The product management talent gap

It’s no surprise to hear from a product professional they had no relevant experience in product management before they joined the function, or in some cases, that they didn’t know exactly what product management entailed before they got the job. It’s also no surprise to hear them explaining how they found themselves in the deep the first time they joined the function. No relevant experience, no guidance or absence of a structured development plan can make it very difficult for a newly appointed product professional to show what they’re capable of or even live up to the expectations of the function.

On the other hand, companies realize more and more the importance of having a good product professional onboard. However, it’s becoming more and more difficult for them to find one. And it’s understandable. In the past, the tasks of a product manager were mostly fragmented and distributed among multiple functions. As a result, you’ll soon come to realize that most product managers have a background in engineering, design or marketing, simply because those functions together consolidate most of the skills a product professional should have. But, that doesn’t make it easier to find a professional that can combine all relevant experience that was distributed among multiple organizational roles.

Product management is an interesting and controversial function to be in. Although it recently became and still remains one of the most critical roles within any company software is a core driver, the definition of product management is still vague, versatile and differs among companies. You can find functions fighting over responsibilities, companies poorly describing the role or even product professionals giving different definitions to the multiple roles the function includes. Just think of the topic ‘Product Owner vs Product Manager’.

A lot of third party initiatives have popped up, trying to shed some light and give some clarity to what product management is. As part of their scope, they are also working on initiatives, tailored to support the growth path and offer guidance to achieve the short and long term goals of the product community. However the activities organized by those organizations cannot outperform the momentum product management is gaining, and therefore cannot (yet) adequately form a pivotal step to product management.

Companies have heavily started hiring product professionals, and since the offer is still limited, more and more professionals outside the function find the opportunity to jump in and cover those roles. At an expense. They find themselves confronted with jobs they had never done before, requested to wear multiple hats and obliged to agree to timelines and deliverables that were not feasible at the first place. They are requested to drive product innovation and discovery when they still need to learn the basics and get themselves in a pace. And all that, leads to stress and incorrect decision making.

As if that wasn’t enough, we find ourselves faced with an oxymoron. For the companies that are lucky enough to have attained good product talent, they are highly likely they will lose it, as they don’t know how to keep it. Product managers often find their career progressing very slowly, as there are limited roles that involve managing teams and people in the product organization, and unlike in engineering, companies have not consistently defined an expert track for product managers.

The leadership development model for product managers, ie behaviors, mindsets and attributes that the product managers are expected to display at various levels, is often poorly articulated.

As a result, the only way to measure product managers is based on the success of their product. On the other hand, product managers believe that career progression depends on luck; being at the right place, at the right time. As opportunistic as that may sound.

Last, but not least, learning on the job is an element that every product manager has encountered. And to be frank, I think it’s necessary to experience that, to some extent though. In the meantime, very few companies have put in place the right mechanisms to support a continuous learning mindset, or develop mechanisms that will allow their product workforce proactively grow. And the issue can get worse, if the product professionals’ managers don’t have experience in product management themselves, and therefore cannot support the learning curve of their team.

Looking for the right trainings, joining conferences and events, reading articles and experimenting on the job to find the ‘golden recipe’ are a few of the routes the product managers are individually taking to find their path and make it work. Based on gut feeling, or if they’re lucky enough, with support by external mechanisms.

How can the product gap be bridged?

In the Netherlands, we have built the first free mentorship program that focuses on peer-to-peer mentorship; from the product community to the product community.

Experienced product professionals pass their knowledge to those who want to learn more and find a clear way to further grow. It’s a self organizing concept, that focuses on the short and long term goals of the product community. The Product Lab was launched as an answer to the request of product professionals, who gave that feedback during interviews.

However, nurturing the product community should also be driven and maintained by companies.

Organizations need to articulate the product management leadership development model.

That should include a concrete, actionable description of what the organization wants and expects from its product professionals. It should reflect the organization’s strategy and priorities and should be different than the competency lists all employees are assessed against. They should be specific, and dynamic, reflecting the changing landscape.

Leveraging a field-and-forum approach to design an end-to-end learning journey, is another step the organizations need to take to foster strong product professionals. It’s no secret that people learn better when they learn on the job. And the same applies to product managers. Rather than asking from the product professionals to watch videos, go to conferences or sit in classrooms, they can be supported on the job by being assigned to ambitious projects and coached through them on a weekly basis. It may be time consuming, but the product professionals will be thankful and loyal to you.

Last, but no least, hiring a product professional should be a high priority for senior leadership.

To put it out there, a product manager can make or break the success of your company. The decisions they are responsible for are highly strategic and can have a big impact on the speed and growth of a company. So, recruitment needs to spend a good amount of time in finding those professionals who have a great potential in growing into a product leader, if they’re not there yet.