Unanswered Questions: Following Up on the State of Product Leadership Survey

Published Apr 2, 2018

Last week, Mike Belsito, co-founder of Product Collective, sat down with Jake Sorofman, CMO of Pendo and former Gartner VP and chief of research, to discuss the key findings of the State of Product Leadership survey in an interactive webinar.

The State of Product Leadership surveyed 300 product executives and managers about who they are, what they do, the challenges they face in their day-to-day work, and what makes them successful in their roles. It delineated the key characteristics of the highest performing product leaders and how those in product roles can prepare to master their craft.

The survey contradicted much ‘common knowledge’ about product teams that we hear in the industry. Gluttons for controversy, we used the webinar to engage the audience in a discussion of some of the key findings:

  • Technical vs. non-technical backgrounds. The study found that most product leaders have a business rather than a technical background. While this doesn’t mean that a technical background is a poor fit for product management success, this was rather surprising. Some attendees felt strongly that individuals from a non-technical background are better suited for PM success (so did ProductCraft debaters), while others pushed back strongly, arguing that technical acumen is a prerequisite for successfully building technology products.
  • Prioritization based on customer needs vs. competitive pressures. It was startling to see that product leaders reported being much more responsive to competitive pressures than to customer needs. Attendees were surprised as well – and asked for clarification on how we captured the measurement (the question asked respondents to place themselves on a six-point scale where 0 is 100% customer orientation, and 6 is 100% competitive orientation).
  • Reporting lines. The survey found that product management reports into marketing (CMO) more than any department, and that only 7% of respondents have a defined Chief Product Officer (CPO). This finding led to additional questions from attendees, including whether organizations should consider moving their product teams out of engineering (yes), and who the executive decision-makers should be regarding feature priorities (it should be a consensus, but the best approach is to have a CPO at the senior executive table).

Since we didn’t have a chance to cover every question that came up during the webinar, we wanted to cover a few here:

Q: Is there a negative perception of product leaders with a technical background?

The finding that that majority of PMs do not have a technical background does not mean that a technical background is in any way a disadvantage. Technical skills can certainly be an asset in a PM role, especially for those working with challenging software products (a point that Sam Boonin of Zendesk made in the Product Love Podcast). However, PMs with business backgrounds possess many of the key skills that are needed to succeed in the role and are more commonly found in the market.

Survey results from State of Product Leadership

Q: Do you have data on visionary vs. tactical based on what level of an organization a product person is at?

You might expect a difference in a PM’s orientation depending on their level of seniority, with more executive-level product leaders leaning towards the visionary, and more junior PMs focusing on the tactical.

Survey data didn’t tell that story. Instead, it shows that PMs at all levels spend time doing both strategic and tactical work. Product executives are in the trenches alongside PMs.

Q: Did you capture the industry types and verticals in the product leaders survey?

We saw a rich market mix in our survey participants. Nearly 50% of the responses came from companies focused on Software as a Service, while another 30% focus primarily on on-premise offerings. Other companies have hybrid offerings – with both cloud and on-premise applications, while 10% of respondents own digital products within enterprises whose primary business is outside of software.

Almost all respondents – 90% – have products that serve the business to business (B2B) space, with the remainder having consumer-facing products or a mix of both consumer and business products, such as banking or other financial services applications.

Company size was evenly distributed with companies varying in size from less than $25 million in revenue to more than $1 billion.

Our survey focused heavily on the software industry.  As a result, we did not capture any information about which industry the 10% of non-software company respondents serve, or for which industry verticals our respondents develop products. This is certainly something to explore in a deep dive next year.

Q: Are PMs more successful when limiting breadth of functional responsibilities?

Product managers can be successful in both instances – while wearing many hats, or while being more specialized in their roles. This in large part depends on the size of the team and the strategy in place for the product organization.

Usually, in smaller companies PMs are responsible for products from start to finish: concept, design, production, testing, forecast, cost, mass production, promotion, support, and potentially a product end of life. They may also have responsibility over parts of the operating plan and marketing activities through research, strategic planning and implementation. In larger organizations, PMs may be more specialized or niched in terms of responsibilities.

Survey results from State of Product Leadership

We commissioned the State of Product Leadership partially because product management often eludes definition. We wanted to find out the boundaries of a craft that’s both incredibly diverse in its purview and is rapidly evolving. Of course, like good product people, asking these questions led to more questions, and we’re probably going to keep asking them. If you do want some answers, though, you can read the full survey.