The Product Manager as Head Coach

As a product manager, I am often asked what I would compare the role of product manager to.

My answer sometimes varies, but as a sports oriented person, it came to me that a product manager (PM) is a lot like a head coach. There are many similarities if you think about it, with perhaps one glaring difference. Like a head coach the PM is the subject matter expert, creates the playbook (the roadmap) and guides their team to victory, i.e., ships great products your customers love.

Your primary goal is to lead, thus you show by example, instill confidence in your team and help others realize the vision set before you.

You get them bought in.

Instilling drive and critical thinking to get sometimes already overworked co-workers to perform on a high level, is crucial. Other than perhaps positive customer feedback, there is nothing better than having a great designer or engineer want to work on your stuff because they get it, they get you and they like it.

While leading you also jump, run, block, tackle, beg, plead, argue and stomp your feet when something or someone puts the livelihood of your product at risk or in jeopardy. If the ref calls a foul (say, your CTO just slashed your budget at a critical time), you go understand why, and argue workarounds if necessary.

At the same time, you are are available when others need assistance, be it helping sales resolve a customer issue or dropping what you’re doing at the moment to pop into a meeting and provide guidance to your team or others.

The glaring difference is the team. There is no draft. You work with those already around you.

This creates challenges for two reasons. One, with engineering, you may have a team dedicated to your product, which is great, but you must still understand and manage their concerns, needs, and desires and figure out how to best work together. This is even more challenging if you are coming into the role as the new person who doesn’t yet understand the backstory and why things are the way they are.

Most engineers are superb individuals and some are great engineers as well, however it’s not uncommon to be paired with an engineering lead or manager who may already have his or her own ideas of what should be done or what the priority is. Getting that situation under control is vital to the success of your project.

Secondly, other supporting players, such as designers, marketers, release managers or project managers, are not typically dedicated to your product. You have limited time to leverage their skills, as there are competing projects. This is where blocking and tackling come in. This could be putting forth an argument up the chain for approval on the resources you need to complete your project on time.

And like your engineering team, you also need to learn and understand what motivates and excites them, in order to bring their best work forth. In essence, like a head coach, you have a diverse group of people with different motivations, backgrounds and cultures and it’s your job to bring them together.


“I’d say handling people is the most important thing you can do as a coach. I’ve found every time I’ve gotten into trouble with a player, it’s because I wasn’t talking to him enough.

Lou Holtz


The product manager is not the owner.

Also like a head coach, you do not own the team or product. Some job descriptions may include “product owner” or your boss may say you own it, but this is rarely true. It’s your management — (typically VP and above) who own it. Only they can call the shots a true owner can, including final decisions on anything they deem important. This might be pushing ahead on a scheduled release when issues still exist or terminating a project or product line entirely.

Product Managers do not have that level of control. Like the head coach, the PM works at the discretion of the owner and management.

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