Should Product Management Stand Alone?

By Parilee Edison

We’ve talked a lot about organizational design in LTV – who reports where within the organization can be critical to building culture, communication, and efficient processes. The decisions that cofounders make when their company hits product market and begins scaling tend to be hard to change without changing their people. Ultimately, being forced to reorg during scaling can be as expensive (and as necessary) as refactoring core code. So, it’s worth putting the time in to structure your company to scale as soon as everyone isn’t reporting to the CEO.

While many functions tend to be pretty standardized n verticals – marketing, technology, etc. – product management reports differently in many companies. As a PM, I’ve reported in to P&L business managers, to marketing, and to a Director of Product. In other organizations, the PMs report to the CTO or to the VP of Sales. During LTV’s CTO panel, I asked our guests which org structure they preferred and, perhaps predictably, the responses were varied. What they did agree on, however, was what factors matter most: enabling creative conflict, setting up mentorship, and ensuring accountability and ownership.

Creative conflict is key to the PM role – a great PM is a hub of knowledge, reaching out to and reconciling the viewpoints and demands of the customers with the constituents within the company. The PM must feel enabled to push back on technology, sales, marketing, and others when necessary to represent the voice of the customer. As Melissa Leffler noted during our panel, that discussion may be easier to have among equal leaders at an organization (e.g. between a CTO, a VP of Product, and a CMO) than contained within a single individual.

Mentorship is equally essential, although in this case to enable PM retention and development. Bob Mason believed that the key point in organizational structure was ensuring that this mentorship was available to PMs. Personally, I have been less concerned about directly reporting into mentors, as I’ve found ways to engage independent of a formal structure, but I have valued seeing aspirational career tracks within Product.

Finally, ensuring accountability and ownership of responsibilities enables productive conversations within the organization rather than blame and finger-pointing. Sean Lindsay pointed out that clear delineation sets the company up for constructive collaboration rather than excessive CYA. That structure can be made much clearer through separate reporting structures.

I would add a few criteria not raised by our CTO panelists – setting a customer-centric culture and forcing equal mindshare of competing internal interests. Culturally, the voice of the customer should be a critical aspect to launching and sustaining great products and creating a separate PMO emphasizes that listening to the customer is a priority. Also, communication and collaboration with all teams becomes a daily responsibility of the PM and the PM is able to maintain a more balanced viewpoint.

While a strong, self-aware CTO or CMO could certainly provide most of this support to PMs reporting in to them, ultimately, I think that having a separate Product Management reporting structure on par with Technology and Marketing is ideal. That is contingent on having a supportive, enabled, confident leader at the top of that organization. Finding the right person to lead that team may take time, but I believe it would absolutely be worth the investment to set a customer-centric corporate culture and to set your PMs up for success in the turbulent scaling times ahead.


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