The VP of Product vs. The Product Manager
September 15, 2020

The VP of Product vs. The Product Manager

by Brian de Haaff

10,559. The number of open product roles in the U.S. (or at least the ones that were recently posted on Indeed). It is great to see because when I started my career, there were only a handful. And more and more companies are hiring product teams. If you are looking to join a product team or improve how yours operates, consider the key differences in product management roles — and expectations for each.

Navigating who does what within the product organization is key to securing your place.

The product team as a whole is responsible for guiding the future of the product. But the boundaries between roles can be blurry — particularly in smaller companies where product managers tend to have broad responsibilities.

Defining product roles and responsibilities is not just about establishing clarity in the day-to-day work. It is also about matching the right person and skill set to the right job. Doing a great job as a product manager does not necessarily prepare you to be a VP of product. And lots of folks have meaningful careers without moving to the executive team.

Regardless of job title, everyone on the product team needs to be a steward of the product vision, develop real customer empathy, and focus on delivering a lovable product.

Okay, but back to those job titles. Let's start with basic definitions for the two in question. The VP of product typically leads the product management group as a whole and is a member of the company's leadership team. They are responsible for defining and driving the high-level initiatives that support business goals. This person typically reports to the chief product officer if there is one or directly to the CEO.

The product manager owns the implementation of the product strategy — encompassing everything needed to develop, launch, and maintain the product. Depending on the size and structure of the organization, this person typically reports to a group product manager or the VP of product.

Product manager is often the first role for someone who wants to grow into a VP of product position. However, whether you are thinking about your own career progression or looking for guidance in how to delineate responsibilities, it will be helpful to compare the differences between the VP of product and the product manager:

Strategic vision

The VP of product defines the overall vision — depending on the company, this might be for one product or an entire portfolio. Knowing where the product is headed (and why it matters) guides all the decisions that the team makes. The VP of product owns the "why."

The product manager brings the product strategy to life — by working with cross-functional teams to define features and set timelines. They are responsible for ensuring that every feature has real value for customers and for the business.

Influence

The VP of product is often considered a leader of people in the product management group and in the organization overall. They work closely with the c-suite, other senior stakeholders, and sometimes in smaller companies with the board of directors. Exceptional VPs have the unique ability to champion the voice of the customer and advocate for the interests of the business at the same time.

The product manager does not typically manage people, but they have broad organizational influence and guide cross-functional efforts. Product managers work closely with engineering, UX, sales, support, and marketing. They lead the team through planned work and are the direct point of contact in fielding requests for fixes and what gets built.

Skills

The VP of product has a deep understanding of the market and product fit. They have a holistic view of what it takes to deliver a Complete Product Experience (CPE) — the accumulation of all interactions that a customer has with a company. They are skilled at developing teams and talent. Hiring, training, and mentoring their team are key focus areas.

The product manager is skilled at taking action on product plans — developing user stories, product requirements, and wireframes. They have deep customer empathy and use it to build specific solutions. They are able to communicate with both technical and non-technical audiences alike.

Responsibilities

The VP of product concentrates on big-picture "why" and set goals at the top-most level. They own the strategic roadmap — making sure that the product initiatives support business growth. And they focus on growing and scaling the team too.

The product manager is responsible for transforming the "why" into the "what" and the "when." They own the product roadmap that defines how the team will deliver new features. They manage the product backlog, build release plans, and communicate product plans to cross-functional teams.

KPIs

The VP of product tracks business performance KPIs across the product lifecycle, such as customer LTV, revenue, and market position. They may perform cohort analysis to understand user engagement through the entire customer life cycle. And they monitor speed to market to ensure that the product team is shipping on a regular basis.

The product manager assesses KPIs related to product usage, such as number of users, monthly product demos, and customer conversion rates. They look for trends to help guide trade-off decisions about what to build and enhance. They track product velocity — the pace to review ideas, bring features to market, and fix bugs.

More and more people and companies are interested in growing their product management capabilities.

The VP of product and the product manager bring distinct skill sets to the organization to help determine the path forward for the product. The day to day may differ but there is a common purpose — both are driven to better serve customers and create enterprise value.

How else would you explain the differences in these roles?

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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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