February 1

Product Lead Career Path and How To Become One

As a product becomes more complex, it reaches a point where it requires the attention of more than one product manager. Many organizations find that when there are multiple product managers working on the same product, it’s helpful to have a product lead that coordinates the efforts of the multiple product managers.

Larger, more established organizations also find that introducing new products requires an experienced product person. These organizations often turn to a product lead to guide those efforts, relying on that person’s experience and knowledge of product management.

Here’s a look at what product leads are, what they do, and some tips on how to become one.

What is product lead?

A product lead is an experienced product manager who leads the development efforts for a critical new product. Companies typically use the product lead role when developing a complicated product that requires the work of multiple product teams.

The role is often at the same level as a product director, with the exception that product leads do not manage other product managers. They stay as individual contributors so that they can coach and mentor product managers and manage products.

You may see roles such as lead product manager, group product manager, or principal product manager that share the product lead role description.

Product lead definition

The folks at ProductPlan suggest the following three definitions for lead product manager or product lead:

  • The product lead handles a complex product made up of several individual components or apps (each with its own product manager).
  • A senior product professional in charge of driving the development of a new product for a large company.
  • An experienced product manager who drives product strategy and managing and mentoring other product managers.

These three definitions also provide insight into when you might use a product lead.

What does a product management lead do?

People filling the product lead job manage the discovery, development, testing and launch of a new product.

If you’re thinking “that’s what product managers do”, you’re right. Some companies use product lead job titles to identify experienced product people who can coordinate the work of multiple product teams or lead development of critical products.

You can distinguish product leads from product managers based on the scope of their work. Instead of focusing on a specific feature or set of features, product leads often have responsibility for introducing an entire product.

That can translate into establishing the overall product strategy for the product and communicating overall progress to the rest of the organization.

Product leads also have explicit responsibility for raising the skills of the other product people in the product organization. They don’t have official management responsibility for other product managers, but they help keep everyone’s skills sharp.

Product lead job description

Common product lead job descriptions are very similar to senior product manager job descriptions with a focus on owning entire products and coaching other product managers.

If you need a starting point for a product lead job description, refer to Steve Johnson’s sample job description of product strategy manager and adjust for your organization.

Three product lead responsibilities

Any useful product lead job description should note standard product management responsibilities, along with these three additional responsibilities that come from leading the introduction of critical new products.

Create a Product Strategy

Product leads typically own crafting the product strategy for their product. This is a step beyond other product managers who provide input into what the product strategy should be but aren’t directly responsible for putting the entire picture together.

Product leads use their insight into the full product picture, as well as input from the product managers they work with, to craft an overall product strategy. They will then work with the other product managers to deliver on that strategy.

Coordinate work on a complex product requiring several product managers

Most complex new products in established organizations require the efforts of multiple product teams and product managers. Product leads often coordinate the efforts of all these teams to provide an end product that is valuable, viable, feasible, and usable.

Besides coordinating the interactions of the product teams with each other, a product lead also represents the overall product to the rest of the organization. This includes providing a clear, consistent message to the rest of the organization, and protecting the product teams from outside politics that would slow down their development progress.

Coach other Product Managers

Product leads are the most experienced product managers in an organization, so they coach and mentor other product managers.

Rich Mironov points out that “good product management is more craft than procedure and is best learned through an apprentice model.” The product lead is the coach in this apprentice model.

The amount of coaching a product lead does depends on the experience of the other product managers. If an organization has mostly experienced product managers, the product lead can provide occasional advice in specific areas where the product managers don’t have experience.

If most of an organization’s product managers are new, the product lead may spend a majority of their time coaching the other product people on skills such as end user discovery and customer validation.

Product lead career path

Product lead is a step on the overall product management career path. The product lead role represents a potential transition point from individual contributor to manager.

Here’s a typical product management career path:

  • Associate Product Manager
  • Junior Product Manager / Product Owner / technical product manager
  • Product Manager
  • Senior Product ManagerProduct Lead/Lead Product Manager
  • Product Director / Group Product Manager
  • VP of Product / Head of Product
  • CPO / Chief Product Officer

This general product management career path is consistent with the career paths from some top technology firms that Sachin Rekhi shared.

In most of these career paths, product lead is the top of the career path for individual contributor product managers. You can become a product lead after being a senior product manager. At this point, your choices are to stay as a Product Lead, or start leading people as a product director.

Some organizations now provide the opportunity to gain additional responsibility as an individual contributor and have created the group product manager or principal product manager roles. These organizations follow the dual product manager career path that Ken Norton advocates for.

4 tips on how to become a product lead

Becoming a product lead is difficult. You need to have a combination of experience, knowledge, and judgment to be effective in the role.

With that in mind, here are four tips that will help you become a product lead and succeed once you get that role.

Get practical experience

By definition, a product lead is a very experienced product manager. It’s more than just the number of years you’ve been a product manager, however, it’s the quality of that experience.

High-quality experiences expand your knowledge and understanding of the art and science of product management. You need to understand all the elements of product development and you need to implement those elements in real time in novel situations.

You also need to understand how your product fits into its market and be very familiar with your customers and their needs.

Continue learning

Since practical experience is such a critical factor for product leads, you can’t expect to get a product lead role by taking a certification course. You also may not need a bachelor’s degree in something directly related to product.

That said, continuous learning is key to becoming an effective product lead. You need to keep up to date on new product management trends, and there will be cases where you need to learn about practices you haven’t used in your day to day work.

Don’t rely on massive product management courses that aim to teach you everything there is to know about product management. Those types of courses are full of just in case information. They scrape the surface on a wide range of techniques and practices, but don’t go deep into how to use those techniques, or when they are most appropriate. Your best outcome from taking those types of courses is having an awareness of a particular practice.

You’re much better off reading blog posts, joining a product management community, and attending a product management conference to keep abreast of new techniques and challenges. Then, when you need more information about a particular technique, you can read a book or find a targeted course that goes into more detail about that topic. You can get information just in time.

Network

Another advantage of joining product management communities or attending conferences (in person or properly run virtual) is that you can establish connections with other experienced product managers. These connections can help you learn about new practices and give advice when you run into unique product management challenges.

The other big benefit of building a network is to help you find that right opportunity if your current organization does not provide product lead opportunities. When you’re active in product management communities or on LinkedIn, you build a strong reputation as a knowledgeable product manager, and that may help you land a product lead job.

Be self aware

Effective product leads should lead by example, and in order to do that, you need to be very self aware. Be honest with yourself regarding the areas where you can improve. That helps you focus your learning activities and can also guide your choices on where you seek additional experience.

Pay attention to how you interact with the various people you work with. Be willing to alter your communication approach based on who you’re interacting with. You’ll have to communicate with developers differently than you do with users (except perhaps your users are also developers).

Consider carefully how you react to difficult situations. Remember that you don’t have control over most things that happen, but you have control over how you react. If you’re able to face difficult situations and keep things productive, you’ll gain a great deal of respect and build a bigger base from which you can influence your product team and your organization.

5 most important product lead manager skills

There are a variety of skills that product leads need in order to be successful, many of which are skills that all product managers should have.

Let’s look at the five most important skills that set product leads apart.

Solid product management knowledge

Product leads need to have a solid understanding of the breadth and depth of product management concepts and practices.

They need to understand core product management practices and context dependent activities such as

  • Developing product vision and driving product strategy
  • Interviewing users
  • Leading customer validation efforts
  • Creating a Product Roadmap
  • Pricing
  • Establishing OKRs and metrics
  • Saying “No” to executives, internal stakeholders and customers.

They need to know how to do these things so they can lead development of new products, and coach other product managers in the organization.

Deep understanding of customer needs

A great product manager understands customers and their needs. It’s especially important for lead product managers who drive the development of new products. They need to know what customers are looking for and whether their new product will satisfy those needs.

To gain this understanding, product leads should be familiar with the various methods for interviewing users and validating customer needs. They should know the various methods of collecting feedback. They should have a good relationship with the different sources of feedback, whether that’s customer success, sales, or product marketing.

Excellent communication skills

Given all the different people inside and outside an organization that a product manager has to interact with, a lead product manager needs to have excellent communication skills. A product lead has to build a clear shared understanding, which relies on the right message delivered in the right way.

The right message is as clear and unambiguous as possible. The product lead needs to adjust how they convey those messages based on who they’re communicating with.

The result is that a product lead is as comfortable communicating with an entry level team member as they are with a senior executive. They also need to communicate effectively with users and customers.

Experience in product development

A product lead’s interaction with product teams takes on special importance. It’s not enough for the lead product manager to interact effectively with a cross-functional team. The lead product manager also needs to have a working knowledge of the product development process.

The product lead doesn’t need to know the ins and outs of writing code or creating a design, but they need to have meaningful experience working as part of a product team to discover and deliver successful products.

Product leads need to understand how a product team can balance continuous discovery and delivery. They need to work with product designers to understand customer needs and refine the user experience.

They needs to understand how to work with a development team in an agile fashion, without letting process become over bearing.
Product leads also need to be comfortable interacting with product teams using the practices that product teams are comfortable with, such as backlogs, prioritization, and product requirements.

Coaching and Mentoring

The skills and experience mentioned so far position the product lead to be a wealth of information for other product managers. To be truly effective, a product lead needs to apply that knowledge and experience to raise the skill level of other product managers.

Coaching is much more effective when a coach guides through questions and examples rather than just tells the apprentice the answer. As a result, a product lead needs to apply the Socratic method when coaching other product people. They also need to demonstrate the practices they are teaching to other product managers.

Product lead vs product manager: 3 differences between these two roles

On the whole, product leads and product managers have the same responsibilities and perform the same activities. The overlap in responsibilities is so significant that in a startup, you’re more likely to run across product managers with no product leads.

As the product organization grows, it may add product leads and the difference between the two roles comes down to their scope of responsibilities, their focus on strategy vs. execution, and their relationship to other product people.

Scope of responsibilities

When there are both product managers and product leads, product managers work with one product team to focus on specific product features or a particular aspect of a product.

Product leads, meanwhile, have responsibility for managing a product over the entire product lifecycle, and will often work with multiple product teams, and potentially multiple product managers.

You’ll typically see product leads and product managers on complex existing products or when a large company introduces a new product and involves multiple product teams to build that product such as in financial services.

Define product strategy vs execute product strategy

When both product leads and product managers exist, the product leads often take on the responsibility of crafting and executing the product strategy for a complex product.

Product managers are responsible for executing the product strategy for their features or portion of the product.

Put another way, product leads will often take an active role in setting the direction of the product, while product managers will act on the strategy inside their area of responsibility.

Relationship with other product people

Product managers view the other product managers they work with as peers. In a healthy product organization, these product managers may mentor each other, especially if one product manager has a particular strength. The coaching is informal, and not a required aspect of their job.

Product leads spend a portion of their time coaching other product managers. The coaching is more formal, and while product leads do not manage other product managers, product leads gauge their success on how they help other product managers improve.

Key takeaways about product leads

Not all organizations have product leads. They are most prevalent in complex products with multiple product teams. Product leads also work in organizations where introducing a new product is a complex undertaking.

The product lead role is often the last step for individual contributors before going into people management ranks. As a result, product leads should have a wealth of product management experience and knowledge.

Product leads are product management subject matter experts and coach other, less experienced product people.

Being a lead product manager can be a challenging yet rewarding role. Especially if you’re more interested in being a product expert and leading through influence rather than managing people.

FAQs

What level is product lead?

A product lead is often the equivalent individual contributor level of a Director of Product Management or a step above Senior Product Manager on the individual contributor career ladder.

How much does a product lead make?

According to Glassdoor, the average base pay for a product lead is $119,803/year. That falls within a range of $67,000 – $213,000. 

For comparison, the average base pay for a lead product manager, again according to Glassdoor, is $155,012/year with a range of  $113,000 – $213,000.

The difference in average base pay between the two is most likely because of some companies associating the product lead title with a set of job responsibilities that warrant a lower salary. Because there’s so much variability in what companies consider the role of a product lead to be, there may be a wide range of salaries.

You’ll also see variation because of the location of the job, and the level of experience of the person filling the role.

What is a product lead in tech?

A product lead in tech is an experienced product manager who leads the development efforts for a critical new tech product, whether it be hardware or software. For all intents and purposes, the above article describes a product lead in a tech setting.

Kent J McDonald

About the author

Kent J McDonald writes about and practices software product management. He has product development experience in a variety of industries including financial services, health insurance, nonprofit, and automotive. Kent practices his craft with a variety of product teams and provides just in time resources for product people at KBP.media and Product Collective. When not writing or product managing, Kent is his family’s #ubersherpa, listens to jazz and podcasts (but not necessarily podcasts about jazz), and collects national parks.


Tags


You may also like

Goodbye, Internet Explorer

Goodbye, Internet Explorer