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Grooming Product Managers in CEO Training Camp

Jennifer deJong,

March 03, 2008

When Bob Viney worked at Procter & Gamble, product and brand management were considered the training ground for top management. “Brand managers were seen as experts at things like optimizing financial performance, and they were also looked on as the voice of the customer,” says Viney, who is now vice president of technology firm Exchange Solutions Inc. in Waltham, Massachusetts. “We often referred to them as ‘the CEO of brand X.’”

Many Different Perspectives

Not all companies provide such a clear path. But because product management decisions incorporate so many different perspectives and require firsthand information about customer needs, successful product managers can often work their way to the top spot.

“You see the drivers behind all the different divisions,” says Avid Technology’s Karin Monsler. “When I work with manufacturing, I understand that their performance is measured by how well they manage inventory.” She factors this in when deciding what components to include in her products, which often forces her to make trade-offs.

Many times, the CEO at a small or single-product company is also its product manager. While not always literally true, “every product manager needs to hear that,” says high tech product manager Sam Knox. It lets you know you’re responsible for everything, he adds.

“When you are small, brand management and company management are so tightly interwoven, they are one and the same,” agrees Dancing Deer Baking Company CEO Trish Karter.

Product Manager as Entrepreneur

The role of the product manager is remarkably similar to that of the entrepreneur, says Linda Gorchels, author of The Product Manager’s Field Guide: Practical Tools, Exercises, and Resources for Improved Product Management and program director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison executive education school of business.

“Both have a good grasp of product and marketplace, and both have to get everything done through other people without having authority over others,” she says. “At the earliest stages, the entrepreneur has to convince the bank, a contract manufacturer, a sales team to come and work with him.”

It’s no surprise a career in medical device product management, and years of firsthand experience in learning what customers want, ultimately took John Pantano down the entrepreneurial path. Vice president of sales and marketing, Pantano is one of four cofounders of Radianse Inc., which develops indoor global positioning products that help hospitals keep track of patients, doctors and other medical staff.

The idea for the company came when Pantano and his partners discovered that hospitals that bought patient monitors from Philips and other manufacturers had another problem on their hands, and no one was solving it. The institutions kept losing track of their patients’ locations.

“Although they hate to admit it, hospitals are constantly losing their patients,” says Pantano. “Wearing monitors that track their vital signs, patients walk around the hospital or slip out for a cigarette. What happens when a nurse can see from the central monitoring station that a patient is having a cardiac event but has no way to find him?” Radianse IPS solves that problem.

The Money’s in the Service

Firsthand experience of customer needs, and a 20-year career in medical device product management, sent Thomas Shoup out on his own, too.

He is president of the Garland Group, but this time his product isn’t a medical device. It’s a healthcare service associated with a device (made by his former employer) that monitors the vital signs of in-home patients with congestive heart failure.

“The money isn’t in the monitor,” says Shoup. “It’s in the service surrounding it. It’s a good thing for HP. I plan to be their biggest customer.”

As these examples suggest, product managers who can master the multitude of skills required to be successful in product management also gain something else, a unique opportunity to move up the corporate ladder with their current employer or set out on their own path to the top.

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