Clear and common structures for product management job titles will help us all better understand our careers, roles, and teams. So why don’t we have them?
Aren’t product management job titles a minefield? It’s nothing new. Mind the Product’s co-founder Martin Eriksson wrote this post Product manager job titles and hierarchy over five years ago in an attempt to bring some clarity to the subject. It’s a post that still gets lots of attention from our community, so we thought that it’s high time we followed it up.
Martin’s posts runs through the product manager levels, from Associate Product Manager through to Chief Product Officer and gives guidance on the likely expectations of each job title. He sensibly says that team structure should be aligned with customer needs so that you can incentivise and organise teams in alignment with company goals.
But does this happen? Not always. Anecdotally at least, it appears that the hierarchy that now often comes with a product organisation has changed dramatically over the last few years.
What’s in a name?
Certainly lots of senior sounding, leadership-type job titles now abound – CPO, CPTO, VP of Product, Director of Product Management, and so on and so on. In an age where the benefits of a flat organisational structure – better communication, better team spirit, simple and faster decision making – are consistently lauded, it seems counterintuitive to structure a product organisation with a hierarchy with lots of tiers and important sounding titles. As Adam Thomas, Product Principal for Mind the Product, comments: “Most product leadership titles mean nothing.” He points out that someone in a CXO role has a set of related disciplines reporting up to them, whereas a Chief Product Officer may be one person in an office with no one reporting to them.He says: “Even when I look at my own career,” he says, “I was a Director of Product and then a Product Lead after that. I had way more responsibility as a Product Lead than I did as Director of Product.”
All those MBAs
What’s going on? Adam points to the “MBA-ification” of product management as one possible reason for this proliferation of senior-sounding job titles. He says that product management has become a prestige career in recent years, and grad schools have gotten in on the game by offering product management courses. With an MBA, he conjectures, comes the expectation of a prestige title to go with the job: “If I talk to a VP of sales or a VP of engineering I’ve got a good idea of what they do. But a VP of Product can be someone in their first job out of grad school.”
It’s not all nonsensical of course, there are plenty of product organisations and HR teams that think deeply and carefully about their structure and hierarchy, and they assign job titles appropriately. But how, especially if you’re looking for a more senior role, do you cut through the noise and the nonsense to ascertain what a role will involve? Especially when a company may well have cobbled together a job description in a quick cut-and-paste exercise that didn’t involve much thought?
Remember that people management is usually at the core of a more senior role. So start by asking if the responsibilities are clear. If you’re not managing people, then it’s unlikely to be a senior role. And if you’re not managing people, is it framed as a principal or senior individual contributor role? Adam says that if you start to get unclear answers like “we’re thinking about people management in six months time” and the like, then he’d advise stopping right there: “In my experience, companies that say stuff like that, generally don’t know what they want.”
“If I’m looking for a senior role, and I’ve written out the job description, I want to know if you’ve managed people in the past,” Adam concludes. “It’s going to frame our conversations about success and failure. I don’t know a single product leader who has not failed in their first year or 18 months. So you’ve got to be able to tell me about that.”