Early in my software development career, a manager offered me some advice: “If you want the keys to the kingdom, then walk around with the keys to the kingdom.”
Taken literally, this advice could have emboldened a young engineer to take some serious missteps while alienating the team around him. But I understood the underlying message to be one of empowerment: Take initiative and seize opportunities to help the business. After years of following his advice, this same manager would enthusiastically orchestrate my transition into product management.
Advancement typically doesn’t happen simply as a reward for doing good work, so how should early- and mid-career product managers think about career progression? I interviewed a panel of 12 accomplished product leaders and executives to gain insights into how they successfully navigated their product careers. This article presents the synthesized findings of their experiences and offers specific strategies and tactics you can use as you think about your own career arc.
Product managers are naturally wired for advancement. Most started out in a different role, so they have already demonstrated a willingness and ability to take on a demanding new job. And, after some time in the role, product managers naturally start looking for what’s next. Getting clarity on what you want to do next (and why) is an important first step.
Several of the panelists opted to go after new and risky product lines. This route can offer a wide array of experiences, from business case development to planning and executing launches. Other leaders opted to follow their curiosity into new markets, technologies, and problems to solve. Any approach that is motivated by a genuine pursuit of skills growth and knowledge will serve an early-career product manager well.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Focus, learn, add value
In the beginning, focus first and foremost on the job you’ve got and don’t worry about advancement. Learn the trade, gain experience and add as much value to the business as possible. Develop a reputation as a problem-solver and key player while taking the initiative to learn the market and business from those around you. By building this initial base of experience, you’ll develop a good sense of where you’d like to go next.
Everyone has different approaches to career management, ranging from the highly passive (simply floating down the stream) to the highly active. A passive approach can serve you well in the beginning, and some panelists took that approach early on, letting their interests guide them. However, most of these product leaders and executives took a more intentional approach early on.
Regardless of how you’ve defined it, the advancement you seek usually comes about because you’ve been intentional. Active career management relies on a certain degree of ambition—a trait that can carry a negative connotation. But a healthy degree of ambition likely comes naturally for those drawn to the responsibilities and stresses that come with product management roles.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Maintain clear goals
Career progression comes when you have clear goals and a vision of what you want to achieve. Compare it to product planning: The more clearly you set and verbalize your next target or milestone, the more likely you are to achieve it. Some examples:
* I would like to manage a new product introduction so that I can get the experience of defining and launching a product from scratch.
* I would like to manage a product line with many decisions to be made and for which I’d have significant decision-making authority.
* I would like to manage a small team of product managers so that I can develop my leadership and managerial skills.
MOBILIZE YOUR TEAM
Once you have a clear vision of what you’d like to do next, you must create the conditions for that vision to materialize. While your career path may feel like a very personal thing, your advancement depends in part on those around you. There are three kinds of allies who should compose the team that will help you along the way.
The most important ally in your career is your manager, but it would be a mistake to assume that they are there to drive your career growth. One product management leader advised, “The big thing to remember is that your manager is your advocate, not your adversary. They are there to partner with you.” If your manager isn’t actively driving the conversation about your career advancement, then the responsibility of initiating the conversation falls to you.
How you have these conversations is important. “Advancement is absolutely part of the ongoing conversation, but it needs to be the second part,” one panelist said. “The first part has to be about how you’re performing in your current role. The question has to be, ‘Am I crushing it in my current responsibilities? And if not, what do I need to do to crush it?”
Skipping this vital step before broaching the subject of advancement shows that you’re not serious about your assigned work and the entire conversation can convey an air of entitlement.
Advancement and promotions go to people who are already demonstrating many of the abilities needed to do the job, so your goal is to get a good understanding of what’s needed, and then agree on an action plan that allows you to develop and practice those skills. Then, once you’re executing that plan, regularly share your progress and build a body of evidence for your manager.
“You want to provide a steady diet of messages to your manager along the way and actively encourage them to talk with others who can provide feedback on your work,” agreed several panelists. Because you developed the action plan together, you’re simply providing status updates—just as you would for any other work assignments. By providing these updates, you’re showing that you’re taking what your manager said seriously, and you want feedback on how you’re progressing.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Show, share interests
Assuming you’re performing well in your current role, it’s appropriate to describe the kinds of projects that interest you and why. Ask about the charter and responsibilities that would come with your desired assignment. What activities does your manager need to see you take on to give them the confidence to advocate for you?
Your Product’s Internal Stakeholders
It also is wise to form productive relationships with key stakeholders for your product, along with their managers. As a matter of course, you have a built-in hall pass to reach out to almost anyone in the company as needed to execute your product mission.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Diversify
Building relationships with internal stakeholders gives you an opportunity to learn other areas of the business and be curious and empathic about your stakeholders’ challenges and needs. Not only will you raise the odds of bringing a whole product experience to the market, but you’ll also raise your profile across various areas of the business.
Trusted mentors serve two important functions: They share how they handled situations and problems like yours, and they provide candid feedback on your solutions to the challenges you face. It’s never too early or too late to find one or two mentors to guide you on your path.
A mentor can be especially helpful if you’re working in a small company with few product management peers. And larger companies have no shortage of leaders who enjoy mentorship and can provide valuable guidance.
One product leader advised that you be choosy in picking your mentor: “While it can be good for the ego to have a ‘hype man’ as a mentor, it’s more useful to choose someone who will tell it to you straight.”
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Go Inside/Out
Consider finding one mentor inside your company and one that’s external.
An internal mentor provides context-specific guidance but can get anchored on product or company matters.
An external mentor can be highly objective without injecting their own biases.
It may take a while to find the right mentors, so start your search sooner rather than later.
OF LUCK, PREPARATION, and OPPORTUNITY
To think that luck plays a role in career advancement can be disempowering. However, the Roman stoic Seneca is credited with the saying that “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” This is a useful definition because it gives you control over both halves of the equation; you can make your own luck.
To a large extent, preparation is a byproduct of the daily work you do as a product manager. But it’s handy to think about preparation relative to your long-term career aspirations. As one product leader observed, “This requires self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses, which can help you realize your value to other people and the kinds of projects where you’ll be successful.” If you dream of becoming a product executive, then think about the skills and experiences you’ll need to build your résumé for that role—and then plan.
If your company has a training budget or offers tuition reimbursement, use them. As you advance in your product career, the balance of hard and soft skills shifts to rely more heavily on the latter, and it’s never too late to work on them. For example, the most adept product managers can unwittingly handicap their careers with subpar communication skills. So, if you know that your communication skills could be improved, seek out a business communications class.
It may not seem like it, but opportunity is all around; you simply have to tap into it and recognize good opportunities when they surface. And opportunities are likelier to come when you’ve shared your project interests with your manager, invested in relationships with internal stakeholders, and taken steps to raise your profile. It’s simple human nature for people to reach out to those whom they like and trust. Those relationships that you’ve been developing will yield opportunities, and that can create a snowball effect.
Regardless of how the opportunity was sourced, it pays to be a little selective; otherwise, you run the danger of overextending yourself. When an opportunity comes along, evaluate the skills you’re likely to learn. Will it be a useful training ground for skills you’d like to acquire? Is it worth your time? Product managers are masters of saying, “No,” but remember that you don’t want to develop a reputation for refusing invitations to task forces and committees.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
Avoid becoming so consumed with your daily job that it’s impossible to take on a temporary project or stretch assignment. When an opportunity comes along, you want to have enough capacity to take it on. Also, get out of your comfort zone—this is literally how growth happens. Over time, you’ll find that what was once uncomfortable becomes easier.
GETTING THAT PROMOTION
The first promotion to senior product manager is straightforward if you’re executing well, adding value, maintaining good relationships, and getting out of your comfort zone. But things can get tricky when the next step is managerial but that’s not where your interests lie.
In many organizations, people-management responsibilities are tied with the increased product authority that many product managers otherwise want.
As a people manager, you’re expected to train, mentor, and develop junior employees, oftentimes in organizations where HR doesn’t do much to equip first-time managers.
It’s worth a brutally honest assessment of your interest in team leadership before moving into this kind of role, as an insincere move into people management can create an avoidable and sour experience for you, your direct reports, and your leadership team. But it’s also important to understand that, in the product management field, your prospects for promotion will be capped at some point if people management is not in the cards for you.
Lastly, your manager’s decision to promote usually isn’t made in isolation. Managers usually look for consensus with leadership and peers when planning to promote an employee—they don’t want to be met with skepticism (or worse) when announcing their intent to promote you. Your positive working relationships across the organization help your manager build that consensus.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Be Ready for Change
Other factors can complicate your promotion. Advancement begins to pull you away from the very thing that got you into product management in the first place. When you move out of daily product operations, you may start losing some control over the product you used to have. And even if you’re at peace with that, is your manager? Are you still too essential to be given different or expanded responsibilities? If you haven’t been empowering the people below and beside you or establishing processes to ensure resilience if you leave, you may end up a victim of your own importance.
WHEN YOU’RE REMOTE
Pandemic-induced work-from-home arrangements notwithstanding, career progression is easier when you work at your primary R&D site or headquarters location. When you’re working remotely from the nerve center you simply must work harder at maintaining key relationships, but it can be done. Pre-pandemic, traveling a week or two a month was one tactic for remote product leaders, but even that’s not always enough.
“I’ve had to overcommunicate with my manager and engineering counterparts,” said one leader who’s been remote for several years. “We have standing one-on-ones and I remind them about the discussions we had last week and the decisions we made. It’s a lot of work and I have to force myself to do it.” Another product leader advised that you “make sure you’re visible in a constructive, useful way, not just for the sake of visibility. You have to be a passionate advocate for your product in those bigger meetings; people have to be aware of you.”
Despite the importance of nurturing strategic relationships, there are only so many hours in the day. You must be choosy about the relationships you’ll invest in, but the effort is worth it; leaders want to include those people they value and like, even when they’re remote.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Have Thick Skin
When you’re away from your R&D team and you’re not in the decision-making process, you can feel more like an outbound product manager than an inbound product manager. Make sure you’re in the discussions that matter; the big product decisions are how a product manager creates impact.
Also, you need to have thick skin—you may make a decision, go to sleep, and then wake up to find that your decision was overruled.
An MBA isn’t a prerequisite for a successful career, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee advancement, but it can be rewarding if it’s done with the right expectations and under the right circumstances. An MBA program won’t teach you to be a good product manager, but it can enhance your ability to work effectively and strategically across the business, especially as you naturally progress in your career. It’s also a great complement to a technical background, particularly in the software industry.
However, being aware of how an MBA might help isn’t a good enough reason to pursue one. Consider whether the subject matter is inherently interesting to you and if you enjoy the process of intense learning. The costs are too high to undertake it without a genuine interest in the material and without a supportive family and employer. If you’re on the fence, take the most compelling part-time MBA class you can find before jumping into a full-time program.
LANDMINES TO AVOID
While there’s no wrong definition of advancement, the panel members all agreed that there is little long-term good that can come from chasing titles for the sake of titles. At a minimum, it’s a fool’s errand because product management titles are so inconsistent across companies. Reaching for a higher title before you’re ready can lead to some bad situations. We’ve all run across people who were underqualified for their roles, and it can be hard to recover from a period of poor performance.
Perhaps even worse, the pursuit of a higher title can cause you to ignore the red flags that surface during the interview process: you can land in a dysfunctional or toxic environment, get paired with an uncooperative engineering leader, or find yourself struggling in a culture that is inherently unreceptive to the discipline of product management. It’s generally not worth a higher title (or even higher pay) if the work environment is a constant struggle and isn’t helping you with your desired goal to advance your career.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Don’t be a ‘Job Hopper’
Sometimes advancement comes by changing employers. This is typical in the software industry, but take care to not build the résumé of a chronic job hopper. Don’t let a lower job title dissuade you from considering what could otherwise become the catalyst for the next stages of your career progression. Focus on the quality of your new boss and peers, as well as the kinds of experiences you’ll gain. If you optimize working with and learning from excellent people, the rewards will come.
Following your curiosity and focusing on expanding your knowledge and experience can lead to a gratifying and rewarding career. But if your goals include advancement, then you need to be intentional. As a product manager, you’re well-suited to the task; just treat your career like another product to manage.
Think about your career strategically, first by establishing a vision and then a roadmap of milestones to achieve that vision. With your next milestone in mind, assemble your team and work through the activities required to accomplish it. And just maybe, with a bit of luck, those keys to the kingdom will be yours.