Perspectives

The State of Product Leadership 2019

When you think of a great product manager, what images come to mind? Is it the knowing gaze of the rare creative genius, the Jobsian visionary who can see around corners and intuit customer needs? Or is it the more businesslike countenance of the overscheduled journey(wo)man whose brilliance lies in pattern-matching and decision-making?

According to this year’s State of Product Leadership survey of 300 B2B and B2C PMs, the prevailing archetype of the modern product manager is more the latter. While this may shatter certain romantic, ready-for-central-casting notions of the role, it’s hardly a surprise for anyone who has been or worked closely with a product manager.

The truth is that being a product manager can be a grind. The best PMs I know are crazy-busy humans who often seem caught in a precarious equilibrium between enthusiasm and frustration. The enthusiasm comes from a deep desire to delight customers (if you don’t have this gene, find a different profession). The frustration comes from the reality that for every need met, there’s another that’ll have to wait. It’s a continuous cycle of seemingly impossible tradeoffs.

This was echoed in the second annual State of Product Leadership survey, published this week by Pendo and Product Collective. Last year’s survey was the story of a role very much on the rise. This year, the rise continues apace, but with it come some new, perhaps unexpected challenges.

First, a few positive highlights:

Product teams increasingly report into a chief product officer as PM reporting lines shift away from marketing.

Last year’s findings suggested that, by a wide margin, CMOs were responsible for product management. This year, the pattern still holds, but the margin has diminished substantially. Nearly 23% of respondents told us that their teams roll up to a chief product officer or equivalent, up from 6.7% last year. This should comfort any of the CPOs, including our own, who last year (half) jokingly accused me of using this data to manifest self-fulfilling prophecies.

Product leaders prioritize alignment with marketing, UX, and customer success functions over engineering functions.

The fact that product managers depend on close alignment with their engineering counterparts is both obvious and true. But when we asked PMs with which departments they prioritize alignment, they told us something we didn’t entirely expect. Engineering wasn’t at the top of the list. Instead, they chose marketing, design/UX, and customer success. Before you draw the wrong conclusions, however, consider the current state of these relationships. Respondents told us, by and large, the felt pretty good about their relationships with engineering. Customer success, on the other hand, was another story—lots of room for improvement. Thus, the prioritization here is the right one.

Customer needs serve as the “north star” for most product leaders.

Last year, we were all a bit unnerved to hear respondents tell us that their product decisions were informed more often by competitors than by customers. The risk here is perhaps obvious. Those allowing competitors to set product priorities are only inviting competitors to control the narrative. This year, we were heartened to see the pendulum—and all manner of reason and rationality— swing back to its rightful place. PMs told us that customers are their North Star.

A few findings left us with questions:

Product teams are still primarily measured on product/feature delivery, rather than user adoption or retention.

There was a time when product teams could get away with measuring success by features shipped. Today, that’s not only insufficient, it may also be the cause of certain dysfunctional behaviors. More than any other metric, product teams still measure success by this outmoded yardstick, more often than revenue, adoption, usage,  and retention. Where the metric goes, the effort flows. So when features are the goal, guess what becomes the primary output? Now consider the topline finding from another recent Pendo research report: 80% of these features are rarely or never used by customers.

Many product leaders say their ideal job involves some other role…with a lot more responsibility.

Are product managers happy? That’s a complicated question. Product management is at once one of the most important roles for the modern enterprise and one of the most challenging. It’s challenging because it’s a discipline of influence, not authority. And, as I mentioned, it forces decisions that can feel like impossible tradeoffs. Consequently, respondents told us that their next role will be different in responsibility and scope, perhaps outside of product management altogether, and their willingness to recommend the role dropped precipitously from a moderately happy NPS score of 20 last year to a more muted score of three this year.

Newly-minted MBAs used to beat a fairly consistent path to Wall Street i-banks, Silicon Valley venture firms, or suburban Connecticut hedge funds. Now they want to become PMs for hot SaaS companies. With all of this said, it probably begs the question: why?

Or, more precisely: why now?

The short answer is opportunity. According to Hired.com, product management was the highest paying role in tech for 2018, with salaries growing from an average of $127,000 in 2015 to $145,000. But I’d suggest that there’s something more nuanced at work here. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the whiff of fakery often attributed to high finance, or a response to the (extreme and surely not broadly representative) shell-game behavior and self-dealing chronicled in “The Big Short.”

Perhaps it’s the fact that we live in complicated times. There’s a certain integrity in product management, a builder sensibility that comes from creating something you can see, sometimes touch, and even often use yourself. Along with that comes a desire to create that something for someone who then realizes a tangible benefit in their work or life.

To me, that’s the most basic ethos of product management.

About the Author

Jake Sorofman is CMO of Pendo. Most recently, he spent five years as a VP and Chief of Research at Gartner, Inc., before returning to his startup roots. His writing has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, CMO.com and other business and industry publications.