What does a Director of Product Management do?

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I’ve written up some thoughts for the regular work of product managers and product management interns, but have not yet written about the next level up. What’s day to day like when you’re not just helping one team? What makes a director level product manager?

Just like the definition of what a Product Manager even does, the definition of Director level work is different in different organizations. The easiest way to define the role across companies is by blast radius. A product manager can bring more benefit or do more damage than a developer or salesperson. A product moving in the wrong direction takes months or quarters to discover and quarters to years to fix. A director of PM might be driving multiple products, or driving a new business line, or pivoting the company. In other words, their efforts take that blast radius observation up a few notches. So, what do they do?

First: research the market, build strategy, and make plans. What do you think the path to improved product market fit is? Where do you think the biggest missed opportunity is? How good is the data backing these opinions? How many iterative steps can the work be broken into?  What are the indicators of success or failure at each step? How much investment will your plan take? How are you going to make money with it? This work is mainly done in an iterative set of documents and spreadsheets, with regular output of presentations and backing spreadsheets.

Meanwhile, find a consensus. Who needs to be convinced to support this plan? What would convince them? Can you drive a disagree-and-commit if they aren’t convinced, or do you need to adjust your strategy? This work is done in non-stop meetings, one-and-one and small groups, interleaved with pitches to interested customers, analysts, and leaders. Also you’ll need to make regular excitement-building presentations to larger groups.

As soon as that process has kicked off, you’ll also need to deal with salespeople selling your idea ahead of its existence. This is a great opportunity to prove the hypothesis of your strategy; if it doesn’t resonate, you don’t have any customers to talk to. If it does, you’re fighting to hold sales teams back from the revenue recognition cliff they’re trying to race over.

Directors of PM don’t have to do people lead work, but it’s not uncommon either. So you may also be managing team: helping with communication, escalations, training, expenses, PTO approval, hiring, performance management, firing. Oh and of course, filling any gaps in that roster either by doing the work yourself, finding someone to do it, or finding a way it can be left undone.

That brings us to the last duty: saying “no” even more than you did before. As a Director of PM, you’ll start to receive the product ideas and complaints for everything even vaguely related to your domain. The problem is, most of those ideas aren’t well-formed enough to work on and even the good ones go onto a slush pile. The capacity of a scrum team is far lower than most people expect, and they’re probably already staring at a backlog that would keep them busy for the next five years if they did it all. Having influence over more teams doesn’t change this reality. On a product feature level, the individual product manager kills ideas, but as a director you’re their rubber ducky, tie-breaker, and bad cop. You are also doing the same thing at a product line or business unit level. You may also need to put your own ideas and projects on ice to make room for new inbounds.

To sum up, the communication and coordination needs go up and the amount of detail work goes down but doesn’t go away.

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