typically:

  • experiencing predictable and steady growth
  • in a complex or unique market segment
  • using product management best practices
  • clear about their market and product strategy

How they did it successfully: Believe it or not, the key to this option is very similar to hiring from the outside. The organizations that effectively promote product leaders from within incorporate a form of “on-boarding” into their advancement program.

New leaders need help understanding their fresh roles and responsibilities. Old habits need to fall away. A mentoring program for new executives works really well. It doesn’t need to be elaborate, but something formal is best. You may want to send them to an outside training bootcamp to bring their skills up to snuff.

Orienting the rest of your executive team

Whether the role is filled from the outside or through internal promotion, your existing executives need “on-boarding” as well. Make sure they understand how they should interact with your new leader. If this is a new role for your company, some of them may feel threatened. Now is not the time to give into political pressure that will handcuff product management or impede progress toward objectives.

If an incumbent leader is having trouble adapting, it will create alignment and territorial issues down the road.