Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Product Manager’s Reality

Written by Published in News and truths, Product Management

Every now and then, it’s interesting to ask: What does a Product Manager (PM) do? The answer of course has some take on: They juggle managing products and people. They need to have technical/processual skills as well as those lauded, but ever elusive, leadership skills. On the people front, there are potential challenges working with different personality types and working styles. Multi-disciplinary groups need to work coherently together, and oftentimes each group has their own jargon and processes.

Additionally, many PMs themselves often have nominal managerial experience and/or are new to the role coming from other areas such as R&D or engineering. With limited formal authority, they navigate through blurred lines of responsibility and learn to lead and meet objectives through their ability to influence, communicate, and bring teams together. From a recent presentation at a Product Management Festival “PM Night” at Google in Zürich, Noah Askin, assistant professor at INSEAD, suggested that,

Product managers need the following four things: the brain of an engineer, the heart of a designer, the tongue of a diplomat and the herding skills of an Australian Shephard1.

There is a delightfully picturesque German word that describes exactly this person: “Die eierlegende Wollmilchsau,” which means the egg-laying, wool-producing, milk-providing pig. Yes. That is the product manager in a nutshell.


Technical/Processual Skills

The biggest problem with gaining technical skills is that the discipline of product management can vary greatly among companies, and as a result, there are a few hard rules or best-practices on what a product manager needs to know, and then the rest is left up to interpretation by the company. The Trends and Benchmarks in Product Management Report states that most PMs are only 3-5 years in their present positions even if they have around 10-20 years work experience. This shows that the field itself is evolving as the PMs go through their daily tasks. Shown below, the main responsibilities of the PM include: product strategy, roadmapping & release management, product requirements management, and market/product research. But some of these tasks could be taken on by other roles such as marketing, project manager, business analyst, technical product manager, etc – it depends on how the company has structured their product organization. Subsequently, processes also are affected, and those certainly vary from company to company as well.

Credit: Product Management Festival’s Trends and Benchmark in Product Management Report

The trends report supports this because about 50-60 percent of the respondents admit to having product management processes that need development due to being outdated or simply not in place.

Leadership Skills

Leadership development is critical to a product manager, and yet, it is often overlooked. If we look back on our own experiences, excellent leadership has been something that we’ve usually stumbled upon in a kind of “I’ve seen a unicorn” way. Frederic Laloux2, the author of Reinventing Organisations says, “An organization cannot evolve beyond its leadership’s stage of development”. It looks like we’re not doing so well.

Gallup polls since 2003 have consistently shown that dissatisfaction at work runs from 70-90% when polled in Western Europe and North America. Even worse, about 60% of employees would NOT recommend their firms’ products or services.

What’s happening here?

Laloux thinks that the generally-accepted culture of fear is to blame, as well as the last vestiges of industrial revolution management which still today bows to the altar of economizing and instrumentalizing human-beings. The philosophical question is: Do things have to be this way?

Self-management training and leadership development are ways to bring these topics to the table. There are an increasing number of resources to help with developing these areas. Oftentimes, we learn from “on-the-job training,” from published articles/interviews/books, and/or a mentor if we’re lucky enough to have one in our particular area. Recognizing this, Product Management Festival, whose mission is to support product managers in their profession, and INSEAD, worldwide leader in providing executive education programs, have partnered to provide an accelerated 5-day Product Management Executive Programme that is an advanced leadership and product management program that is tailored to rising and current product management executives.

Understanding how product managers can effectively lead, communicate, and influence is critical to our success. And we may call them “soft-skills” but in reality, they can bring innovation and even businesses to their knees. Nothing soft about that.

1adapted from Vijay Balasubramaniyan, Founder of Pindrop on the a16z Podcast:

2Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness, Nelson Parker Publishers. 2014.


About the Author

Nikolina Fuduric, PhD – I’m a systems-thinker, meaning I like to interconnect information from different disciplines to solve complex problems. This is probably because I grew up bi-culturally (USA & Croatia) and have lived in five countries. Diversity of disciplines, people, ideas and environments makes me feel most alive. That’s why the only career for me is a mosaic career ideally made up of thinking and doing. My thinking occurs at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland and my doing happens with my clients at Black Sheep Marketing GmbH. I’m also involved in women’s cooperatives in developing economies to help them develop products for international markets. Ten percent of my consulting earnings go to education & entrepreneurship efforts for empowering girls and women. When I’m relaxing, then I’m out in nature hiking, skiing, biking, and lounging between the two lakes where I make my home: Lake Lucerne and Lake Constance.

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