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The Ultimate Guide to Turning Professional Services into Scalable Products

Should I Hire a Product Manager?

 
 
​Earlier in my career, after returning from one of my maternity leaves, I was told that my role had expanded to that of “Product Manager.”   
 
As a “Practice Leader,” I had strong customer voice and product development skills, but now my job was expanding to include product marketing, KPI management (including revenue targets), and long-term product strategy.  I loved the expanded scope; however, although I had an MBA, I never received any formal Product Management training.
 
I was given an article about Product Management to read and I had to figure the role out on the fly. I made it work, but it wasn’t easy. I took a very boot-strap approach: I tacked a copy of Ben Horowtiz's  Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager   [1]  to my bulletin board, and read it every morning. And I took a leap of faith. 
I learned many lessons on what it took to be a good Product Manager. I also learned about the value a good Product Manager can bring to a business. And I always think of this experience when clients start talking about hiring a Product Manager, which happens a lot. “Should I hire a Product Manager?” is the number one question I am asked when business owners or executives find out I started a product management consultancy firm. But, despite my experience, the answer isn’t a straightforward yes or no. 
 
That’s largely because it’s the wrong question to ask.
 
What we really need be asking as we venture out into the world of digital product management and innovation is: “ What skills do we need in our organizations that we don’t currently have?” and " Who can use these skills to launch a marketable product?”

Product Management is a Competency, not a Function or Role
Modern Product Management is not about a particular position. It is a model for how to organize, allocate resources, and successfully bring products to market.
 
Modern Product Management, or what we call “Product Leadership,” is:
  • A way to manage products as “mini-businesses” relying on cross-functional teams;
  • A ‘market first’ approach for developing and enhancing products; and,  
  • Typically using rapid, iterative processes to develop, test, and refine products.
 
Modern Product Management isn’t:
  • a single person’s job;
  • a product development process that happens without strong customer voice; nor,
  • use of a slow-to-market, stage-gated research and development process.
 
While we may need to hire someone with the title of Product Manager (or Head of Product or Chief Product Officer, etc.), this person will own employment of the model which relies on the entire organization to execute. That means that before we pull the trigger on a new hire, we need to build product leadership competencies across the entire organization.  
 
Product Leadership competencies include being able to:
  • identify breakthrough product opportunities (strategy/vision)
  • translate those breakthroughs into a great user experience (design)
  • guide product functionality (development)
  • define how the product shows up in the market and has successful sales (marketing & commercial acumen)
  • ensure that customers, prospects and staff are aware of, trained on, and engaged with the changing product (management)

What Makes a Good Product Manager?
Over the last decade, I have found that the role of a Product Manager varies dramatically depending on the type of product, the maturity of the company, and the skills of the other members of the team.  
 
Mat Belaz, Tech Entrepreneur and Product Leader, nails it with his adept summary of Product Managers:
The role of a PM is, necessarily, murky. It changes wildly from company to company, and even within a company from team to team, and even on a particular team from day to day. It is perhaps the job where the epithet “wears many hats” is most apt. In many respects it is more dark art than science. More improv than script. More struggling-to-stay-afloat than confidently-surfing-a-wave. Anyway, to all young padawan PMs out there, listen up: to be a kick ass Product Manager…you cannot be just one thing. You need to be ALL the things.” [1]
 
Here is what I've found to be almost universally consistent in terms of what product leaders need to be “ ALL the things.” The best Product Managers, no matter what industry you are in, share several core characteristics:
  • empathy:  the number one job of a Product Manager is to be the voice of the customer (even if it's the customer's subconscious or unspoken needs)
  • business acumen: as mentioned earlier, Product Managers lead a “mini-business” within your business; this means they need commercial acumen and an understanding of profitability drivers, the market landscape, etc.
  • tolerance for ambiguity: Product Managers need to be comfortable with ambiguity at every step of the process because product development is a dynamic and iterative process which means there will likely be more questions than answers and more changes than stability
  • awareness: this includes both self-awareness and situational awareness so that Product Managers can 1) avoid projecting their preferences into the process, and 2) curtail any unhealthy conflict among team members  
  • communication skills: really good Product Managers are highly-skilled at both written and verbal communication because they are the information hub for everything product related, including internal and external information sharing
  • ability to execute: this one is simple; without being able to get the job done, quickly make tradeoffs, guide the tasks of a cross-functional team, Product Managers will never get their product to market
  • technical acumen: Product Managers must understand how their products are built
 
This diverse and robust list may seem daunting – as it should be. Being a Product Manager is not for the faint of heart. When we hire a Product Manager, we are essentially hiring a CEO (remember, product development is a mini-business), as well as, a shepherd for our team to guide them in the right direction and a one-person cleaning crew to keep the very messy process in top shape. [2]
 
Don’t Put a Square Peg into a Round Hole
A typical move among organizations I have worked with is, rather than bring in an external hire, who has Product Manager experience, they make an existing technical leader or subject matter expert a Product Manager or Head of Product.  However, just because someone has a strong knowledge of our products or our markets, it does not mean that they will be a great product leader.
 
From the story I shared earlier about my own experience shifting from one role into a Product Manager, I know it can be done. It’s just not always the best approach. I have countless stories of missteps I’ve seen of trying to put a square peg in a round hole, as the adage goes. For example, it may be tempting to make your Chief Technology Officer (CTO) your new Head of Product. Before you do that, look back at the competency list above. How many of the characteristics does your CTO have that are there?  If the answer is only the technical side, your CTO will fail in the role. You have to ensure they have the interpersonal skills, customer empathy, and commercial acumen.

To Be or Not to Be (a.k.a Hire Now or Jump Start with a Consultant?)
The last question we’ll likely come to as we weigh the decision to hire a Product Manager is whether or not we should bring in a consultant first. As the CEO of a product management consulting firm, it would behoove me to give a definitive, “Yes! Hire a consultant today!”.
But it’s not that easy. We have to assess our organizational readiness for Product Management and our capacity to find the right fit for the Product Manager role.
 
The information outlined in this article should give a gauge by which we can weigh the pros and cons. And, of course, our team at Vecteris is happy to talk through the decision with you. Don't hesitate to reach out to see how we can help.


[1]Belaz, M., (2014). Product Manager You Are…a janitor, essentially. Published on Medium.  (Read it here)

[2]ibid.