Jun 17, 2024 2 min read

Moving Up to Product Director

Moving Up to Product Director
Photo by Cesar Cid / Unsplash

 In a course I’m running on moving up the product management organizational ladder, we’ve spent time comparing/contrasting what Product Managers do versus what Directors do.

(I use that title generically for the first-line folks who have HR responsibility for Product Managers.  At various companies, they might be called Group Product Managers, Senior Directors, maybe CPOs or VPs or Heads of Product – but my essential distinction is between managing a product and managing a team of people who manage products.)

 It’s easy to assume that the next job “up” looks a lot like the job that you’re in.  That Directors are (just) super-skilled Product Managers, but working on more complex product challenges.  But I see a significant shift toward organizations and people issues, with most of the actual product work delegated to the team.

Directors focus much more on

  • Managing people: lobbying to fund positions; job descriptions and interviewing; onboarding/coaching/mentoring/career planning; celebrating and merchandizing wins.  For me, shepherding a group of 4 or 5 or 6 high-performing products folks is a full-time job by itself.
  • Building bridges and trust with other functional groups (Engineering, Design/UX, Marketing, Sales, Support…)  Constant updates and roadmap reviews and status; frequent re-mapping of company goals to product decisions; empathetic listening.  Endless polite explanations for why no one gets everything they want when they want it.
  • Portfolio-level coherence, pulling together the roadmaps and strategies for each of the team’s products.  Trying to align the company strategy (top-down) with individual products and teams (bottom-up) so that we deliver economic value as well as releases.
  • Reframing technical processes in terms of money, trade-offs, and likely business outcomes for the C-suite, which is more interested in “when does that turn into revenue?” than “how are we building things?”

And therefore Directors have much less time to:

  • Talk with actual customers/users/buyers, directly learn and sense the market.  We have to trust our extended teams (product + design + engineering) to do the essential work of continuous development.
  • Stay current on technical details, development plans, “exactly how this application does X or integrates with Y.”
  • Make product-level trade-offs, do primary (hands-on) analytics, nurture an individual product or capability over time.

 Said another way, Directors spend their energy on empowering Product Managers to get good things done, and less on the product work itself.  Removing organizational blockers, identifying systemic issues, resolving conflicts.  Creating the conditions for success.

Do You Want That?

Which raises a series of questions about personal expectations and goals: is that a fit for you?  What goes you going in the morning?  Does your company respect and support and reward first-line management?  Should you want to be a Director?

IMHO, there’s no generic answer.  Instead, a need for introspection and the advice of trusted peers.  Or (ahem) input from industry veterans.  Don’t assume that “up” is always better.

Director roles usually include more money, stock, visibility, organizational leverage, and access to executives.  A seat at the table.  But they may be unsatisfying for folks who love the daily rough-and-tumble of brilliant maker teams, user joy, tech-meets-problem-meets-ingenuity, roadmap Tetris.   They may be better served in senior individual roles like Principal Product Manager or Distinguished PM.   (If that’s you, it’s a conversation you should have with your Director.)


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