The terms ‘product manager’ and ‘product leader’ are often used interchangeably, creating a confusion that can hinder effective communication and teamwork within organizations. 

Product Manager

Product Manager (PM)s are responsible for the tactical aspects of a product’s lifecycle. PMs are not necessarily team managers; instead, they focus on the product’s success through a deep understanding of market needs, customer feedback, and effective execution. They work closely with cross-functional teams and stakeholders to steer the product in the right direction.

One key defining attribute of a Product Manager is the ability to translate strategic goals into actionable plans. They are the ones who meticulously define product features, prioritize tasks, and drive the day-to-day development process. 

Product Leader

On the other side of the spectrum, there is the Product Leader. This role is primarily about managing people, not products. Product Leaders are responsible for nurturing and developing the skills of their team members. They take on the role of a coach and mentor, guiding their team towards achieving their full potential.

Their impact must extend far beyond team development. Product Leaders play one of the most important parts in the strategic direction of the product. They are often involved in high-level decision-making processes, which include setting the product vision, defining long-term goals, and aligning the product roadmap with the company’s objectives. 

Leadership Styles

There’s an unending debate surrounding leadership styles: empowerment versus command-and-control. Both approaches have their merits, and their effectiveness largely depends on the context and the dynamics of the team.

Empowerment leadership emphasizes giving team members autonomy and ownership over their work. Product Managers who adopt this style encourage creativity and innovation, fostering a sense of ownership and commitment among their team members. It’s a style well-suited for self-motivated, experienced teams.

Command-and-control leadership involves a more directive approach. Product Leaders who lean towards this style provide clear instructions and closely monitor progress. This approach can be valuable in situations where there’s a need for tight control or when dealing with less experienced team members.

The key is finding the right balance between these styles, as there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Effective leaders adapt their style to the situation and the individuals they lead.

Variations across the industry

In product management, the term ‘product leader’ is not always used uniformly. In some contexts, it might refer to either a Product Manager or a Product Owner. However, what unites these roles is the element of leadership, whether it’s leadership of a product or leadership of a team.

The distinction between an individual contributor within a product team and a manager responsible for strategic direction and team development is significant. The former places more emphasis on the product itself, focusing on execution, while the latter takes on a broader role in shaping the product’s future.

Titles and implications

One of the sources of confusion in product management is the amount of titles associated with these roles. For individual contributors, titles can range from Associate Product Manager to Product Manager, Senior Product Manager, and even Principal Product Manager. Each of these titles reflects varying levels of experience and expertise.

For those in leadership positions, titles such as Manager of Product Management, Director of Product Management, Vice President of Product, and Chief Product Officer are common. These titles detail increasing levels of responsibility, with Chief Product Officer being the pinnacle of product leadership within an organization.

The need for clear definitions

The product management community is increasingly recognizing the need for clear and standardized definitions of roles. This clarity can help alleviate confusion and improve communication within organizations. One proposed solution is to reserve the title ‘Product Manager’ for individual contributors who focus on product execution and ‘Product Leader’ for those who manage teams and provide strategic direction.

While it might be challenging to impose a one-size-fits-all terminology across the diverse product management landscape, the benefits of clear and distinct role definitions are substantial. They lead to better understanding, improved collaboration, and more effective team dynamics.

Alexander Procter

January 25, 2024

3 Min read