The Challenges of Being a Product Manager
December 23, 2014

The Challenges of Being a Product Manager

by Brian de Haaff

I got a call from the hospital. His voice was faint. “Brian, I am not going to be able to come in for a few weeks. I am not well.” “What happened?” I asked. “Well, as you know, the pressure of the upcoming product launch has been tough,” my colleague said. “And I just felt a bit out of control.”

Who would guess that product management could be so bad for your health? It should be the greatest job on earth, but too many product managers are beaten down by lousy strategy, poor communications, and too many demands on their time.

Building great products can be incredibly rewarding. But the role carries risks that must be respected.

In the past, I have talked about why a product manager is the CEO of their product. Yet unlike a CEO, most PMs lack the administrative assistant, board of directors, and executive leadership team. They also get paid a lot less.

At Aha! we have talked with countless product teams over the last 18 months about building their product strategy and visual roadmaps. We have also run product and strategy in six software companies ourselves, so we understand the challenges.

Being a product manager in today’s agile world is tough. PMs are pulled in every direction and are encouraged to constantly look down rather than looking up and out. As I thought about the product manager on my team who broke down, I started to list the major dangers of being a PM.

Here are the top four challenges:

There is not enough of you
Your manager is looking for a PPT deck for that new product initiative. Support needs you to get on a call with your largest customer who is threatening to cancel because your product is complicated. Sales is just “one” feature away from closing the big deal. Do these scenarios sound familiar? There are never enough hours in the day for upper management, engineering, sales, support, and marketing.

You decide
Leading product involves making tough decisions. You know customers like family, collaborate with engineering, and guide the rest of the non-technical team to greatness. But at times, you will feel like an army of one. That is because you must make the big decisions.

Expert in everything (or at least pretend)
As a product manager embedded in a cross-functional organization, you are expected to be an expert in everything. While nobody would miss product management if it (and you) disappeared in the short-term, ensuring every group understands the product and how to market, sell, and support it depends on you.

You are on your own
I once knew a VP of Product who came into a newly created role at a new company. She was highly recruited — and had a world of expectations heaped on her to jumpstart innovation and stabilize a rapidly growing platform. To get the job done, she was given one direct report. There were 20 engineers in her organization across the U.S.— but they all reported to the VP of Engineering. As a product leader, nobody reports to you — but expectations remain sky high.

Product managers must love what they do if they are going to do it well. There is just too much uncertainty to fear risk in the role, and understanding the challenges upfront matters.

To ensure that you thrive as a PM, know the dangers and plan accordingly. You must captain your product and motivate lots of folks to build, market, sell, and support it.

Don’t end up like my poor product manager who was in need of psychiatric care. He recovered and went on to grow his career. But no one wants a job that damages your health.

What are the biggest risks product managers face?

Brian de Haaff

About Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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