Group Product Managers vs. Principal Product Managers

Product Management Sep 28, 2020

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 researching the various product management tracks, you may have stumbled upon two engaging titles: 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 track is right for you, given your 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

Eastwood by Natasha Remarchuk

The primary difference between Group Product Managers (GPM) and Principal Product Managers (PPM) is the particular track that each is on.

PPMs, while senior members of the product management team, are still Individual Contributors (IC), 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.

On the other hand, management is tasked with managing other members of an organization. As a result, they lead and oversee a team's efforts to achieve an organization's goals.

If you're not a PM already, you may be 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 are managing processes and tasks regarding product work and problems. Only those directly managing other people are considered part of the management team.

Abstract  by Marina Mogulska

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.

On the other hand, Group Product Managers are on the management track. 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 as a Group Product Manager, you may advance further into upper management.

A Group Product Manager position could set you up for a top executive position or even the C-Suite one day. Perhaps you will be promoted to Head of Product or a Director of Product Management.

However, suppose you are one of those PMs who excel as an individual contributor. In that case, 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 of both tracks during your career, and your experiences will help you decide which is the track for you.

First, however, let's dive into both of these positions in more depth.

What is a Group Product Manager?

We Did It

Photo by Natalie Pedigo / Unsplash

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.

Group Product Managers are people managers in addition to product managers. They focus on strategy and big-picture initiatives regarding their products while leading and overseeing their product management team.

As a result, a Group Product Manager often become Head of Product, Director of Product Management, or a VP of Product later in their careers.

The Group Product Manager acts 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.

Junior PMs will typically report to their Group Product Manager. They seek their guidance while following their lead to coordinate efforts with the rest of the PM team and the business at large. Therefore, any aspiring Group Product Manager needs to prepare for the responsibility of such a leadership role.

Which PMs Are Best Suited for Group Product Management?

Abstract  by Oleg Shcherba

Not every PM may be fit to become a Group Product Manager for a few reasons. Chief among them is their ability to manage others on the product team.

In a sense, becoming a Group Product Manager is when the job shifts from primarily managing people rather than product tasks or processes. But unfortunately, this is not something that everyone can do 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 and those willing to leave some of the individual contribution responsibilities behind.

As we previously mentioned, you don't need to decide what track you'd prefer as soon as you enter the product management field. In the beginning, both GPMs and PPMs share the same general career path.

You may start as an Associate Product Manager before moving from 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.

However, if you can see yourself managing people and not just products, then a Group Product Manager position, and by extension, a management track, maybe 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

Chess

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel / Unsplash

Group Product Managers have already proven themselves with a clear track record as product managers. Usually, a Senior Product Manager hungry to lead a product team is promoted into the role.

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 as you can in managing or leading PM teams, even in an informal sense.

Finally, 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.

Also, 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?

Cyborg by Thierry Fousse

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 challenging and critical aspects of product strategy and vision. As a result, principal PMs often work on tasks that require a deep understanding of product management and 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?

Abstract  by Oleg Shcherba

Suppose you're one of those PMs who do well in their capacity as an individual contributor and aren't necessarily interested in managing people. In that case, you may be interested in becoming a Principal Product Manager.

These PMs are the highest individual contributors in the product team at their firms. As a result, they are often regarded and compensated similarly to Directors of Product Management.

PPMs, as we mentioned, aren't managing other PMs. Instead, they contribute to the hands-on, day-to-day product vision and strategy development while taking on more challenging product problems.

How to Become a Principal Product Manager

scrabble tiles and smartphone

Photo by William Iven / Unsplash

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?

Cyborg by Thierry Fousse

Ultimately, your choice will be based on a few factors. The most important are your overall career ambitions, your particular job strengths, and your leadership skills. Both are upper level product management position critical to the overall product vision and product strategy.

If you hope to become a top executive at your company one day, 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 as an individual contributor, working towards a principal product manager role may be the natural thing.

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?

Product Manager Interview Resources

Hopefully, this guide was helpful on the key differences between group product managers and principal product managers.

Of course, no matter which career path you choose, you'll need to ace your product manager interviews! So be sure to check out some of our interview prep and PM-specific resources to help you do just that!

💬 Review more commonly asked sample PM interview questions.

📖 Read through our company-specific Product Manager interview guides

👯‍♂️ Practice your behavioral and leadership skills with our mock interview practice tool.

👨‍🎓 Take our complete Product Management interview course.

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Anthony Pellegrino

I'm Tony, a freelance journalist, writer, and content marketing strategist. I write about interview prep and career planning for Exponent, but I also write about climate change, tech, and, politics.

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