So You Got the Product Manager Position – Should you take it?

In this economy, you spend so much time trying to find and land a Product Management position. So what happens when you get an opportunity?  How should you decide if you are going to take a job or not?  There are a few factors that we consider when we look at a possible position.

Respect: When you join, you will get the benefit of the doubt for a while but you will need to earn the respect of your co-workers and this may take a while. But this may never happen if the product management organization is not respected in your company.

P/L Ownership:  The holy grail of Product Management – everyone wants it, but only the senior guys get it.  If you get P/L ownership, then you know that you will be playing a key role in the product and the company.  But what if, like most of us, you don’t get it?  That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should skip the position. You should, however, question seriously how much influence you are going to have on your product.  Are you going to be the one developing the product budget for executive review?  Are you going to be the one proposing prices and sales incentives?  If so, while you don’t own the P/L, you really have a significant influence on it.

One other factor to consider for the P/L: Many companies may not have the data available or accounting processes in place to deliver on the promise of P/L control.  Be sure you understand how they track costs and revenue before you accept a promise of P/L control.

Process: Does this company use any type of process in their Product Management discipline?  This is going to tell you two things:  First, how mature their Product Management organization is.  If they have been around for a while or have some experienced people, they are going to have a process of some sort.  Second, how seriously executive management takes PM.  Process creation and execution is expensive and only pays for itself in the long run.  The only way that you can get a solid process in place is with executive sponsorship.

Risk Profile: You may assume that companies with a well-defined process make product decisions quickly and efficiently, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Each company has a different level of comfort with risk which usually plays out in the speed of their product investment decisions. If the executive team is risk averse and uncomfortable pulling the trigger, you may find yourself in a never ending cycle of information gathering and approval meetings.

Marketing:  What type of marketing department does this organization have? Are they the “entertain customers and drink martinis” type of marketers or are they the “number crunching, graph making, ROI generating” type of marketers?  If they are the former, you are going to be guessing a lot about your product direction, which is going to be a miserable experience.  If they are the latter, then you can bet that a partnership for success is underway.

Chain of Command:  Who do you report to – the head of Marketing or the head of Product Development?  Reporting to the head of marketing tells you that you are going to have a customer focused experience while reporting to the head of Product Development tells you that you are going to have a technical/engineering focus to your position.  Either one is fine, but you want to be sure that you have a solid understanding of which one plays to your strengths. You may also want to consider which parts of the organization hold the most power. Did the CEO rise up through the technical ranks or was he a sales guy? Obtaining some perspective on the corporate power structure will provide you with some insight on whether you will be operating from a position of power or as an underdog.

Idea Generation:  Where do the ideas come from in the company?  Are they generated from the Executive Suite?  Do they come out of Product Management?  Or do you get the standard answer of “Ideas can come from anywhere…” which directly translates to “I have no clue where our ideas come from, they just kind of show up…”  That isn’t to say that innovation is limited only to the geniuses in Product Management, but that is the whole reason that product management exists – to generate and implement product ideas.  If the company’s ideas aren’t mainly coming out of product management, they either (a) aren’t listening to them or (b) hired lousy product managers.

Customer Profile: Does the company have a wide range of customers from a diverse set of markets and industries or is a large percentage of revenue dependent upon one market? One customer? This has a huge impact on the sort of product manager you’ll be able to be. One of the differences between being a consulting organization and a product organization is the ability to produce products that appeal to a large number of customers – not just one particular customer. When a company is dependent upon a handful of customers for its livelihood, it is difficult if not impossible to say no to their enhancement requests. This is proves to be a vicious cycle since the more attention you pay to your key customers, the fewer resources you have available to build a market solution.

Solid Product Suite:  Would you buy the products the company sells?  If not, are they good products that are poorly marketed?  Are they built with quality, but they don’t meet the needs of the end user?  Or are they just bad products?  I wouldn’t necessarily turn down a company with bad products – that is a fantastic opportunity to help a company turn itself around.  However, you really need to understand why the products are failing so that you can properly assess if you can fix the problems and right the ship.

So what if the products are very successful – then you take the job, right?  Not necessarily.  They might be looking for a caretaker product manager to ensure that nothing goes wrong as their product suite matures and sunsets.  That might not present the growth opportunities and challenges that you need.

Culture and Ethics: This is a difficult attribute to consider, but you’ll be doing yourself a favor by doing a little soul-searching to make sure your personality and beliefs are aligned with the company you’re going to join. This may be an obvious for some industries like alcohol and gaming, but some business plans and practices fall into a grey area.  Every company and industry has different set of norms that you must be comfortable with in order to be successful.

These are a few things that we consider when evaluating a possible product manager position.  We would love to hear your take on the subject – what do you use evaluate possible positions and more importantly, what do you wish you used to evaluate a position in hindsight.