New research

What’s shaping the state of product leadership in 2021?

Published Apr 29, 2021

Each year, Pendo and Product Collective release the State of Product Leadership report, a holistic look at the trends product managers feel are shaping their field in the biggest ways, and what’s driving them.

The survey polled over 600 product pros around the world and generated seven key findings and three recommendations. Pendo’s Director of New Products Tatyana Mamut and Mike Belsito, cofounder of Product Collective, joined our recent webinar to discuss those findings and give their take on how they’re playing out in the product management world. Here are some of the session’s highlights.

Digital transformation is a team sport, and PMs are the coaches

Product managers possess a unique blend of technical skills and business sense that make them an ideal driver of digital transformation, and most organizations are beginning to realize that. This trend is reflected in the first finding, and it’s seen product teams gain much more influence over business decisions and their organization’s future vision.

Specifically, Mamut noted, executive teams, especially at larger companies, have turned to their product teams to ensure employees are receiving the high-quality tools they need to remain productive in a fully remote or hybrid setting, where the physical office has been mostly supplanted by apps and software platforms. And, they’ll need extra support to get it all done.

“It’s not like product managers didn’t have a whole lot to do before [the pandemic],” Mamut noted. “That product is being tasked with leading this internally, it does mean that they would probably need some help and more resources to do it all.”

Despite the added pressure, focusing on both internal and external product management has the potential to open up new career opportunities for product managers, Mamut noted, including a path to CEO: “CEOs need to be able to balance both and need to be driving the company culture and productivity as much as the external customer experiences and sales,” she said.

Delivery is most important to PMs

The next finding was a bit of a surprise to Belsito: product managers consider delivering new products and features to be their most important success metric. 

“Delivery doesn’t necessarily equate to value,” Belsito noted. Mamut agreed, saying she expected product and feature adoption to rank higher on the list. 

Both said it’s worth exploring if product teams are delivering functionality for the sake of delivering it, or if they’re delivering the right features. 

“If you’re getting a lot out the door, but no one is using it, does it even matter?” Mamut said. “Building one feature a quarter that all your customers adopt and love is better than building 16 in a quarter that nobody uses.”

Belsito suspects this trend may be driven by top-down pressure, rather than a focus on customer-centricity and delivering a truly useful product.

Satisfaction takes a hit

For all that new clout, job satisfaction among product pros has taken a hit at the largest organizations. PMs working for organizations with up to $1 billion in revenue reported positive NPS, but after that milestone is crossed, it turns sharply negative. This likely ties to the first finding: These teams might feel under the gun driving high-stakes digital transformation. Institutional silos also become more common as companies scale.

PMs at orgs in the $51-100 million range are happiest, likely due to quick growth in that stage of one’s career. PMs at smaller startups are less happy, which Belsito and Mamut attributed to the stress of not yet having found product-market fit.

Product ops is heating up

More than half of survey respondents reported having dedicated product ops teams at their organization working to improve communication, alignment, and cross-functional efficiency, and PMs at organizations that have built that capacity are among the happiest.

Mamut recalled her first experience with dedicated product ops, which helped tremendously in keeping all the trains running on time while the product managers played the role of conductor.

“It lifted the mood of everybody in the organization, from product managers to researchers to designers. That one product ops person just made everybody more effective,” Mamut said.

The path forward

The one consistent theme across all the findings is that product managers have gained outsized influence in their organizations, but it’s come at the price of added stress and eroding satisfaction.

But, there are ways to their work lives easier, and as a result, deliver better products. The report provides three recommendations: recognize this pressure and find ways to support and empower your product teams to cope with it, figure out what tools and resources they need to keep driving positive outcomes, and figure out what’s at the root of dissatisfaction, so it can be addressed.