Product manager's role as a team leader. Things to do and not to do?

Regarding the product manager’s role as team leader, I would appreciate any feedback you might have.

We want to slightly restructure our relatively small company. The request that I assume a more formal leadership role came up because our boss was too busy to be involved in everything (which was a problem in itself). Great results so far. I’m not sure where to draw the line, even though it sounds great.

I want to develop the product with the development team since I work closely with them. I don’t want to find myself in a situation where, in the worst case scenario, “things were built just because the PM (= team leader) wanted it.” I want to collaborate on the team, not compete with them.

Seek your advice and insights. Links to resources, personal experience to share would be great.

Thanks in advance.


While having a Product Manager as the team lead isn’t ideal, it is better to have someone who KNOWS it’s not ideal fill the position to prevent it from going to another less-than-ideal discipline.

It is incredibly difficult to hold yourself responsible for conflicts of interest, etc. You should take it and make every effort to move toward a more ideal state if the alternative is for another position to take it while being completely unaware that they are in conflict. After all, a team lead is more likely to have the ability to hire people, such as a Scrum Master.


That rings true - to me that is sometimes a problem in itself, if you try to find out about the implementation of scrum, product management and alike, most often you find explanations which tell you (I am generalizing now) that you only do it good, if you do it by the books. Well, in reality this cannot be applied oftentimes and there is so much gray space there… so that also applies to “living with, and managing” a (as you say) non ideal state. which, again, makes it hard but interesting to apply these constructs in reality, in real teams.


@vladpodpoly, this is excellent advice. Knowing when you must choose a less than ideal course of action and making sure it won’t worsen the situation in the long run can be very helpful.


Product managers shouldn’t, in my opinion, be team leaders. That other team members are not “stepping up to the plate” is evident by this. Additionally, the company’s structure is not ideal. But I believe that this is fairly typical. I can only suggest that you work to make your organization more sustainable and develop the other team members. Good Luck!


Yes, I’ve already asked my boss what he specifically thinks I should be in charge of and what not to. He serves as the company’s lead nerd, if you will, and is in charge of everything from sales to project management to server deployment, helping the owners with their Office 365 problems to managing the office’s alarm system. Bonkers. The fact that he claims he cannot manage an expanding team alone (which is true) and that two more developers will soon begin work makes sense.

Putting me in a more responsible position seems like a logical next step, at least as a temporary fix, but yeah… I am aware that this is not scalable as well. There may be some publications or blogs about hierarchical structures. Perhaps there are some publications or blogs that discuss the hierarchical structure of small to mid-sized B2B software firms. But perhaps this is also overly general.


Yes, it sounds crazy, but sadly, it happens often. You can research a variety of frameworks. My experience has mainly been with Scrum-style teams. In the Scrum framework, the Scrum Master role is primarily responsible for your new tasks.


We (try to) use scrum in some of the teams already, but as of right now, there isn’t a scrum master. That is something we have planned for this year. I should recheck my research to see if using this methodology would, in theory, eliminate the need for a team leader. According to my understanding, a scrum master is in charge of organizing around the developers so they can work, educating the team leaders about the process, and implementing it. As a result, I have not yet found a definition of a scrum master who also functions as a team leader for the developers.

In any case, you are correct that a better implemented scrum process might already contain some of the answer.


Yes, balancing power to promote better collaboration is a key component of Scrum (and any good framework). A competent Scrum Master will guard the team against you. As a result, you can exercise some leadership while being aware that any “conflicts of interest” will be exposed. The organization, in my opinion, is out of balance rather than lacking in leadership.


A leadership position in the product, in my opinion, is fantastic.

Not so great: making the product manager the team leader.

There is a serious conflict of interest there because the person could use their newly acquired power to control the team.

Because the best products are developed through collaboration, someone in product leadership may have an idea and then unleash their managers, owners, and teams.

Likewise, product leadership should be used to pave the way rather than to dictate it.


Right, “potential conflict of interest” does a good job of describing it.

Perhaps it would be best to learn more about the precise tasks my boss wants to delegate before seeing if I could suggest one of the senior developers for a leadership position in this area.

Alternately, we find a middle ground where a senior developer takes on more responsibility for product-related matters and I assume more leadership roles.


Absolutely @vladpodpoly! This is a great approach. I always encourage my team to think creatively. I ask them that for every problem they escalate they consider at least two potential solutions.

Then I like to walk through those solutions with them.

This is a great way to highlight to your leadership that there could be an issue and you may have potential options on how to solve it.

Best of luck, friend!


I did this for ~6 years in my most recent position, eventually leading a product org (encompassing engineering, design, and PM) of ~15 people.

It worked quite well for the company and for me professionally as I was able to progress pretty rapidly and learn a ton along the way.

The major reasons it worked were:

  • I had deep domain and company knowledge. I was the first full time engineer at the company and spent the first two years after we launched our product on the phone with customers daily.
  • I had a high performing, independent team that didn’t need a ton of day-to-day guidance from me.
  • Our founder was very, very strong as a product leader and was able to cover me when I needed to work on other areas of the business.

The things that were difficult:

  • The role was extremely demanding, with constant context switching. Over time, I wore myself down by trying to carry so many different responsibilities across a wide range of skills. Despite having a strong team of specialists under me, the role eventually became unsustainable.
  • Juniors on the team didn’t get the support they needed. Because I wasn’t able to devote 100% of my energy to any particular role, I wasn’t able to mentor juniors in any role as well as I would have liked. This was especially tough with engineers.
  • Conversations with customers didn’t happen as often as they should have. Because I was covering so many different roles, it was too easy to let user interviews and time spent with customers fall by the wayside.

Happy to chat more about my experience and answer any questions if you have any!


@EvaRichardson, Thank you for sharing your insights; that is very interesting!

Being well-versed in the subject matter and gaining product knowledge along the way over the last four to five years helped me get to where I am now. As a result, the company I work for is also driven by engineering (the motto is essentially “by engineers, for engineers”). Since the company has never used a product approach before, there isn’t much experience among the teams to work in this manner, despite the fact that my boss is extremely supportive of the approach. Because he lacks the product-management insights that would enable him to understand that a product manager leading a team has conflicts of interest, his proposal to give me more responsibilities makes sense to him. It’s simply not how they’ve operated for the past ten years.

I’ll give it some time to sink in before I talk to my boss, who I may have already prepared. I appreciate the invitation to chat, and I will take you up on it.

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Some of what I’ve learned might be useful. I held the position of product manager for five years in two different companies, where I was directly responsible for all or a portion of the team.

What I discovered to be effective is that if you don’t already have it, you must create “safe space,” which is extremely difficult because many places talk about it but few actually do it. When my team realized I was listening rather than lecturing them and that my decisions were based on facts rather than prejudice, we made progress. They must feel completely supported throughout this process, which could take up to a year.

It might not always work, but it is conceivable. What matters more is where you want your career to go. I have also seen managers screw up to the point of hiring lawyers and requesting buyouts, proving that people management is not for everyone. Getting somewhat involved in both their personal and professional lives is necessary for effective people management. Dad expired? I must resolve the issue with the manager. Sense that a stakeholder group is ignoring you? Make a manager call. If you’re not interested, it can be a very political and emotionally taxing role to take on.

Someone else suggested the title “Group Product Manager,” but in my experience, that only applies when you serve as the enterprise’s visionary and report to other product managers.

Good fortune.

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The extent to which I would be the team’s “leader”—not in terms of discipline and the like—was something else I had yet to fully comprehend or obtain from my boss. Furthermore, I wouldn’t be the one to whom they would come to request a pay raise. You’re right, though, and I hadn’t thought about that: Regardless of the level of leadership, I’ll need to establish a safe space. I mean, I’m sure it’s challenging, but if you don’t mind, could you give a little more detail as to why it was challenging in your cases? What obstacles were there on that road?

Since I am the only product manager in the company, the group product manager position will not work.

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