Why Product Management Can Make or Break Your Company

Published May 6, 2018

What’s the most consequential hire for a technology company? The CEO? The head of sales? Marketing? Each of these roles is certainly consequential, but none so much as the product manager.

I use the word consequential quite deliberately. Unlike the more obvious adjective, “important”– which implies the sort of formal authority the product manager typically lacks–“consequential” suggests something less obvious, more fundamental, and much easier to miss.

Consequential suggests a fateful choice, one often made without the consideration it deserves. What makes the product manager such a consequential hire is the fact that, more than any other leadership role, this person controls what is often the company’s scarcest human resource.

Of course, leadership and control are funny attributes to assign to a role that most agree lacks formal authority. But, however many degrees removed the product manager may be from the nexus of power, and whatever the formal reporting lines may suggest, the product manager wields influence that has the potential to shift a company’s trajectory–in either direction.

Beware of the Smartest Person in the Room

Case in point: I used to work with a gifted young product manager who was generally considered the smartest person in most every room. The engineers he worked with recognized his brilliance, which gave him a rare credibility in influencing how they chose to spend their time.

The fact that he had an almost Svengali-like hold on the engineering team meant that his decisions were rarely questioned. And these decisions augured the company into the ground.

It started with a product direction that was almost crystalline in its clarity, so compelling and artfully described that it really couldn’t be questioned. It seemed to come from a place of deep insight, authority, technical sophistication. It fit neatly in a framework, so tidy and discrete, that it had to be right. With this vision, everything snapped into place, a vibrant tableau of a future state that would surely become this company’s destiny.

Only it was totally wrong.

There were plenty of early indications that this vision was more like a hallucination. The team had no shortage of customer and market feedback for making appropriate course corrections.

But the evidence was dismissed, filtered out as noise as the product manager cherry-picked facts in support of his original premise. As the picture became clearer and the circumstances bleaker, the product manager dug in—and then doubled down. The company was at his mercy and the engineering team was beginning to feel totally duped.

The lesson? Have the humility to be proven wrong.

Another product manager I worked with had plenty of humility, perhaps too much. He was also super smart, but still somehow hamstrung by nagging self-doubt. This meant that every bit of customer and market feedback was given undue weight, causing him, by turns, to lose faith and conviction in product decisions. As he lost conviction, projects were canceled and work was scrapped. Frustration set in as engineers felt they were thrashing. Eventually, their progress stalled as each new priority felt more and more like pushing a boulder up the proverbial hill.

The lesson? Have the confidence to stay the course.

Inherent Paradoxes

You certainly recognize that these lessons are in perfect opposition, that one cancels out the other. That’s actually the point—and the hardest part of being a product manager. It requires a whole person who can toggle between humility and conviction, making decisions that are informed by some rare and ineffable combination of each. Try putting that in a job description.

It’s also a role that requires deep empathy, not only for customers but also for engineers and other stakeholders whose efforts PMs influence and depend upon. The best product managers are like a force multiplier on company culture, performance and business outcomes. The worst product managers are the exact opposite.

You could say that this is the case with any leadership position—that, for better or worse, each impacts the company’s trajectory. However, what makes the product manager particularly consequential is its proximity to and influence over the scarcest human resources, and the fact that the power the product manager wields is less overt, sometimes harder to pin down.

It’s important to note that it’s not just those with Cs in their titles and names on the doors who disproportionately impact the fate of any company. In fact, it’s often informal authority that makes or breaks companies and cultures. That’s why, for technology companies, in particular, the product manager is likely the most consequential hire your company will ever make.