Reaching the Product Management Apex: Managing Multiple Products with Multiple Teams

In the last blog, we talked about working in the model where you are a product manager working on a single product that has multiple teams. Now, it’s time to up the ante and look at the case where you are a single product leader who is responsible for many products being worked on by many teams.

Product Management

First off, congratulations! You have officially made it to the big time. You are a product line manager, a VP of Product Management, or maybe even the Chief Product Officer (CPO) for your company. Once you finish the bottle of champagne celebrating your promotion, buckle your seatbelt because some stuff is about to get real.

You, my friend, are now the adult in the room, and everything you had to do before in terms of influencing, deciding, and advocating just got a lot more complex. Now, instead of working to influence senior product leaders and the technology group, you are hands on with sales, finance, the executive team (who may be your peers), marketing, and more. You are in a strategic role in the company and have a ton of perceived power, but in most scenarios you still have to fall back on your influencing and advocating abilities in order to advance your product line. You must work in concert with other department leaders, and possibly for the first time you are now responsible for a P&L (or share ownership for one with other execs).

Just in case that wasn’t enough to keep you out of trouble, you are now a legit people manager, leading an organization of product managers. In a lot of cases, this is a new challenge and one that is vital to not be overlooked. You managed small teams of 2-3 people before, but now you are leading a much larger group that has vast influence throughout the entire company. Your team may not be large in number, but it has a tremendous responsibility. Your team is also likely a diverse group of strong-willed people, who won’t be the easiest to lead.

Influences Decides Advocates For
  • Corporate vision and strategy
    • Revenue growth vs. profitability vs. long-term, strategic play vs. cash cow
    • Higher level company goals
  • Other business functions and how they work with and within your product line
    • Technology
    • Marketing
    • Sales
    • Support
    • Finance
  • Investment in your product line; where does the funding go?
  • Product line vision and strategy
    • Product line prioritization & initiatives
    • Go to market and product positioning
    • Pricing strategy
    • Release timing and frequency
  • Investment allocation
    • By strategic bet
    • By product / product line
    • By client
    • By product manager
  • Staffing & hiring
    • Composition and culture of PM team
    • Assignment of product managers to products/teams
  • Your team and their well-being
  • Your business
  • Your products and their customers
  • Product management’s place at the table in the company
  • The teams of people that market, sell, build, and support your products
  • The goals of the executive team / company

When it comes to influencing, deciding, and advocating, your viewpoint has up-leveled from the product perspective to the business perspective. This is a huge shift. It was easier before when we were just trying to keep the screaming customers somewhat happy. Now, we need to make money, look after the needs and interests of your people, and wrangle all the other groups that contribute to your product line’s success.

Product Management Struggles and Traps

You will spend a lot of time influencing up and influencing across. It will be consuming. You are now playing politics about 80% of your time. It is mentally and emotionally draining. Some cope by playing high-stakes politics; some retract into their own space trying to ignore the noise, and some crack under the pressure of trying to satisfy so many interests while trying to maintain their integrity and represent the best interest of the business.

While all of that work and games are going on, don’t forget to also lead your team and look out for their welfare. In the end, they will control you and your product line’s success. If they are breaking, you will be breaking soon too.

Struggles Traps
Business vs. strategy vs. people You have to balance “making money now” versus “making money later” versus “taking care of people” within your company

  • Those choices are often in direct conflict.
  • Your bonus is typically tied to the shorter term. Sales’ bonus is definitely tied to the short term, and they will be a loud voice in your org.
  • Thinking quarter by quarter can drastically limit the potential of your product line and your company.
Falling asleep or falling too far into the weeds. Dude, seriously get out of the weeds! Your game has been elevated a lot, but a part of you still wants to decide what color the buttons should be on the UI.

  • Admittedly, you might be longing for the good old days when you got to make design decisions versus arguing with the CMO about the campaign schedule for Q1.
  • On the flip side, you have no time for the low-level details and have completely washed your hands of that. Your people will figure it out.
  • Balance comes in the supervision. Don’t make all the decisions but collaborate and be involved enough to keep things moving in the same direction.
  • This interest, without controlling the situation, will show your team and the people they influence, that you care.
Playing too much politics or not enough For good or bad, 90% of your job is now politics. Maybe a better word is gamesmanship. Regardless of what you call it, you better be good at it, but don’t let it consume you.

  • Playing too much politics means you’ll get jaded and maybe won’t become the type of person you want to look at in the mirror.
  • Playing too little politics means you won’t be effective in influencing and advocating for the things you need to. Your team, peers, and stakeholders will see you as weak, and it will become of snowball of lacking influence.
  • This is a super touchy balance and takes an extremely strong person to do the right thing. If you are that person or work with that person, please appreciate him/her.

Winning in this senior role is staying sane and continuing to do the right thing. You will be faced with so many difficult choices. Respect the business, help to drive the company forward, and don’t forget the people who got you where you are and where you will soon be.

Also, look after for yourself. You are an amazing leader and influencer, or you wouldn’t be here. Burnout is a real issue in all levels of product management, but people in these senior roles will feel the worst of it.

I recently spoke with a product manager who walked away from a CPO position that most of us would dream of having. I’ve had the pleasure of working with him as a peer and working for him as a junior product manager. He is one of the best in the business. He left this dream role because he felt he could no longer take care of his people. I can’t tell you how much I respect that, but how sad it makes me that the ranks of product management lost another good one.

I think we need to find a way to look out for each other more. I started this blog series by talking about a group of product managers in Minneapolis that regularly meet and exchange ideas. I hope all of you can find a group like that – a safe place where you can dish about the challenges we face.

In conclusion, your job is a tough but vital one. You are doing important work and regardless of where you sit in the food chain, you have a tremendous opportunity to influence, decide, and advocate. Keep flying superheroes. Your product’s future depends on you.

Watch the webinar series to learn about inherent gaps for product management in agile methodologies:

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Anne Steiner
Anne Steiner
VP Product Agility, Cprime