The role of the Product VP/Head

Being a head of product encompasses many different aspects and skills, and that’s the reason why I’m writing an entire book about this topic. However, since this is a question I get asked frequently, I’ll make a brief introduction to the topic that may be useful for people considering this step in their career as well as for people searching for a head of product for her company.

Expectation management

Whatever the road that got you into the possibility of filling a head of product position, either by you considering this your next career move or by you having the task to find someone to fill this position, it is important to have clear what is the mains responsibility of this role: expectation management. It will be something between 60 to 80% of the head of product time. 

I’ve heard from some product managers that they want to become head of product because they view this position as a great opportunity to have a strong say about or even lead the building of the product vision and strategy, especially if you are in a company which is purely digital or at least a born-digital traditional company. This is true, but I have to say that this is no more than 10% of the head of product job. And even these 10%, it is not a solo endeavor. You’ll have to build it collaboratively with your product’s main stakeholders, especially the company founders who are the first product managers of any company. 

The other 90% of the head of product responsibility is shared between helping product managers in their development – something between 10% to 40%, depending on the seniority of your product managers – and expectation management, which normally takes 50% to 80% of your time. By expectation management, I mean managing the expectation of all of your product stakeholders, internal and external. 

It is important to have this time sharing clear before you decide to accept the head of product role so you understand what other areas and your team will expect from you decide to take the job.

I’ve normally seen people filling out a head of product position coming from three main backgrounds, either she is someone leading engineering, or someone leading product design or marketing, or a product manager that will start to manage other product managers.

CTO/Tech head filling the product head position

If you are a CTO or an engineering leader and were asked to step in as head product, chances are that you were asked to fill this position in addition to your existing responsibilities. I advice against this role superposition. Depending on team size, and your seniority, it’s better to have the product development team with 2 or more leaders, reporting either to the CEO or some other very senior position in the company. If you have up to 30 or 40 people in the product development team, it’s ok to have only one person leading the entire team. More than that, it’s good to split at least between a head of engineering and a head of product. In this product development leadership design, the UX function reports to the head of product. Depending on the size of the product development team and the relevance of design to your product strategy, the team can be lead by heads of engineering, design, and product. Depending on the scope and complexity of your product, you may have more than one head of product, one for each distinct context. For instance, here at Gympass we have Rodrigo Rodrigues as the CTO, Claudio Franco as the head of product for consumers and me as the head of product for companies and partners.

UX/Product design or marketing leader filling the product head position

UX and marketing are 2 areas who are very close to product management. While UX works together with product management in product discovery activities, marketing works together with product management in activities to tell the world about the product and its features and to increase its user base.

As I mentioned previously, UX can report to the head of product. It is a common team design. Both for a UX leader assuming the head of product as well for a marketing lead assuming this position, it is important that the product head understands not only the similarities but also the differences between the two functions and their role and responsibilities in the success of the product.

Product manager filling the product head position

This may be a natural career path for a product manager. As she gets more senior, she may become the go-to-person for other product managers in search for advice. So the 10% to 40% of helping other product managers part of the head of product position may come naturally to her. However, there’s still the 10% of vision building and 50% to 80% of expectation management to be considered. 

The vision building should not also be something new to a senior product manager. She already does that for the product or part of the product she takes care of, so it shouldn’t be something new to her, only a bigger scope. Remember to work on building a high-level vision and let the details be worked on by the product managers. Building the details of a product vision is an important role of product managers. 

The remaining 50% to 80% of time spent in expectation management shouldn’t also be extraneous to the product manager aspiring to become head of product. Actually, she already does that for her own product or part of product that she takes care of. From her team members, to people from other areas, to C-level all the way to the founder of the company. Here again we are talking about an increase of scope. And again we need to let product managers do stakeholder anxiety management as well, so they can develop these skill. But don’t forget that as head of product you’ll be the go-to-person for C-level people and the founders.

If you don’t want to manage other people, that’s fine. It’s always possible to have space in your team for a more senior product manager position. Some companies call it principal product manager. I’ll talk more about this role in a future article.

The first step for a product manager to become a head of product is when she continues to work with her own team (product engineers and designers) and oversees the work of a product manager in another team. One possible name for this new position is group product manager, since she is managing a group of product or parts of a product. As all goes well, the next step is to hire her replacement for the existing role she still plays as product manager. Freed from her daily job of managing a product, she will be able to manage 2 or more product managers.

Leading Product Development: the art and science of leading digital products

Even though I’m talking about digital product development, which is based software engineering, normally considered a science, I do believe there’s a part of art leading product development teams. Asking Google what is art, we get some interesting answers:

  • “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” To develop a digital product we need creativity and imagination in order to build a product that will empower its users to do something. Empowerment is the process of becoming more cofident, which is an emotional power. And digital products have interfaces with humans, which can be admired. So it’s easy to see the process of building a digital product is a work of art.
  • “a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice.” Building good digital products requires practice, lots of practice.

On the other hand, when asking Google what is science, we also get interesting answers:

  • “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” Many product development teams have been building digital products, sharing their experiences and creating and improving the body of knowledge on how to build digital products.
  • “a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject.” we are building this body of knowledge as we experience new processes and refine existing ones. Digital product development is a brand new science, and there’s a lot we don’t know yet, but we’ve been putting a lot of energy on building this body of knowledge so the next generations of digital product developers can always start one step ahead. This is how all sciences are built, one step at a time, one generation building on the steps of the previous generation.

The book is focused on the head of product role, but it will be useful to anyone within a digital product development team as well as for anyone who is not in this team but works in a company that has, or plans to have, a digital product development team.

The book will be divided into 3 mains sections:

  • Concepts: people who know me, know that I’m a big fan of starting any new endeavor with a ubiquitous language, a term Eric Evans uses in Domain Driven Design for the practice of building up a common, rigorous language between developers and users – in my case, between author and readers. For this reason, I’ll start the book defining some concepts such as roles and responsibilities of a head of product, team structure, career ladder, and Y career for product managers.
  • Principles: every company has its own culture and within each company, every department has its own culture as well. Here I’ll talk about the culture I believe it’s mandatory to create successful digital products. And also, what are the 2 key values that every product development team must have.
  • Tools: here I’ll talk about the tools I’ve been using in my almost 30 years of product development leadership career and passing to other leaders so they can use with their teams. The tools I’ll talk about include vision, strategy, team structure, metrics, and ceremonies. 

Digital Product Management Books

Do you work with digital products? Do you want to know more about how to manage a digital product to increase its chances of success? Check out my new bundle Digital Product Management with my 2 books where I share what I learned during my almost 30 years of experience in creating and managing digital products.

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