My last two posts were about getting into product management and the climb to Director. This third post asks how Vice Presidents of Product Management (VP PMs) are different from Directors, why they are so rare, and where else Directors can look for organizational advancement.

Product groups vary widely and are not rationally designed. (Sorry.) So let’s imagine a pure VP PM position generalized from my own tours of duty plus a half-dozen interim/acting VP PM roles.  Your organizational mileage may vary.  IMHO, line product managers fundamentally look after individual products/services: shepherding the short-term development efforts and long-term strategy work to keep a 3-12 month roadmap that’s coherent.  Directors look after the business of product management. They provide some order and structure and process to a chaotic situation, and keep things directionally on track.

consigliereThe VP Product Management functions as senior staff (consigliere) to the rest of the executive team – making sure that the company as a whole is building and shipping and supporting the right products. S/he is the product manager of the organization itself and its internal people-process conflicts. The VP PM should be an honest broker at the executive level who represents product/market/company success rather than any one specific function. Thinking more broadly than Engineering, Marketing, Sales or Support. The one most likely to say “yes, but the right thing for our long-term business and the markets we serve is…”

Which boils down to…

This is not a command position, but an executive-level influencer role. The VP PM shapes how work gets done, rather than making individual product decisions.

Viewed from the executive level…

  • Product Management has a very small staff and budget versus Engineering and Marketing and Sales. This gives the VP PM some implied neutrality in the great budgetary and reorganization battles that tear companies apart. You get to ask “how should we be organized for success?” without being accused of empire building. Ideally, the CEO (or business unit manager) wants your unbiased opinion.
  • You sweat the business’ overall success. Are you missing key segments, or being outflanked by new competitors, or stuck in an old business model? What are the important (cross-product) decisions that will drive longer-term revenue?
  • You live cross-functionally, constantly getting PM-level feedback about individuals and teams. Your ideas for improvements are non-denominational. You’ve built up peer credibility with lots of “Jesse in QA is doing a terrific job” and the occasional “Gordon is creating problems in Marketing that we need to solve.” You understand what each functional group does, praise in public, and privately raise issues with department heads.
  • You know that functional teams naturally think first about their own needs. (“What’s good for Engineering must be good for the company.”) You and your PMs spot inconsistencies among goals, schedules and incentives. Maybe Sales is targeting prospects that don’t fit the current product, or Engineering is stealing Tech Support’s best talent. Marketing’s plan to move all customer emails to a cloud solution will create privacy issues and tons of DBA work. You thoughtfully facilitate executive-level conflicts, often identified by your Directors and line PMs.
  • You’re part of the Corporate Strategy team (if it exists), since you know these often lack detailed, real-world customer input and the urgency of current-quarter sales quotas. You bring in your line PMs as subject matter experts to reduce buzz-word bloat. Your try to keep strategy relevant.

In other words, you’re working broad structural and human issues in order to enable delivery of great products.  Business focus trumping personal politics.

Yes, But I’m a Director Right Now

If I’ve described what you’re already doing at the director level, you’re due for a promotion. (Forward this post to your boss…)  Otherwise, consider the shape of your current organization:

  • ladderVP PMs are mostly found in the largest PM organizations. If you’re a Director here, help your current boss succeed and loyally follow her up the ladder.
  • At medium-sized companies, PM Directors work for Engineering, Marketing or the CEO/business unit manager. With only a handful of PMs to manage, justifying a bigger title (and salary and options) is tough. VP opportunities can be found laterally in less-glorified functional groups: Customer Support, Sales Engineering or new business units.
  • At start-ups, cash burn is much more important than job title.  During your hiring process, offer to take less money in return for a VP title (and a bit more stock).  It’s a great trade, whether you stay a long time or parlay this into a VP PM role elsewhere.
  • Regardless, the power roles at your company may be in Engineering and Sales (B2B) or Marketing (B2C). Consider stepping into a wider role and learning some new skills.

Note that the VP PM job takes a heap of humble and patience. Achievement through others. You’ll never be singled out as THE reason for your company’s success. It’s the pride of your kid in the school play or your mentees going to the hot new startup.  Not the big ego trip.

Finally, my fine grained-distinctions are lost on most non-product executives. They don’t think (or care that much) about product management levels and titles. Bigger fish to fry, bigger organizations to run. If you have a mentor among your company’s execs, buy him lunch and ask for advice.

Sound Byte

Vice Presidents of Product Management have a unique, strategic, cross-functional role – and need a rare mix of talents / personality. They bring cohesion and coordination to the top of the company, allowing product managers to drive individually successful products.  You should take your own measure before setting that as your next job goal.  And then think big, because you’ll become a CMO/CEO candidate.