What Does a Product Growth Manager Actually… Do?
My Most Frequently Asked Question
🤔 A Mystifying, New Field
💭 “So, what does a product growth manager do?”
💭 “Isn’t that the same thing as growth?”
💭 “Doesn’t every PM focus on growth?”
I get it. When it comes to buzz-wordery, Product Growth has tons of it. But the field matters. And what people do in it is interesting. So, let us set a BHAG – big hairy audacious goal – for this article together: to walk away with a definitive understanding of what product growth managers (PGMs) do.
🤦 For the Critics
“Is this even a distinct subfield? He is just making this up.”
I would flip this back – the resistance against sub-fields in product managers (PMs) is the problem. The biggest mistake PMs are making, in my recent encounters, is bringing a hammer to every problem. The tool for each problem is different. Some problems require voice of the customer, others business outcome ownership.
As a PM, there are so many areas to focus on. It is impossible to get good at them all right away. Specializing is the solution. And growth PM is at the “first layer” of breaking down PM:
The first layer of PM has four types. Of course, there is the standard type everyone thinks about: core PM. But there are different foci, skill sets, collaborators, and type of work beyond that. As a result, there are three additional types: growth, platform, and innovation.
Growth PMs focus laser-like on business metrics. They use their skills in finance, data, and marketing to drive experiments and iterate on products. Often, they need marketing, modeling, and data skills. This is all under the header of “Growth Work.”
Specializing in one area forces PMs to develop the very specific skill sets those disciplines require. It also helps those PMs work with the specialized key collaborators in each lane. Specialized skills allow outsized impact, naturally followed by outsized career growth. 🚀
🚂 Where We Go From Here
Now that we agree growth product management is an important subfield, there is no better place to begin than the archetypal product growth framework – having three points. We’ll go through these three areas to understand what product growth managers do:
Time by task
Skills evaluated on
Of course, there are millions of flavors of product growth management. Each person, company, and role will be different. Seniority matters. We will tackle that after starting with the generalities.
1. Key Responsibilities ✔️
All product growth managers (PGMs) share two responsibilities of:
Be accountable for success of features developed by a software engineering team
Drive growth in the business
Of course, each PGM has additional, specific goals. But these two are shared amongst all PGMs.
PGMs sit at the intersection of two fields, product management and growth. What this means practically for the unstated responsibilities of the PGM is, they need to manage and excite stakeholders in both camps. They need to speak to the product sense & strategy on the PM side. They also need to speak to the business impact & metrics on the growth side.
To further visualize this, it can be useful to think about what PGM is not. There are several adjacent roles that sit in the product management and growth functions:
On the product side, there are two layers of non-growth PMs. The first layer drives growth one level removed. Feature PMs drive forward the core engines of the business. New product PMs who build products to drive new streams for the business. Then, there is a second layer of PMs, one more step disconnected. Core platform PMs develop the internal backbones upon which other product and engineering teams operate. Internal tools PMs build tools for adjacent internal teams.
On the other side, there are the range of growth functions in businesses. Teams like marketing and analytics work closely with products in a variety of areas. In addition, teams like sales, strategy, and partnerships endeavor to influence the product team. A main interface for these growth stakeholders to talk to the product team is through PGMs.
2. How Time is Split Up by Tasks ⏲️
Now that we understand a PGM’s responsibilities,we want to be able to visualize a PGM’s day. We’ll start with understanding these as percentages.
Part 1 – As a Percentage of Time
Product growth management is still fundamentally a product management job. It is not a growth job. As a result, the time spent is accurately represented by this survey of product managers:
The main difference is the flavor of that time spent. To re-emphasize classic framework, let us focus on the top three activities.
Top Activity: Defining Product Strategy
There are always a million ideas – from the PM herself, the rest of the PM team, product design, engineering, executives, user research, sales, growth marketing, brand, product marketing, integrated marketing, partnerships, strategy, strategic finance… Just reading that sentence was a task! As a result, product managers constantly need to construct a compelling strategy to negotiate a compelling vision for all these stakeholders. They dig into metrics, build documents, collect feedback, and, then, evangelize the strategy.
A product growth manager’s work differs from most other PMs by being explicitly growth-focused. PGMs spend a lot of cycles thinking and testing into what levers move the metrics most. In that way, product growth managers tend to be heavier users of tools like OKRs generally and OKPS specifically.
“I cannot find the time to do more strategy thinking and work 🕑”
“I have had too many meetings to be able to write up that product strategy 😓”
➡️ This is what the job always feels like. I hear these comments daily. Most PGMs actually want to do more product strategy definition. PGMs do everything they can to make this their #1 activity by time. But, most of the time, it is ‘minimum viable product.’
Second Activity: Collaborating with Technical and Design Functions
A close second activity based on time is collaborating with technical and design functions. PM, design, and eng put together make efficient and impactful software engineering possible. The team is best structured as missionaries, equal partners defining the user problems and solutions to develop. That, at least, is the generalized description.
PGMs work differs from the general. PGMs often have analytics and a business partner in the core product pod. That business partner is usually from marketing, sales, partnerships, finance, or strategy. So, this #2 time collaboration area is equivalent to collaborating with the whole product pod for PGMs:
Third Activity: Defining Product Requirements
The third biggest activity, time-wise, tends to be defining product requirements. Some product managers worship at the altar of great specification (spec) writing. It is the layer after strategy, execution. PGMs lead the definition of the user story, business case, and technical design of items. Doing this in advance helps engineering teams operate efficiently.
There are three main differences for a PGM when it comes to defining product requirements:
Emphasis on experimentation: Generally, all product growth PM work is either run as an experiment or fed into a machine learning algorithm. This slows down work but results in more certainty of what moves the metrics.
Evidence and reasoning for why it will move the metrics: PGM Specs tend to have a detailed history of prior tests in the lever so that reasonable expectations for impact can be set. Not all PM specs do.
Collaborators: At the end of it all, unlike most other product work, marketing or the core growth business stakeholder often also signs off on the product requirements. The PGM works with a wider team on sign-off, so they often have to prepare further ahead of time.
“Strategy, collaboration, and execution” is a high-level summary of what we have covered so far and answer to what a PGM actually does.
Part 2 – Visualized as a Week
What does this mean for a product growth manager’s typical week or day?
Obviously, there are a number of activities to do. The week needs to be broken down finely, to get to everything. Something that is 2% of a 40 hour work week means that you spend 48 minutes on it. What is that 2% item, by the way? Pricing and packaging – pretty important.
So, here’s what this volume looks like in terms of a calendar:
As you can see, the volume of meetings being put on a PGM’s calendar can usually fill up 60 hours. Because of this large amount of meetings and work to be done, PGMs either work more than 40 hours a week, or do more of their work through meetings (the above tasks still need to be done). An astute product growth manager has to say no to things, and strategically place holds for the rest of the time.
So, the answer to the volume question is, “it depends on the person.” For the most part, they will have long weeks, or they will be good at saying no and managing their time. I tend to flex between both depending on what is going on in the business and my team.
3. Skills to Evaluate a Product Growth Manager 📋
The most powerful framework I have found to measure product growth managers and leaders is ‘What’s your shape?’ The dimensions in a particular company, product, role, or stage may vary. But, the basic idea is to create a diagram like this:
This creates a constellation of skills. And, the real reason the diagram works so well is that you cannot judge a PGM as great at everything. Every product growth PM sacrifices some of these areas, even though each area is important for a PGM. Because of the nature of the job, anyone in the job must sacrifice certain areas. There are more demands for your focus and time than available. For instance, if you spend all your time managing up, it is hard to be the best voice of the customer there is.
The trick is to calibrate the shape to the job. PGMs need to be particularly skilled in fluency with data and business outcome ownership.
There is a huge range of data fluency. Consider a perfect score having the skill of someone who spent 10 years in data engineering and 10 years as an analyst. If that’s the endpoint, most PGMs score something like 5 days in data engineering and 2 months as an analyst. A truly fluent PGM may have actually spent 3-5 years as an analyst and have worked closely enough with data engineers to score something like a year of experience there.
Business outcome ownership is a surprisingly unimportant skill for many PMs. New product PMs, core feature PMs, and innovation PMs often have to be better at voice of the customer and user experience design. The outcomes just happen as a result of solving user pain points, or building for their desires. PGMs, on the other hand, have to be amazing at business outcome ownership. Picture the best in this area as someone who was a CEO for 10 years and a general manager in a big company for 10 years. Many PMs I meet at FMAANG (Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) actually have that background. Those types of individuals truly deliver on outcomes. That is the type of evaluation PGMs are measured against.
👨👩👦👦 Variations on the General
Flavors of Product Growth
If you work in this field, I know there is a real risk you were shrugging your shoulders at much of the analysis to this point, “but, in my case, I have seen it done differently…” Indeed, variation within groups tends to be greater than that between groups. So, while I spoke in generalities above, it is worth noting: almost every specific product growth manager you meet will have a slightly different role, and will likely have a big ‘but’ on one of the points I made above.
The three product growth flavors can help us understand how different PGMs have different responsibilities, time spent, and evaluations. Let’s take a look at that categorization again:
Product Driven 🚉
Starting with product driven PGMs, they will often have more responsibilities related to, “what new white space should we explore?” As a result, these PMs need knowledge of options in the specific domain: experimentation, paid marketing, or lifecycle marketing. They are expected to understand the spectrum of what is possible, and then bring the right dose of it to their company giving the goals and resources.
Their time tends to be fairly normally distributed, but the sub-types vary greatly. Product driven PGMs focused in areas like experimentation tend to have a much higher emphasis on evangelism and metrics. Those in paid media and lifecycle marketing tend to spend a great deal of time with marketing. Those in new products tend to spend a ton of time with customers.
Voice of the customer, indeed, is generally a much more important evaluation criteria for product driven product growth PGMs. PGMs with this skill have something like the equivalent of 10 years of experience in User Research. They excel at developing personas, describing customer jobs to be done, and building solutions for them at the end. Their work output will often look something like this:
Sales/ Marketing Product Driven 📣
Sales/ marketing product driven PGMs responsibilities often include making sure that the sales or marketing function that is their main constituent sings the PGM’s praises. These PMs are sort of “servant-partners.” On one end, they are expected to lead the vision and strategy. On the other hand, they also have to service that organization. The goal is to have the highest levels of the constituent organization – CMO or CRO – feel fully supported by engineering and product. They have to be excitedly telling the CEO about what the PGM is building for them.
As a result, these PGMs’ time is disproportionately focused on collaborating with these business functions. The trade-off is that they spend less time engaging with customers and partners. That activity is instead led by counterparts, who funnel that relevant information to the PGM. PGMs cannot simply build what everyone else wants, lest they turn into this Dilbert cartoon:
This translates into these sales/marketing product driven PGMs’ evaluations having big components of stakeholder management. PGMs who excel in this skill often have 10+ years of management consulting, sales, or customer success experience. They excel at making their stakeholders feel like they are co-creating with them, helping their stakeholders achieve their goals.
Tools-driven PGMs have different responsibilities from the rest. They may not even work with a dedicated development team. Many are figureheads for a certain idea, like experimentation PGMs. As a result, they work with a whole range of other product teams to drive an experimentation agenda. ML, personalization, and metrics tools-driven PGMs often also are responsible for driving that initiative at the level of, “the entire business.” These responsibilities mean that time is spent collaborating with other teams more than technical functions.
To evaluate these tools-driven PGMs, leaders often emphasize strategic impact. It is less of an executational role. Therefore, these PMs may be less evaluated on user experience design and quality assurance. They are also heavily evaluated on their ability to work in teams. Do they bring people along, or are their peers uneasy about the decisions being made? 🫂 360 feedback is very important for tools-driven PGMs.
Bonus: Career Growth Tip ↗️
Grow your career by not just specializing as a growth PM, but as a specific type. Depending on years of experience gives you a good frame for how much you should specialize, and also with whom you should staff your team:
If you have <5 years of PM experience, you probably should specialize in the fourth layer. Instead of being a PM, a PGM, or a sales/marketing product driven PGM, become a Acquisition PGM. That is a subcategory of sales-marketing driven focused on funnel improvement. You develop even better ability to move metrics in that area. You can also double down on your understanding of the types of products to build with marketing orgs. Then, when you interview for your next more senior role, the marketing team will love you. 🧠
This brings us naturally to the last point, seniority. PGMs roles change greatly as they move up the ladder. The industry has settled on a more or less standard set of seniority, from APM through to VP. As you progress through the levels there are three major thematic changes:
Individual Work Products → Delegation
Execution → Strategy
Product Features → Product Vision
Here is what that looks like:
PGMs are promoted based on impact. Whereas a core PM may be able to use 2+ meaty feature successes to go to Sr PM, a PGM moving to Sr PGM usually needs 2+ meaty business impacts. They also need to have growth stakeholders who speak up for them.
This means that when it comes to what senior PGMs do, they are leading multiple areas of product growth. They usually manage a team, with different PMs managing different levers. Senior PGMs are defining the roles and responsibilities, setting the vision, and removing blockers.
Thus, as PGMs progress, the time demands on their calendar become even more intense. The time to create individual work products evaporates to zero. Instead, they have to use meetings to help finesse work products they have delegated to key deputies. This skill is harder than it sounds. The skill curve for PGM looks something like this:
It is a lifelong journey. Although the rate of increase slows down over time, it basically never stops. To reach Super Saiyan God PGM requires at least 50 years of hard fought battles on the PGM battlefield. There is an immense amount to learn.