Product Leadership Marty Cagan

Product Managers vs Product Leaders

For those that have been following along, I recently wrote about alternatives to product managers, and alternatives to product leaders as the context to understand the debates in the industry around the different styles of leadership (essentially empowerment vs command and control).

One of the consequences of these articles, and the resulting discussions, is that I’ve had several really thoughtful conversations with people ranging from individual contributor product managers up to CEO’s.  As so often happens, the discussions after an article help me to more clearly understand how people think about these topics, which then helps me to find better ways of explaining.

The subject of this article is to address an issue that I have heard occasionally in the past, but I didn’t realize just how common the confusion was until I had a chance to dig in with different people on the product leadership topic, especially people in Europe.

The issue is that due to the lack of any sort of standardization or consistency in the product community (nobody’s fault), for many people out there, the term “product leader” is used synonymously with “product manager” (and sometimes even with “product owner”).

I certainly did not coin any of these terms, but I was always taught that a “product manager” was an individual contributor, and a “product leader” was a people manager (I am simplifying a bit here, but I’ll elaborate on each below).

I think I’ve been pretty consistent over the years in emphasizing that “the product manager is not the boss of anybody” and that “the single most important responsibility of a product leader is developing the skills of her people.”

However, it’s also true that I’m just one voice of many out there, and others have long used the phrase “product leader” in the more general sense to represent either the product manager or product owner.  And this is not unreasonable as “leadership” is certainly one of the qualities of a strong product manager (just as it is with a strong engineering tech lead).

But hopefully everyone would agree that there are very significant differences between the individual contributor product person on a product team, and the manager of product people, responsible for coaching and developing the people, and for the strategic context.

I have never loved the title “product manager,” but I also believe that we all have to pick our battles, and this is a case of “standard is better than better.”  So I have never tried to introduce a different term, and have no desire to do so now.  The term “product leader” is also not very precise, but in all these years I’ve never heard a better term, and again I have no desire to try to introduce one.

The specific titles for the product individual contributor that are most common: associate product manager, product manager, senior product manager, and principal product manager.

The specific titles for the product people manager that are most common: manager of product management, director of product management, vice president of product, and chief product officer.

And there’s one hybrid title group product manager (which is a player-coach role, and I’m a big fan of this one for people considering moving from product management into product leadership).

So my hope and humble request of the product community is that in order to help people understand what we all mean when we discuss difficult product concepts, we reserve the term product manager for the individual contributor, and the term product leader for the managers of product people.

I believe that the majority of the product community already uses these definitions, but there is a significant minority, especially in Europe, that don’t, and this leads to substantial and unnecessary confusion.

I know that we’ll never get everyone in a community of our size to agree on nomenclature, but I’m hoping the value of the clarity is enough to sway most.