Should I take a product manager job in a sales-led company?

Should I take a product manager job in a sales-led company?

Here’s a question I was asked recently:

Hi Jock,

I’m currently applying for loads of product manager jobs. I’ve received an offer from a sales-led company where the Product team reports in to Sales. Should I take the job?

Yours,

G

Hi G,

When you’re applying for any job, it’s a good idea to start by writing down a list of what you will want from a new job. (Be realistic, though.)

It might be that you’re looking for a better salary or a more senior position.

Perhaps you might want to find an organisation with a completely blank slate for you to establish a new product practice.

Equally it might be that you’re looking for an organisation with an established, mature product practice that will support and nurture your learning.

Or it might be that your priority is to find an ethical company with friendly people to work with.

Whatever your wishlist is, keep going with your job applications until you’ve found somewhere that ticks enough of your boxes to satisfy your needs. It’s tempting to settle and accept the first job offer that comes along, particularly when the job market is competitive, but do try to make your evaluation as objective as possible.

Your job interviews are your opportunity to find out as much about the organisation and its way of working as you can. You mention that you’ve received an offer from one where the product team reports into the sales team.

I’m always a little wary of organisations that have the product team reporting to sales, marketing, IT, engineering (or any other department). I’m not advocating for silos, however product management is a separate discipline and has differing drivers and goals to other disciplines.

When an organisation describes itself as being primarily led by sales, marketing, engineering, or indeed product, the role of a product manager in each type of organisation can vary wildly.

Sales-led companies will often suffer from the problem of the product being whatever the salesperson has promised to a customer, often removing agency from the product manager and their ability to establish a coherent strategy. (And it will still be the product manager’s fault if the product promised proves to be impractical to build or fails to sell.)

Marketing-led companies tend to focus on speaking to the perceived needs of the buyer, rather than the users. For marketing the focus is often on customer acquisition and conversion, rather than a more meaningful interrogation of user needs and how well the product meets those needs.

Engineering-led companies often find themselves jumping in without any significant user research and creating great technical solutions to problems that are simply not urgent, pervasive or valuable enough to be worth solving. Finding product-market fit is often the major challenge because there is no significant addressable market niche for the product they’ve created.

In contrast, product-led companies hopefully understand that successful products come from a holistic approach that combines the respective strengths of sales, marketing and engineering, with product vision and strategy as the guiding hand. In other words:

by starting out by checking whether a problem is worth solving before building product;

by appreciating that the product has to satisfy the needs of both users and buyers pre- and post-sale; and

by focusing on the needs of the majority of the addressable market, not the edge-case whims of individual customers (no matter how big or vocal).

Update: “Product-led” doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean that product managers are calling the shots and are somehow “in charge”. It’s yet another example of jargon getting in the way, in the same way as descriptions of product managers as the “CEO of the product” or the “conductor of the orchestra” are unhelpful and inaccurate. To expand on this, have a read of Emily Webber’s excellent article and Christina Wodtke’s Twitter thread.

Accepting a job at a company with a flawed understanding of product essentially puts you in a tricky situation. Whether or not you have responsibility for defining the product practice, you’ll have to show the organisation what good product management looks like (as a thought leader), while delivering a product successfully enough to demonstrate the validity of your approach (as an individual contributor).

Getting both right, AND changing the organisation’s perception of product management, will not be impossible, but will take a great deal of time and consistent effort. If you’re willing and ready to accept that challenge, then by all means accept that job offer.

Cheers,

Jock


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The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a product management and leadership coach, product leader and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.

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