The VP of Product vs. the Product Manager

Two of my friends and I had a shared goal last year. We wanted to answer a long-standing question: “What makes a great VP of Product? And how is that different from what makes a great Product Manager?”

After my first year at Harvard Business School, I was given a can’t-miss career offer to join Paul English’s new team at Lola. I took a leave of absence from HBS, advanced to VP of Product within months — and quickly found that I’d been thrown into the deep end of the world’s best swimming pool.

The nuances of different roles are nothing new to me. I’m an experienced Product Manager. I have also held Program and Project Manager roles. So, I assumed that stepping up as VP of Product would be an extension of my Product Management role.

The truth? These two roles are totally different. Here are four reasons why:

Strategy As a Product Manager, my work was tactical. I needed to captain a cross-functional team to build, market, sell, and support my product. This was not a structure I designed — it is the nature of what it means to manage a Product team. I had the final say when it came to decisions about my product. But the structure of my Product team was not up for discussion.

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As a VP Product, you decide where your Product team lives within your organization. Will you build a separate Product team? Or will you align this team with Engineering, Design, Marketing, or all three? Once you make these decisions, questions of scale roll up to you. As your Product team grows in size, you decide how to structure it in a way that supports your company vision. Do you divide by product area? By conversion funnel? There is a lot of nuance in these decisions — and you own them all.

Hiring As a Product Manager, you actively participate in the hiring process. You get to assess candidates and ask, “Who fits with us?” when anyone interviews to work with your team. You also often work with an established structure that was set by someone else.

For example, at Kickstarter, I was the Product Manager working on the Backer Experience. I didn’t decide that I wanted to do Backer Experience — our Head of Product decided that they needed this role, and I happened to be the candidate they needed. They knew which spaces they needed to fill before I arrived on the scene. And I participated in this process once I joined the Kickstarter team.

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As a VP Product, you don’t just participate in hiring — you define what you need from the process. You get to decide when your Product team needs new additions — and whether you want these new folks to strengthen an area you’re already strong in or fill a separate gap. Do you need another person with UX skills? Or is it time to find someone who is an expert at A/B testing and optimization? What do you do when an awesome candidate comes in, but does not possess these crucial skills you need? Do you find a home for them? Or move on to other candidates?

Your Product Manager will have a say, but these choices are yours to make. A Product Manager may spend a few hours per week on hiring — but the VP of Product is likely to spend a full day or even two each week on it.

Delegation As a Product Manager, your job is to be down in the details. You know every aspect of how the payment flow works, and every single error case.;

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