Becoming a head of product is a career aspiration for many product managers and product owners. But what exactly should a head of product do? Which are the responsibilities the individual should fulfil? Read on to find out my answer.
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The Head of Product Role
A head of product is someone who manages a group of product people—individuals who look after one or more products and who may be called product manager or product owner. Depending on the size and org structure of your company, the role might also be referred to as Chief Product Officer, VP Product, or Director of Product Management.
As the head of product, you play a key part in developing the people on your team, creating an environment that helps them succeed, and improving the effectiveness of the product management function in the enterprise.
The responsibilities I share below are based on my work with product leaders and product practitioners. To make the duties more accessible, I have grouped them into four sets: people management, processes and tools, business strategy and organisational development, and self-leadership. Note that I have kept the description of the responsibilities concise. To learn more, please follow the links in the text.
Be aware that there is no one right way to apply the head of product role or a golden standard for doing the job. You should therefore tailor my recommendations to your team and organisation. The best way to do this is to ask the people on the product management team how you can effectively support them as the head of product.
- Create an environment where people feel valued and able to speak their minds. Genuinely care about the individuals on your team and show appreciation for their efforts. Practice active listening, empathise with the team members, speak and act with integrity, and build strong, trustful connections. Give people a choice about the products they work on, for example, by using self-selection. This increases motivation and it shows the team members that you value them.
- Set clear expectations and agree on specific, measurable, and outcome-based goals. Having well-defined roles in place will help you with this, as I’ll discuss below.
- Make sure that the product people have the authority and autonomy they need to succeed in their jobs. Individuals who manage products should have full-stack ownership and be empowered to make not only tactical product decisions but also strategic ones. Additionally, ensure that the products are loosely coupled so that they can be effectively progressed and not held back by dependencies.
- Hold people accountable to meet the agreed goals. Use, for example, the CEDAR model and appreciative inquiry techniques to offer feedback in the right way and help people get back on track.
- Develop the individuals on the team. Help them get better at product management and grow as product professionals. This includes acquiring new skills and deepening existing ones—depending on the specific role the person plays. You might achieve this by mentoring and coaching the individuals as well as recommending suitable training courses. Don’t forget to capture the learning and development measure, for example, on a learning roadmap.
- Establish clear career paths to retain team members and show them how they can advance their careers. For instance, someone might start as a feature owner, then take on the Scrum product owner role, next become a portfolio manager and finally a head of product.
- Encourage a growth mindset and create a failure-tolerant environment where experiencing setbacks and making mistakes is seen as a necessary part of learning new skills as well as bringing new products and features to live. One way to do this is to share failure experiences from your career.
- Remove impediments the team members face and act as an escalation partner for problems the individual product people cannot solve. Examples are excessive red tape and the lack of qualified Scrum Masters.
- Help the team members practise sustainable pace so they don’t sacrifice their wellbeing but stay healthy and motivated. For example, encourage people to take regular breaks from work and don’t expect them to work extra hours, at least not on a regular basis.
- Grow the product management team. This includes creating job descriptions and interviewing candidates. A great way to develop the team is to organise around products, as I discuss in more detail in the article Tips for Growing a Product Management Team.
Processes and Tools
- Ensure that the product management roles are well defined and understood by all team members. Clearly state the authority, responsibilities, and necessary skills of each role. Involve the team member in describing the roles. This leverages their expertise, creates a shared understanding, and shows them that you value their input.
- Help establish the right product management processes. For example, agree with the team members what goals should be used to manage the products, how product discovery is practised, how often the product strategy and roadmap are reviewed, how the right KPIs are selected, and how product backlog refinement is carried out.
- Facilitate the selection of the right product management tools, for instance, to capture the product strategy, to describe the product roadmap, and to manage the product backlog.
- Help the people on your team continuously improve their way of working. Set some time aside once per quarter to collaboratively review the roles, processes, and tools, discuss any issues and improvement ideas, and adjust them accordingly.
- Ensure that the product portfolio—the group of products the team members look after—is effectively managed. This includes setting strategic goals for the portfolio, balancing the group of products, managing dependencies between products, and aligning release dates. As the head of product, you might be able to carry out this work, especially if the portfolio is not too large. If that’s not the case, hire a dedicated product portfolio manager who carries out the work.
Business Strategy and Organisational Development
- Contribute to the business strategy. Ensure that the plan is realistic and share it with the product people. This will help them understand the direction the business is heading in and the strategic objectives the entire business is following.
- Represent the product management function on the leadership team (when you act as a Chief Product Officer, VP Product, or Director of Product Management), and build strong connections with the other heads, for instance, head of development, head of marketing, and head of sales.
- Lobby for the necessary organisational changes to fully establish an effective product management function, if required. This may include securing the necessary empowerment for the product people on your team and establishing a product-led way of working.
- Look after yourself. Ensure that your workload is sustainable and that you stay healthy and motivated. There is no point in doing an amazing job for your team and company but being constantly overworked. Cultivating mindfulness will help you spot early signs of stress so you can quickly respond and adjust your work. Developing self-compassion will help you being kind towards yourself. It avoids being overly self-critical and expecting too much of yourself.
- Take time to reflect on your own work. Identify ways to strengthen your skills, develop as a leader, and get better at guiding and supporting others. For instance, you might decide to address a lingering conflict, change your leadership style, or make a focused effort to practice active listening.
- Invest in your own career development and determine the measures that will help you take the next step.
 This approach is inspired by Esther Derby’s work, which builds on Kurt Lewin insight that the behaviour an individual shows is the result of the person and the environment, see “Skills Are Only Half the Equation for Success.”