Want to know a secret? Successful women in product say—whether by nature or nurture—you probably already possess many of the skills needed to build a great career.
Supriya Uchil, whose career has included product management roles at Amazon, Zynga and BookingGo, believes women have “an innate talent to be natural collaborators and ask questions,” both key strengths for successful product managers, regardless of gender.
In practice, this means putting the customer at the center of the process and collaborating with a team to reach consensus about how to create the best product, said Uchil, who now heads her own digital product strategy consulting company, Accelerate Product, based in London with clients in the Middle East and Europe.
Still, success means navigating preconceptions—about your skills, your recommendations, your leadership style—in a field still largely dominated by men, particularly in the technology sector. Professional women, no matter their field of expertise, often find themselves walking the fine line of preconception between assertive and abrasive, critical and judgmental, and collaborative and accommodating.
Want to know another secret? You’re not alone. Your fellow women in product management want you to succeed, and they’re happy to share some secrets of their own.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Prerna Singh, co-founder of the New York City chapter of Women in Product, describes the role of product manager as “having influence without having authority.” Singh said that element of influence makes it critical for product managers to understand all points of view: the customer, the engineers, the designers, the sales team.
But the job is not about pleasing everyone—a cliché that Singh tries to avoid in her role as vice president of product for CoEdition, a fashion website.
“It’s being able to earn respect, and that respect is earned when all the parties trust that I have their best interests at heart,” Singh said. “You leverage your emotional intelligence to gain trust; to become a better, stronger product manager; to make sure that everyone feels heard.”
The need to influence others also requires product managers to build credibility with the other members of their team, said Diane Pierson, PMC-VI, a Pragmatic Institute instructor with more than 20 years of experience in product management and marketing.
Pierson said women often are saddled with the stereotype of being too emotional or too passionate about a product. But female product managers can sidestep the stereotype by becoming what Pierson calls “dispassionately passionate,” relying on facts about market trends and customer needs to shape decision making.
“If you bring the facts, you save your passion for the solutions to the problems,” Pierson said. “When we’re talking about how to serve the market, how to talk to the market, we can get passionate about it. Get the facts, go to the market, and cite your sources. Don’t bring opinion to the table. Bring knowledge to the table.”
Uchil agrees that the ability to analyze market data—and accept uncertainty—is essential to the role. That’s why facts and data play such a large role in decision making, she said.
“Nobody can tell you: This is what the customer wants,” Uchil said. “You have to cull the information necessary to find out. It’s about dealing with the unknown and making sense of the ambiguity.”
Amy Graham, PMC-VI, credits her first classes with Pragmatic Institute for teaching her the industry’s best practices and gaining influence with her boss.
Graham now teaches Pragmatic classes and offers a simple motto to students who ask how to get started with their newfound knowledge: “Don’t boil the ocean.” Start with a smaller, focused initiative; build on that success; and find a champion who will vouch for your work.
But knowledge and expertise don’t matter if you don’t have the confidence to share them, she said. In Graham’s case, she returned from her first Pragmatic training with multiple ways to implement what she had learned, and her boss was more than willing to use her new expertise.
“You might be incredibly smart, you might have a lot of talent and bring a lot of knowledge to the company, but if you don’t use your voice, it’s all for nothing,” Graham said. “Make sure that your voice is heard by colleagues and clients and customers. If you don’t have that voice, you’d better find one.”
Taking a role in the decision-making process also means knowing that decisions often are made before the official meeting and figuring out how to influence those decisions, said Deborah Clarke, director of product.
Clarke said she used to watch her male colleagues chatting over coffee and wonder, “Why am I working and they’re taking a break?” Then her male boss shared this insight: Decisions aren’t made at meetings, they’re only formalized there.
The realization changed Clarke’s approach to meeting preparation. Now she spends more time away from her desk, discussing ideas with colleagues and understanding their motivations.
“Decisions get made before people even walk into the room,” Clarke said. “You’ve got to be doing all that background work, talking to people about what they care about and why, to understand what they want to get out of it. At the meeting, you can exercise your leadership and show that you’re savvy about the topic and have a voice, but when you actually think about how the outcome is driven, it’s not going to happen at that time. It happened before you got there.”
Leave the Past in the Past
It sounded like a made-for-the-movies success story: The young woman who started her career in the mailroom and worked her way up to CEO through years of education, experience and commitment.
Also like a movie, this story also had its pitfalls. The CEO couldn’t let go of the job where she first earned accolades. Rather than trusting her subordinates, she continued attending requirements meetings, flipping through binders of data to make suggestions about their work.
Pierson said that this boss’s example taught her the importance of letting go of a previous job’s duties to make way for new responsibilities.
That transition can prove emotionally challenging if the prior role was a major stepping-stone, the first place where a woman felt she proved her worth, Pierson said. But in the end, you must leave that place of safety behind in order to achieve new heights.
“One of the things that women have to get better at is understanding the concept of leverage: We hire people to leverage their talent in order to help us gain more influence,” Pierson said. “Sometimes we give too many technical directives because we feel our value is determined by the last job we had. And sometimes those hands-on jobs are so satisfying because you get stuff done, and I think we as women tend to hang on to that.”
She recommends thinking about the bigger picture for a project, instead of focusing on the smaller tasks that must be done to bring a project to life.
“Women tend to be organized, be prepared and show up on time,” Clarke said. “All of that is extremely important, but if you can take yourself outside of the immediate and think about the wider vision or decision, that’s where leadership comes into play.”
Pierson also said that studying the financial operations of the companies where she worked—and learning what actions could generate new revenue, whether by streamlining operations or increasing customer renewals—helped her prioritize the time she spent on particular tasks.
“If you start to think about the effort you put forth versus the gain that you get, the question becomes, ‘How can I deploy myself to something that would more directly drive revenue?’” Pierson said. “If you start to think about the numbers, you start to act on them.”
Know Your Worth
Another number to pay attention to? The market rate for your job.
There’s almost nothing worse than discovering you’re being underpaid for your work. Julee Everett, now the director of client success for CCG Analytics Solutions and Services, recalled finding out from a male colleague at a previous employer that he was earning $15,000 more than she was for performing the same job.
Once she discovered the disparity, Everett asked her supervisor to bring her up to market rate for the role. But it took another cycle of raises for Everett to reach parity with her co-worker.
Everett cited this as a key moment in her professional development, because it inspired her not only to seek a new job—where the offer came in $30,000 higher than her salary at her former company—but also to become a better negotiator on her own behalf.
“I knew in that moment that if I wanted the security that I craved for my family, it was up to me to be my own career advocate,” Everett said. “I’ve learned to talk about money with those that I trust, to research salaries, and to discuss this openly with other male and female peers. If you don’t know what you are worth in the marketplace, you can’t ask for it.”
Everett is not alone, according to results of the 2019 Pragmatic Institute Annual Product Management and Product Marketing Survey, which also included questions about compensation via both salary and bonus. (The full survey results will be available in September.) Overall, women product managers made an average of almost $16,000 less than men. The compensation gap held true in almost every situation, regardless of education or department role.
The further up the ladder women moved, the larger the gap grew. For example, there was an average compensation difference of about $20,000 for the 190 executives who participated in the survey. There was a $14,000 average difference between women and men who had completed master’s degrees, and an almost $10,000 difference between women and men with doctoral degrees.
Angela Long, PMC-V, incoming president of the American Marketing Association-Washington, D.C., said women need to hone their salary negotiating skills—and remember that they are selling their skills, not themselves. Long, who has also negotiated salary from a hiring perspective, said she has often seen women settle for the first offer rather than ask for the maximum amount in the range.
“You’re delivering your services to that company,” Long said. She suggests that women approach salary negotiations with the same mindset they would take if charging as a consultant: “You’re hiring my experience and my skill set, and this is what my research indicates those are worth. That makes the conversation easier from a negotiation perspective.”
Networking, both within a company and with other product management professionals, offers an important way to discover who’s making what and which companies are hiring. But it can offer so much more: a place to learn from peers, an attentive audience for ideas, a way to seek guidance during career changes.
When the New York City chapter of Women in Product held its first event two years ago, Singh and her fellow organizers hoped to fill at least half of the 200 seats for a training session about machine learning. Instead, they sold out. Today, the chapter holds monthly networking events and has more than 1,300 members.
Singh said the group’s rapid growth demonstrates that women in product management want to seek out their fellow professionals, to build both a professional network and a comfortable learning environment.
But the group also proves its worth by providing support for members who are struggling with their next career move, Singh said. Recently, a woman contacted Singh to thank the group for its support after she was laid off during a massive reorganization. After posting about her situation on the chapter’s website, five members reached out to her to set up coffee dates, and others sent job postings her way that led to two interviews. The woman said her experience connecting with others had lifted her spirits and stopped her from taking her layoff too personally.
“Women tend to own their failures more than their successes,” Singh said. “But you have to think about yourself as a whole person and be able to celebrate both the wins and the failures as learning opportunities.”
Uchil remembers her own feeling of “imposter syndrome” when she became a technical adviser to the senior vice president at Kindle, overseeing the rollout of Amazon’s electronic devices. She said her network of friends and colleagues carried her through times when she felt overwhelmed and inadequate for the task.
Now Uchil relishes the opportunity to provide that same sense of support to other women. She recalled one acquaintance who approached her about wanting to apply for a promotion, but she felt that she didn’t check off all the requirements on the application. In a similar vein, an internal report from Hewlett Packard several years ago found that female applicants feel the need to meet 100% of job qualifications, while male counterparts apply if they meet 60% or more.
Uchil encouraged her acquaintance to apply for the job anyway, if only for practice. She recently heard from the woman that she had, in fact, gotten the promotion.
“I want to support any woman who is going through this journey because I had the immense support of others to get me where I am today,” Uchil said. “These mentors and guides are my friends for life.”