The Biggest Surprises From the 2020 State of Product Leadership Report

Each year, our colleagues at Pendo survey a global audience of product leaders to better understand the craft and evolution of product management. They ask these PMs how they measure success, where they feel most effective, and what their career aspirations are. And each year, the Pendo team uncovers something new.

This year is no exception. Today, Pendo released the State of Product Leadership: 2020 Edition, and it’s a very thought-provoking read. Some of their findings were what we would have predicted, but a few definitely surprised us. Let’s go through some of the most unexpected results.

More than half of PMs now report to a CPO (but they aren’t necessarily happy about it)

As product management has grown in popularity and influence, product teams have taken on more independence within the organization. In the past, product was more likely to report to a head of marketing or CTO than a head of product. And the CPO title, once rare, is now popping up on org charts at both enterprise and startup companies.

While we knew that CPOs were becoming more common, we didn’t quite realize just how common. According to the State of Product Leadership report, more than half of all PMs (53%) currently report to a CPO or equivalent. Also, marketing has gone from first to last in likely reporting lines for PMs.

This wasn’t the biggest surprise, however. Apparently, those PMs who report to a CPO have the lowest job satisfaction of all reporting lines. Why this is is really anybody’s guess. One theory is that CPOs are harder on their direct reports than someone who hadn’t come up through the product ranks. Another is that the newness of the CPO role is leading to ambiguity when it comes to team priorities.

Product leaders are more tech-focused than ever

We’ve published a number of articles on the importance of empathy and other soft skills for product managers. However, the latest State of Product Leadership report puts the emphasis on technical acumen as the key to success as a PM. In previous surveys, product leaders shared that they entered product management, more often than not, through a marketing background. This year’s survey respondents, however, were more likely to come from a technical background than a business-focused one.

And they are moving into product from an engineering or UX role. In fact, respondents said they were most likely to be writing code if they weren’t working in product.

Product teams are embracing product ops

Over the past few months, we’ve seen more and more attention directed at the “ops” arm of product management. And we aren’t the only ones noticing the increasing importance of the role. On LinkedIn, product ops titles have increased by 8% year-over-year, with almost 5,700 users having “product ops” in their title. Product ops as a skill is growing even more dramatically — 80% year-over-year.

According to the results of the State of Product Leadership survey, the role is gaining even more traction than we thought. More than half of product teams now have dedicated product ops resources. Another 19% of product teams are planning on hiring a dedicated product ops person in the near future.

Formal PM training is paying off

As the product manager role has grown in popularity, more and more formal PM training, education, and certification programs have cropped up. These include everything from university degrees like Carnegie Mellon’s MS in product management and NYU’s MBA concentration in the field, to certificate programs from the University of Washington and Cornell, to practical programs from General Assembly and Product School.

And that appears to be paying off. According to the 2020 State of Product Leadership report, those PMs who had completed advanced training in the field had, by twice the margin, earned themselves an executive role. Formal PM credentials aren’t just pieces of paper — they’re tickets up the career ladder.

All PMs are struggling with roadmap prioritization and customer onboarding

The surprise here isn’t that roadmap prioritization and onboarding are hard — it’s how universally challenging they are. This year’s State of Product Leadership survey reached a broader audience than ever before, casting a global net to understand the priorities and perspectives of product teams in the US, Canada, the UK, France, and Germany. And no matter where a PM resides, or which size or type of company they work for, they’re struggling with these two responsibilities. 

Want to read the rest of Pendo’s third annual State of Product Leadership report? You can download it here.