Group Product Managers vs. Principal Product Managers

Group Product Managers and Principal Product Managers are both lucrative PM careers, but which is right for you?

Are you interested in becoming a product manager or advancing your product management career? What are the long-term career tracks that are available for PMs? In doing your research on the various product management tracks, you may have come across two interest titles: that of the Group Product Manager and the Principal Product Manager.

Both are higher up on the PM food chain, but what exactly is the difference between the two? How do the roles and responsibilities differ? How do they align? Which of these PM roles should you aspire to given your particular set of skills and work preferences? These are the questions that we set out to answer in this article. So let's get right to it.

Individual Contributor Track vs. Management Track

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The primary difference between the Group Product Managers (GPM) and the Principal Product Managers (PPM) is the particular track that each is on. PPMs are on an Individual Contributor (IC) track, whereas GPMs are on a Management track.

An individual contributor is a member of an organization that does not have any management responsibilities. Instead, they independently contribute to their organization's goals. Management, on the other hand, is tasked with managing other members of an organization. They lead and oversee a team's efforts to achieve an organization's goals.

If you're not a PM already, you may be a little confused here. Aren't all product managers on the management track? The word manager is directly in the title, isn't it? While, yes, it's true that all product managers do have 'manager' in their title, these two career tracks differ when it comes to the management of people. All PMs manage, but they're usually managing processes and tasks regarding product work and problems. Only those who are directly managing other people are considered part of the management team.

Principal Product Managers are on the individual contributor track. PPMs are considered the top individual contributors of all the product managers. Generally speaking, they're the most talented ICs tasked with the most difficult of product work. Group Product Managers, on the other hand, are on the management track, as they are tasked with directly managing and overseeing a team of other product managers. As a result, they don't have the same individual contributor roles they once did when working as a PM.

If you were to jump into a PM career, it's possible to ride either of these tracks into lucrative and coveted roles down the line. For example, if you're thriving in your role as a Group Product Manager, you may advance further into upper management. A GPM position could set you up for a top executive position, or even the C-Suite, one day. Perhaps you go onto be promoted as Head of Product or a Director of Product Management. However, if you are one of those PMs who excel as an individual contributor, you can work your way up and become a Principal Product Manager. Instead of managing a team, PPMs will be responsible for the most challenging and significant product work.

Both of these tracks are available to PMs who strive for them. Both have their upsides and downsides. Choosing between them may be difficult at first, nor do you necessarily have to pick and choose right away. As you continue to gain experience as a PM, you'll learn more about your particular strengths and job preferences. You may get a taste for both tracks during your career, and your experiences will help you decide which is the track for you. However, let's dive into both of these positions in more depth.

What is a Group Product Manager?

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A Group Product Manager is typically a PM who has risen through the product management ranks and is responsible for leading a team of other product managers. Now, GPMs truly become people managers in addition to product managers, where they focus on strategy and big-picture initiatives with their products while leading and overseeing their team. GPMs often go on to become Head of Product, Director of Product Management, or a VP of Product.

In terms of responsibilities, GPMs act as the leader and product manager for a single product team. For instance, a VP of Product may have 5 product teams, each of which would have a GPM at the helm guiding the other PMs along with their development roadmaps. Many junior PMs regularly report to their GPM. They seek their guidance while taking their lead to coordinate efforts with the rest of the PM team and the business at large. Therefore, any aspiring GPM needs to prepare for the responsibility of such a leadership role.

Which PMs Are Best Suited for Group Product Management?

Not every PM may be fit for becoming Group Product Managers, for a few reasons. Chief among them is their ability to manage others. In a sense, becoming a GPM is when the job shifts from primarily managing people rather than product tasks or processes. This is not something that everyone is capable of doing effectively. As such, the PMs best suited for a Group Product Manager position would be those with the additional soft skills necessary for inspiring and effective leadership, along with those who are willing to leave some of the individual contribution responsibilities behind.

As we previously mentioned, you don't need to decide what track you'd want to be on as soon as you enter the product management field. In the beginning, both GPMs and PPMs share the same career path. You may start as an Associate PM before moving to PM to Senior PM. Once you've had some seniority and experience under your belt, higher product management positions such as GPM and PPM may become available to you.

However, if you can see yourself managing people and not just products, then a GPM position, and by extension, a management track, may be for you. Group Product Management is also a unique PM role in that it is a blend of individual contributor and management. You may find that you enjoy this hybrid PM role.

How to Become a Group Product Manager

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Group Product Managers are those who've already proven themselves with a clear track record as a product manager. Usually, those who become a Group Product Manager are Senior Product Managers hungry to lead a team.

First and foremost, Group Product Managers have a significant amount of experience in product management. Therefore, the first step in becoming a GPM is to gain as much job experience as you can in product management. Also, be sure to take as much initiative you can in managing or leading PM teams, even in an informal sense. GPM is primarily a management position, so it's necessary to have something tangible on your resume that can point to your leadership skills.

Generally speaking, you can become a Group Product Manager after:

  • Gaining the right amount of experience
  • Becoming a superstar PM
  • Demonstrating your leadership and diplomacy skills
  • Asking for advice and additional responsibility

If a management role is what you want in the future, don't be afraid to make it known to your superiors. After all, they can't read their employees' minds. Don't hesitate to ask others for advice. You'll find that many people are willing to tell you what they've done in their careers to get where they are.

What is a Principal Product Manager?

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Principal Product Managers are the most senior PMs on the individual contributor track. Unlike GPMs or Directors of Product Management, Principal Product Managers do not manage other PMs. Instead, they typically tackle the most difficult and important aspects of product vision and strategy. It's often the case that Principal PMs will work on tasks that require a deep understanding of product management as a whole, along with the particular nuances of a business's products and strategy. Whereas Group Product Managers can continue up the Management track to more senior product management positions, Principal Product Management is the end of the line for those PMs on the individual contributor track.

Which PMs Are Best Suited for Principal Product Management?

If you're one of those PMs who do well in their capacity as an individual contributor and aren't necessarily interested in managing people may be interested in becoming a Principal Product Manager. These PMs are the highest individual contributors to the product food chain and are often regarded and compensated similarly to Directors of Product Management. PPMs, however, aren't managing other PMs. Instead, they continue to contribute to the hands-on, day-to-day regarding the development of product vision and strategy while taking on more challenging product problems.

How to Become a Principal Product Manager

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Becoming a PPM is similar to becoming a GPM, for the most part. Both positions share some of the same steps along the product management ladder. As such, many of the same principles apply. Nevertheless, the main difference is that Principal Product Managers are individual contributors, rather than part of the management team. Therefore, if becoming a PPM is your goal, you should invest all your energy into becoming the very best product manager you can be. You don't need to emphasize the development of your people or leadership skills as much as an aspiring GPM, as you won't be managing people. Instead, throw yourself headfirst into supercharging your product skills.

Which Track Should I Choose?

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Ultimately, your choice will be based on a few factors, the most important of which are your overall career ambitions, your particular job strengths, and your leadership skills.

If you hope to one day become a top executive at your company, then the management track is the obvious choice. Group product managers may indeed enjoy more opportunities for career advancement than principal product managers, yet advancing as a GPM is still dependent on your leadership and management skills.

If you thrive in your role as an individual contributor, then working towards a principal product manager role may be the natural thing to do.

So, before you commit to one career track or the other ask yourself: would you want to continue solving challenging product problems, or would you like to manage a team?

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