FUNDAMENTALS OF PRODUCT MANAGEMENT: PEOPLE

Defining the Head of Product

The Head of Product needs to develop the team, create a vision, execute, and build a product team culture. He/She needs to build personal chemistry with seniors to succeed.

Nima Torabi

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Photo by Desola Lanre-Ologun on Unsplash

Organizationally, the Head of Product — which can have other titles such as the CPO, VP of Product, Head of Product, or Director of Product, depending on the size of the organization and the scope of its activity — typically manages the Product Managers and Product Designers, and sometimes the Data Analysts, and generally reports to the CEO or a Senior Leadership Team member. In general, the Head of Product is regarded as a peer of the CTO and the VP of Marketing.

Core Responsibilities

A successful Head of Product is expected to be strong in the following four key areas related to product teams:

  1. Team development
  2. Vision creation
  3. Execution
  4. Culture

Team development

The Head of Product is responsible for developing a strong team of Product Managers and Designers which will entail:

  • Recruiting
  • Training
  • Ongoing coaching

This requires a candidate with a track record of identifying and recruiting potential talent, as well as working actively and continuously with them to address their weaknesses and leverage their strengths.

Vision creation

The product vision is what motivates the product team and keeps it going through internal and external turmoil. Therefore, the product leadership team must provide a clear and visual understanding of the vision to the team to minimize confusion and align all product team members.

While in some organizations the product vision is generally provided by a business unit other than the product team, such as directly from the CEO or the revenue team(s), in most cases, the product team’s leadership (i.e., Head of Product) is the visionary unit in charge of building the product vision.

  • In the former case, the Head of Product and his/her product team will need to focus on execution rather than building the product vision, which depending on their desires, can be a contentious situation and potentially demotivating considering the personality traits of Product Managers and result in a drop in the level of innovation. This calls for a product team that is more of a complementary internal support unit to the vision gatekeeper and the team’s personnel and personalities need to be recruited accordingly.
  • In the latter case, the Head of Product and the product team take control of the product vision, are generally more proactive and motivated and we tend to witness higher levels of experimentation and innovative output. However, the product leadership team (i.e., Head of Product(s)) will need strong communication skills to convince the senior or executive leadership team (e.g., the CEO) of their proposed vision and align them with desired strategies, budget requests, and action plans.

Execution

With the vision in place, a product team needs to deliver products to customers and this requires a leadership that knows how to get things done.

Consistent, rapid, and effective execution requires a deep level of understanding of modern product management processes including planning, customer discovery, product discovery, product development, and working effectively as part of an organization.

The larger the organization, the greater the need for stakeholder management, internal evangelism, and change management expertise. For execution to bear fruit, the Head of Product must inspire and motivate the organization and align stakeholders towards the product vision.

Culture

In the context of product teams, culture means that:

  • The team values continuous and rapid testing and learning as it needs to make mistakes to learn from internal and external feedback, but this process needs to happen quickly to mitigate risks, leading to continuous innovation
  • The team knows that great products are the result of true collaboration with various peers and stakeholders including designers and engineers
  • The team values a motivated product team and continuously supports and motivates one another around the product vision

A successful and effective Head of Product understands the importance of a strong product culture and will have concrete plans for instilling this culture into the product team and larger organization.

The softer side of Product Leadership

While the Head of Product needs to relevant understanding of the economics and dynamics of his/her business and its market and technology background, he/she needs to understand the importance of having chemistry.

A successful product leader needs to work well on a personal and professional level with a variety of key executives and senior leaders including the CEO and CTO. This means that this person should have a dinner in a more personal setting with the CEO, CTO, Head of Marketing and/or Design, be open, vulnerable, and personal, and treat the conversation as not just him/her being interviewed but also the candidate interviewing his/her peers for long term collaboration.

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