Product managers often struggle to find a path to growth.
Does that statement ring true for you?
Of course, career growth doesn't happen by itself, no matter what function you're in. For some, that's okay, but for the ambitious, pioneering product management people out there (yes, we're talking to you), it's not.
There can come a time where you simply don’t know how to progress to the next stage. So, if you've got your sights set on progressing up the product career ladder, we've got a bunch of instantly actionable steps you can take (quite literally) today to start putting those promotional wheels in motion, and so that you can lean on your competitive advantage.
Getting into product management isn’t easy
If you're starting from scratch, getting yourself into an Associate PM program can be highly competitive, as they're often very selective. A more common route of entry is to transition from a different role that requires similar skill sets.
However you find your way into product, you'll start by focussing on your PM fundamentals. Once you’ve got these down, you can start digging into the areas of growth that will work best for you... and find your competitive advantage.
“Know your value... I’ve seen three main PM archetypes: engineer turned PM, designer turned PM, and businessperson turned PM. As a member of the latter bucket, I recognize that I could never out-engineer an engineer or out-design a designer...”
– Lauren Chan Lee, Director of Product Management at Care.com
Wait, what do you mean by competitive advantage?
You likely have a certain area in which you excel, either naturally or thanks to the experience you’ve gained. So, it’s important to take advantage of that area in advancing your product career going forwards.
This might sound obvious, but PMs are often tested on various areas from general product sense and analytics to cross-functional skill sets, so use the area in which you have a lot of knowledge and are doing well and turn it to your advantage. Use your key skill area and find projects that allow you to utilize that area and shine.
Say you’re particularly adept at cross-functional alignment, highly skilled at structuring an argument, and working through complex issues - you need to be putting yourself in situations where you can showcase this and prove your ability. If you're constantly hitting roadblocks, it can be frustrating, but highlighting these to your manager and showing your ability to work through them can help to set you apart from others.
If/When (we'll be rooting for when!) you get promoted, don’t just think about your title and level at the organization, consider the projects you’re given. When you’re trusted with bigger and bigger projects, you’ll be developing certain skill sets that can give you that competitive advantage.
What about PMs who are jack-of-all-trades?
Great PMs can often be a “jack-of-all-trades”, who bring a unique value to an org, based on all-around expertise. When the time comes for them to create new products or features, they can pick up the knowledge needed to dive deep into the process and innovate effectively.
Keep in mind, when it comes to product management, all knowledge is invaluable, so take the opportunity to learn new skills whenever you can.
So, if you're not sure where you shine, how do you go about identifying your key strength?
Well, this can start by having a strong manager or product leader. Someone who can see your strengths and your weaknesses within a few months of working with you. An effective product manager or leader will be able to help create a growth plan for you.
This growth plan won’t just happen automatically, but it can eventually help you clearly see when you need to do certain things and the roadblocks you’ll face along the path.
If you don’t have a manager that sets up the time for you to have those growth conversations - take the initiative and do it yourself...
Create your own growth plan.
Over 6 months take the time to assess yourself in all the aspects of your role - where do you get the best feedback? What can you do quickest/best? Where do you add the most value?
Once you've identified this you can begin to create your own growth plan related to your strengths.
By creating a growth plan and carving out regular catch-ups with your manager where you can talk about this, you’ll have better visibility on your own pathway to progression, instead of feeling stagnant where you are. If you’ve been on a team for a year or two without seeing any advancement, it may be the case that your manager does not have the bandwidth, or (worse!) the desire to support you and help you progress.
If this is the case, seek out alternative mentors, or if there isn't an internal 'go-to' then it's all the more important to cultivate a strong external network to help you create and follow your own growth plan.
Be THE expert on your product
If you dedicate yourself to becoming an expert, you’ll effectively be branding yourself as someone truly competent and ready to move up.
Own your product and expel your excuses.
Achieving career progression in product means you need to live and breathe your product. You need to be passionate and invested in what you’re working on, which means constantly using it yourself and testing it out on other people.
It’s important to always be genuine and honest about the flaws you see in your product, anticipate them, and build solutions. Know your company pitch inside-out and always take the initiative. A poor product manager will have lots of excuses, so do away with these and put yourself forward for the difficult stuff, even if it isn’t technically in your job description.
Network to level up your product career
Surround yourself with a diverse group of people that can help propel your career. People from different fields, industries, backgrounds, etc can form an effective network to bounce ideas around.
But how do you start developing this network?
If you're in a small team or organization and don't have a pool of internal people to reach out there are a ton of ways to find potential product pals - events, online communities (like ours!), blogs, articles - there’s a whole host of people out there keen to share their expertise.
Think about the professional relationships you would like to form, and the skills gaps you have. Then if you see an awesome PM (whether it be internally or externally) who has experience in those skills reach out to them - whether it be on LinkedIn, email, Slack, etc. You can form great relationships by simply asking the right people questions.
Forming a stronger network can in turn help you better manage people in general. If you’re not an experienced people person, or you’re not confident in a leadership position, then networking can help build these skills. This can then translate into coaching your own people to work better than they already do.
The career progression of a PM naturally points to leadership roles, so gaining the ability to mentor, communicate and hire executive talent effectively is pivotal for product career progression.
The go-to place for product-led networking
Ahem, while we’re on the topic of networking… 😉
You can join the world’s fastest-growing community focused on product-led growth right here, right now!
Become a member of our slack community and connect with product pros and pioneers from around the world. Access and share fresh PLG content, interact with your peers and share your expertise, find your next great opportunity and more. Plus, you can also keep up to date with all our awesome events, webinars, and interactive sessions.
Always ask for advice and feedback
Perhaps an obvious one, but all too often PMs tend to skip asking for feedback or advice. This can end up significantly slowing your progress! When working closely on a project, getting constant feedback and advice is crucial.
Talk to peers, VPs, other stakeholders, customers, etc, and harness them for feedback on exactly where you can improve. Getting advice and feedback can not only help you address any weaknesses, but it can also help you build on your strengths.
You can share your goals and seek out the best advice on how to reach them, even going as far as to think about things tactically, by setting up a promotion plan. Approach your manager and ask them what their experience has been and look at it very objectively. This can be different depending on the company size. For example, if you’re at a startup, think about what the process is and the important skill sets, and then approach your manager as to the plan.
Think about the facts and ask yourself things like:
- Are you getting bigger projects?
- Are you accomplishing bigger objectives?
- Are you hitting your OKRs?
Bring those facts to the table with your manager. Check the list of things they have within the promotion cycle and compare that to what you’re hitting.
Ask the right questions during product career convos
This very much relates to advice and feedback as well, as you just need to ask the right Qs and get feedback on key factors during career conversations:
- What am I doing well?
- What am I struggling with?
- What do you expect from a PM at my level?
Say you deliver a presentation that didn’t go down so well, it's important to understand WHY. Ask those who attended for candid feedback on specific areas (eg content, delivery, visual aids) so you can better understand what happened from their perspective.
Have consistent check-ins with the people offering feedback, and get their views on how you’re progressing.
Key takeaway: Communication is the hallmark of a good product manager. Having great communication skills will help you progress quicker, so always be more conscious of your communication and have a plan in place for advice and feedback.
Scale the product career ladder with your strengths
Figuring out what you’re good at is essential to leveling up in your product career. It doesn’t matter if you’re not excellent at everything, perhaps you’re excelling at analytics but you’re still learning when it comes to cross-functional partnerships. Take on projects and try to find ways to set yourself up for success in those key areas you know you’re good at while developing your other skill sets in the background.
Often PMs that scale the ladder the fastest are leaning heavily on that one key strength. And as for the rest, they’re figuring it out as they go along.
Self-awareness is critical - you need to become very aware of what you’re good at and what you need to work on. You can do this by collecting feedback, talking to peers, connecting to people, writing, whatever you need to do. Once you have an understanding of where you excel, you can then focus on the areas of product management that interest you.
You’ll start supercharging your impact as a PM simply because you’re more invested, and as a result, you’ll be developing your competitive advantage. Lean into that and watch as you climb up the ladder of responsibility.
Your career in product management can encompass many things, from liaising with users to building great product strategies. So keep focused on what’s important: your passion, project positivity, and always be explicit in your actions, and you’ll be well on your way to progressing your product management career.