Does your organization have a product manager? Do you know what they do? Don’t feel too embarrassed if you don’t know the answer to that question; you’re not alone. Because product managers handle strategy and need to maintain close relationships with many teams, it’s not always clear what a product manager’s responsibilities really are. But getting a product from idea to market is a long, difficult journey, for which product managers are crucial.
That’s why we spoke to five product managers and asked the most common questions about their roles. Note that any opinions expressed beyond this point are solely those of the product managers and aren’t necessarily representative of the organizations they work for.
This is the first post in a series all about product managers. The second post is all about product management certifications, and whether they’re essential.
What are common product manager responsibilities?
The responsibilities of a project manager are pretty self-evident; they take care of pushing a project from start to finish. But the role of product manager can raise more questions. When we asked our product managers about their day-to-day, they consistently told us that there was a certain confusion to the role of product manager. So what are a product manager’s core responsibilities?
Finding and solving user needs
Much of a product manager’s work happens before anyone else really knows what’s in the cards. This work is about building a strategy that can sustain a product’s life cycle. As Ellen Chisa, Product Manager, Entrepreneur, and Founder of Dark, put it: “A product manager is responsible for making sure you ship the right product to your customers.” The key word here is right. This responsibility goes beyond just getting a product from development to market — as difficult as that is, It’s about making sure it fits what users really need. Chisa explained that this was a multi-faceted process, including making sure the product both addresses and resolves an actual user problem. This also means finding the right trade-offs between getting the product out the door quickly and adding new features.
Minh Tran Van Ba, a Product Manager at Mastercard, agreed: “In essence, a product manager is someone who adds value to a business by identifying and solving the customer’s problems.” That said, he cautioned that the role is mutable, and expectations can vary from one organization to the next. At some companies, a product manager may find themselves delving into the more technical side of this process, while at others they’ll be relied on for their business knowledge.
But generally speaking, a product manager’s responsibility starts with identifying a user need and figuring out how it’s going to get resolved. That knowledge then has to get distilled into a strategy.
Keeping teams aligned
Product managers are frequently referred to as “the CEO of their product.” Beyond just being able to pick up on user needs and finding the right solution, they’re the people developing and implementing strategies across their organization. Part of that work involves making sure people know the plan and stick to it. For Ahmed Majaat, Product Owner at GSoft, this is the product manager’s raison-d’être: “A product manager is the gatekeeper of a company’s vision and translates it into a tangible product strategy. They coordinate between cross-functional departments, like marketing and sales. They also do this for key stakeholders, like the head of strategy and even the Chief Operating Officer.”
That responsibility was outlined by Albin Poignot, co-founder and product manager at Linky Product as well: “Everyone is telling us what they think the next objective should be or which solution they think is best. We’re basically a funnel for this. They send us their thoughts and opinions; then at the end we try to come up with something that aligns everyone.” Product managers own their strategy. They’re responsible for communicating it to teams across the organization, helping them stick to it, and distilling their advice and perspectives into a single, robust plan.
Being the point of reference for stakeholders
Another similarity that product managers share with CEOs is ownership. Where a CEO is ultimately accountable for everything happening within their organization, the product manager is ultimately accountable for keeping product decisions in line with their overall strategy. If teams on the ground have questions about how their efforts align with the overall strategy, they’ll look to the product manager. But, perhaps more importantly, product managers are responsible for managing and meeting stakeholder expectations.
Poignot emphasizes this: “You start with stakeholders who all want something different, and at the end of the day you should have them wanting the same thing. You can’t have five visions at the same time.” This is a tricky process, especially since product managers don’t have the authority to tell stakeholders that one vision is right over the other. It’s ultimately a matter of hearing everyone out and finding the right compromise.
Catia Crespo, Product Manager at Ansys, goes one step above: “Usually, a product manager doesn’t manage a team directly. They link multiple teams — or stakeholders — that have an impact on a product’s development and delivery.” Product managers are essentially their product’s single source of truth, and they’re the ones keeping things in line with a stakeholder’s expectations.
What are not product manager responsibilities?
There can sometimes be confusion when a product manager joins an organization. If they’re the first one there, the people around them might not be exactly sure what they’re responsible for. That uncertainty can lead to misconceptions about what work can and can’t be assigned to a product manager. Here are just a few things a product manager will likely re-assign.
Doing hands-on work
Even though many product managers have a technical background, you’ll rarely find them jumping into code. Product managers generally keep a certain distance from the execution of their strategy; they’ve already got plenty on their plate. So while they coordinate with many teams, as Majaat puts it: “A product manager is not responsible for a product’s sales, its marketing, or customer success.” Product managers need an awareness of these initiatives and how they relate to the overall strategy, but a passing familiarity is enough.
Maybe the top misconception people have about product managers is that their role is interchangeable with project managers, only because the names are similar. As Crespo says: “I realized that many people don’t know what a product manager does, or they think that a project manager and a product manager do the exact same thing.”
They are, in fact, not the same thing. While the two roles have an inherently collaborative relationship, their area of focus is very different. A product manager is concerned with overseeing the strategy of a product throughout its life cycle. Project managers will come in within that cycle to manage specific chunks, say the development of a new feature or the release of a marketing campaign. Think of the difference between a product and project manager as the difference between a football coach and the quarterback.
Tran Van Ba agrees, saying that many people have had that misconception when working with him. He has a theory as to why that might be the case: “I don’t think that product management as a discipline is mature yet. It hasn’t really gone mainstream.”
Calling the shots
There’s a distinction to be made between developing product strategies and calling the shots. Product managers often find themselves mediating between the expectations of a product’s stakeholders and the teams executing the work, but that means they’re guiding work rather than assigning it. As Chisa puts it: “People often think the product manager is ‘in charge’ of choosing the answer to a problem. This is not at all true. Product Managers ask the right questions.” And that there is the key word. Questions. A product manager’s time is spent listening to what people across an organization have to say, not telling them what to do.
For Poignot, that distinction lies in establishing timelines: “It’s something we’re asked a lot: ‘what is the next specific date when you’re going to release?’ I think that’s where my responsibility ends.” For a product manager, most dates are flexible. They’re more concerned with making sure deliverables line up with the overall strategy rather than when they’re released. Of course, part of that means they have to be inherently flexible.
The product manager to-do list
“The CEO of product” is a good place to start if you’re trying to understand what a product manager does in their day-to-day. They need to have a similar awareness of how every team is contributing to overall strategy, and they’re defenders of the company’s vision. But while they have the same kind of responsibility a CEO does, they don’t call the shots. Product managers maintain a careful balance between what they know needs to get done and the input they get from the teams on the ground.
Curious to know if product managers need a certification? We asked our PMs about that too.