May 3, 2023
What makes a great director of product? - Insights from seasoned product leaders
Over the past years, the product function has seen unprecedented growth as digital product development has become one of the most actionable and vital components for any business’ success. With the importance and influence of product departments growing, the role of the director of product has grown too, becoming a crucial part of any company’s leadership team.
From ideation to launch, the role of a product director is critical in creating innovative products that meet customer needs and drive business growth. But what is a director of product, and what makes a product director truly great? In this article, we'll explore the role of the director of product, the skills needed to be successful in the role, and how you can become a great director of product. We will also share unique tips and insights from successful product leaders that we had the privilege of speaking to.
What is a director of product?
A director of product is a senior leadership role that, depending on the size of the organization, is often responsible for managing the entire product development lifecycle. They work closely with cross-functional teams, including engineering, design, marketing, and sales, to ensure the product meets customer needs, aligns with the company's goals and vision, and ultimately helps drive the business’ growth.
At a high level, the director of product is responsible for setting the product vision and strategy, defining the product roadmap, leading the prioritization of features, and ensuring timely and successful product launches. They are usually the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to the product and should serve as the voice of the customer within the organization.
What does a director of product do?
The job description of a director of product can vary depending on the company, product, and the stage of development the company is in. Common responsibilities include:
Defining the product vision and strategy: The director of product sets the long-term vision for the product and works with stakeholders to align on the strategy to achieve that vision.
Setting product goals: The director of product is responsible for setting goals for the product team, often by defining Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) in line with the company-wide goals.
Defining the product roadmap: Based on the product vision and strategy, the director of product works with their team to create a roadmap that outlines the features and functionality to be built and when.
Prioritizing features: The director of product takes a lead in determining the frameworks and strategic factors used for prioritizing products and features – factoring in customer needs, business goals, and available resources.
Leading cross-functional teams: The director of product works closely with cross-functional teams, including engineering, design, marketing, and sales, to ensure the product is being developed efficiently and effectively.
Communicating with stakeholders: The director of product is ultimately responsible for communicating the product vision, strategy, and roadmap to stakeholders, including executives, investors, and customers. Gaining buy-in from key stakeholders is one of the key challenges and responsibilities for a product director.
Product manager vs. director of product - what is the difference?
Depending on the organization, the role of a product manager can vary quite substantially in seniority. So what is the difference between a product manager and a director of product? While both roles are responsible for the success of the product, there are some key differences between the two.
A product manager is responsible for the day-to-day planning and execution of the product process. Depending on the size of the organization, a product manager may focus more on product discovery or product delivery, but often-times will be heavily involved in both. They work closely with the team to ensure the product is being built to spec, on time, and on budget. They are responsible for writing user stories, creating wireframes, and conducting user research. In a discovery-context, they form a crucial part of the product trio.
In contrast, a director of product is responsible for setting the vision, strategy, and roadmap for the product. They are the bridge between the product team and the wider leadership and work closely with the product manager to ensure the product is meeting customer needs and aligning with the company's goals and vision.
The director of product is usually the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to the product and is responsible for communicating the product vision, strategy, and roadmap to various teams and stakeholders. Crucially, a product director has to be able to clearly articulate and contextualize the product strategy and vision within the wider company vision, strategy and goals.
How do you become a director of product?
Like with any department, becoming a director of product requires a combination of experience, skills, and training. In many ways, becoming a director of product requires the same sort of skills, especially soft skills, as any other director role. That said, there are also specific things that you can work on to help you on your path to becoming a director of product.
Earn your stripes as a product manager: One of the clearest paths towards becoming a director of product is to gain experience as a product manager. This doesn’t mean that you cannot become a director of product via other product or product-adjacent roles, but the skills and experience of a product manager overlap the most with that of a director of product. As a product manager, you can gain a deep understanding of the product vision, be heavily involved in defining the roadmap, work on cross-team communications, and become the voice of the customer within your organization.
Develop strong leadership skills: As a director of product, you will be leading cross-functional teams and making strategic decisions. As with any director-role, developing strong leadership skills is essential. You can take courses or workshops on leadership, or seek out a mentor who can help you develop your leadership skills. Ultimately though, the best way to become a great leader is by taking on more leadership and responsibilities within your organization. Even if you aren’t a director yet, look for ways to lead by example, make suggestions, and take on senior responsibilities.
Be at the forefront of industry trends: The product landscape is constantly evolving. Staying up-to-date on big industry developments and emerging technologies is crucial for any product leader looking to make informed decisions and stay ahead of the curve.
Build a strong network: Who you know can often be as important as what you know. Many experienced product leaders are very open to sharing ideas and learning from one another. Building a strong network can help you learn from people who are where you want to get to. Building meaningful relationships can open all sorts of doors and opportunities for growth. Attend industry events, join online communities, and volunteer to co-create content with others in the field.
Develop your own ideas: While not required, the best way to stand out and set yourself up for success in your role as director of product is to build upon what you learn and adapt it to your organization, team, product and industry. The best leaders have original ideas born out of experience, analysis and a professional philosophy.
What makes a great director of product? What the experts say.
So above, we’ve identified what it takes to be a product director. But what makes a great one? What sets the best product leaders apart? To get to that answer, we spoke to several seasoned product leaders to understand what in their experience makes a great director of product.
A great director of product is customer-focused: A great director of product always keeps the customer top-of-mind and knows their use-cases inside out. They engage heavily with product discovery to continuously deepen their understanding of the customer's problems, needs and desires. Adam Greco, product evangelist at Amplitude highlights the value of walking in your customers’ shoes.
A great director of product thinks strategically but also gets their hands dirty: A great director of product has a strong strategic mindset. They are able to see the big picture and align the product vision and roadmap with the company's goals and vision. Furthermore, they don’t shy away from jumping in the trenches and getting their hands dirty. Striking the right balance is crucial according to Reveall’s CPO Marcel Hagedoorn.
A great director of product fosters collaboration: A great director of product works well with others and is able to build strong relationships with cross-functional teams. They understand the importance of collaboration and communication and are able to bring teams together to achieve a common goal. As Andras Dombi, product manager at Adyen puts it:
A great director of product needs to be decisive: A great director of product is decisive and able to make tough decisions. They weigh the pros and cons of different options and make decisions based on data and insights.
A great director of product is highly adaptable: A great director of product is adaptable and able to navigate change. They understand that the product development landscape is constantly evolving and are able to pivot when necessary. As Alphadoc’s CPO, Daan Stolk says, a director of product must be wary of getting too stuck in their own ways.
The role of a director of product is critical in any product-centric organization and the influence of the role is only going to grow in years to come. As a director of product, your role is to embody the customer’s needs, create impactful products and ultimately drive the growth of the business.
Becoming a successful director of product requires a fine balance between hard and soft skills. But being a great leader is only part of the puzzle. Flexibility, adaptability, customer-obsession and decisiveness are key tools for navigating the ever-evolving trends, practices and priorities within product teams.
Hopefully some of the tips our experts shared will help you truly excel as director of product.