The Three Responsibilities of Product Leadership
In the past years, a lot has been written about product management: about the role definition and how it varies between industries and companies, the skills required, best practices and so on. Product leadership is much less well covered, and even less well-defined.
Who exactly a product leader is, what their responsibilities are, and what job title they may have varies even more from company to company than the already quite variable role of the product manager. Org structures, company size, and company culture and processes all influence where product leadership might be located.
In small startups, the CEO may be the only product leader, in bigger ones it might be VPs and directors of product and design. In other companies it might be engineering managers, (product) marketing managers, or general managers.
An additional confusing aspect about product leadership is that the product manager role, while it typically doesn’t come with line management responsibilities, also requires leadership skills. So where does product management end and product leadership begin?
To me, this last question can be used as the defining factor for what product leadership means. There are some activities and responsibilities that are required to successfully and sustainably build and improve a product that typically are out of scope for individual product managers. Whoever has these responsibilities is part of product leadership. On the flip side, someone with a product leadership role (like VP Product or CPO) needs to deliver on these responsibilities in order to be effective.
The three broad areas of product leadership responsibility are:
- Owning the product direction
- Building the team
- Establishing the product organization and processes
In the remainder of this article, I will give a short summary of each of these areas of responsibility, how it differs from typical product manager work, and what it takes to be successful in this area.