Over the course of my career I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside some really good product managers. The good ones tend to be easy to spot even though many don’t like attention cast on them and are quite content being behind the scenes. Like the conductor, they’re focused on keeping the trains going on time. The “trains” in this case are the products or services a company offers. There is a cadence to product management done right and the frequency they operate under is tuned into by the entire organization. Think of Max Weinberg, Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band drummer. It’s said that drummers are the heart and soul of bands. While Springsteen was clearly “The Boss”, Weinberg set the beat and always had his eyes constantly fixated on Springsteen during live performances and could make adjustments in a microsecond that allowed the band to be at its best.
One of the major challenges I see for small and medium size companies is the transition to hiring professional product management. The founders, including the CEO, have filled the role since the company was conceived. And the problem is that as the company scales, the CEO and other members of the executive team should be leveraging the contribution of others to manage the product portfolio because they no longer have the capacity, but they are slow in making this change. It becomes increasingly difficult to manage the company and its products. Consequently, the company’s ability to scale is handicapped. Why do CEOs let this happen? I don’t think that it’s an intentional act to slow down growth. These are generally very capable and motivated people. I think it has to do more about where they’ve come from. Many are operationally focused and had their hands on the very first product. It’s what they’re really good at. The products are their children. But scaling the company often requires both new skills and work schedule time allocations of the CEO. More time externally focused and less time with the design teams. They need to leverage teams to execute their vision. This means trust and hiring the right people.
What are the things that product managers should be responsible for? They are the product owners. They own the product from cradle-to-grave. They work hard to understand customer use cases and key pain points plaguing customers (those with money desperately wanting those problems to be solved) and derive product ideas with sound positioning that explains how that product will solve those problems better than competitors. They partner with the designers, acting as that voice-of-the customer to come up with the specifications that meet time to market and profitability goals. This is so much more than simply doing what customer’s ask for. It’s listening for and observing, the real, or soon to be real bottlenecks plaguing customers and playing them back to customers, in their language. They work with marketing to launch it, with operations to forecast materials required, with finance on pricing and financial projections, with sales on key questions to ask customers that surfaces pain, and with service and customer success to both prep service level expectations and assure successful customer onboarding. They own the roadmaps for a number of products and choreograph multiple introductions and eventual phase out of products. And throughout this process, they have clear goals and metrics to judge success and make course corrections as needed. As CEOs scale their companies from small to medium sized companies, they should be thinking about when is the right time to instill a professional product management structure.
What are the signs that have suggested to me that it might be time to make this transition? There are several that immediately come to mind:
- There is no product ownership in the organization. While the CEO and his founding team may have been the owners, they simply can’t keep up. At this stage logic often goes out the window and there are multiple cooks in the kitchen. The roadmap becomes messy and there are frequent changes, often resulting from the last customer a sales person talked to. Launches aren’t well thought out and the sales team complains that they aren’t aimed adequately to sell. A frequent symptom is when the sales team starts selling what’s not on the truck. When I take on new clients I frequently ask for the names of product owners are and what that role means in their organization.
- Customer Confusion. When customers express concern about the products and associated messaging coming out a company, it’s a serious warning sign. Especially if the product and messaging don’t align with their business problems. When I start to see a fall off in customers or lack of acquiring new ones, it’s a sign to look deeper. Really well run product companies have their product management team in the field regularly talking with customers and influencers. Sales teams love solid product managers. It constitutes a great reason to call and opens up new opportunities. There are early warning signs that can be spotted and corrected early when staying close to your customer base. If companies are too late, significant share shift, especially in technology can happen. And it can happen in weeks. One of the things that I always strived for was for customers to express genuine interest in my company’s product roadmap and have them internalize that it as theirs too. It spoke to their problems and incorporated their high value problem input into new releases. It’s about striving to continuously be on the same page. It’s also about conversations and commitments that can be documented in CRM that guide the sales process.
- Being out of position. When new products are launched companies should obviously have in mind how the product is positioned both in the mind of the customer and relative to obvious competitors and not so obvious substitutes. While many companies accomplish this at initial launch, many don’t keep a careful out for changes and don’t see them until its too late. Could be new technology that changed how customers do things, could be a new competitor that was a bit more creative and effective in positioning their product against yours, or it could even be new legislation or regulations that intentionally or unintentionally obsoletes your product overnight. It becomes exacerbated as a company’s product portfolio grows. Great product mangers watch for these things and are quick, whenever possible, to find a workaround.
A CEO might be wondering if they can really afford to hire professional product managers. It need not be a wholesale change out overnight. Perhaps starting with the most strategic products first. And each CEO has to ask himself, what could be gained with respect to new revenue and could that pay for the right talent, or alternatively, question by not making strategic product management hires, what they could stand to lose with respect to revenue. And it’s not only the revenue contribution; it’s also all of the organization costs for every function that might be otherwise focused on the wrong thing. Having really good product owners is an essential component to growth. CEOs need more Max Weinbergs.