How Product Managers Get Promoted (5 Steps To Success)
A number of years ago, I visited a college campus during freshman orientation. I recall the speaker telling the incoming students about the great opportunities in front of them. One of the things that the speaker stated firmly was this: “you are responsible for you.” While it’s a no-brainer to think that, it was one of those subtle reminders that it’s often a good idea in your career to check-in with yourself to see how you’re doing and what you can do to get ahead, or get a promoted – that is – if that’s what you really want.
I’ve written in other forums about my research that suggests a large portion of the product manager population don’t know what’s needed to get promoted. On the other side of that coin, many managers of product managers don’t establish the criteria to coach product managers to the next level.
From another point of view, when I wrote The Product Manager’s Desk Reference, I wrote in the Introduction, that product managers come from many different areas – those with clearly defined roles, academic requirements, etc. Yet, with product managers, everyone comes from somewhere else and that doesn’t just go for individual contributors, it goes for the bosses, too.
While I don’t want to dig into the reasons why, what I want to do is provide you with some ideas that you can use to devise a strategy for getting ahead.
To do this, I’d like you to understand what’s included in your job description and the job description for the next level up. Now it’s not always so easy to figure this out because in a lot of companies, there sometimes many product management job descriptions that are customized for a particular situation. I was doing a product management assessment a couple of years ago and I was reviewing the job descriptions for various levels.
Out of approximately 100 product managers and managers of product managers, I located 47 different product manager job descriptions. Not all companies are like this, but you can be confused by these if you’re trying to get your bearings and figure out what to do to round out your experience.
Key Building Blocks
The way to approach this is to look at some of the key building blocks of the product manager job description. (There’s another post on this topic, so you can look at that in more detail if you’d like). There are five building blocks you may benefit from understanding. This is not a complete list. Its purpose is to get you thinking about how you consider the work you’ve done and the work you need to do to get ahead within the parameters of the job description. These five attributes or building blocks include:
- The complexity of the job. This could be associated with the number of products, revenue responsibility, etc. This can also be related to whether you’re responsible for a complete product, a module of a product, or on the other end, a full product line.
- Lifecycle state of your product. This refers to your scope of work on products that are being planned or enhanced, versus those that are more mature. To be clear, this is associated with the work you do on products with various lifecycle maturities because of what’s involved at each stage.
- The span of control and visibility of your position. This refers to the degree to which you must interact with others and your reliance on, and effectiveness in dealing with, people who work in other departments.
- Prior background and experience. Product managers have various academic backgrounds and exposure to different products, industries, etc. The depth and breadth of experience in these areas matter a lot.
- Visibility and other interpersonal skills: It really matters what others say about you when you’re not in the room. Your bosses always ask their peers and others what they think of you, especially around the time of annual reviews.
You can use this list as a guideline for developing other attribute areas, or you may also get more information by reviewing current job descriptions. The point is to use this – and here’s how.
Assess Your Effectiveness
If you’re working towards getting promoted, you’ll want to assess your overall effectiveness on as many attributes as possible. You may develop a list of 3-5 sub-attributes under each. Regardless of how many, consider a technique to assess yourself. For example, you may want to set up a rating scale where 1 = “minimum exposure” and perhaps 10 as “maximum effectiveness” for each attribute. You can ask yourself questions such as:
- What have I accomplished?
- What evidence do I have?
- Does my boss understand about my work?
Second, you may want to speak frankly with your boss, if you don’t already, about what he or she thinks you’ve achieved and to help point out areas for you to develop. On another plane, hopefully, you’ve built a good network with the peers of your boss. They can be a great source of feedback, too. Either way, understand as well that just because there’s a boss doesn’t mean they understand your background and experience, either because you’re newer or they’re newer. In my own career, I had so many new bosses – they’d just pick up the pieces and never really understand my own background and experience.
With this overall backdrop of information and a brief assessment, you can identify some experiential gaps. When these are set out and seen within the context of other goals that your boss may set for you, you will have a solid portfolio of ‘things to do’ that you can use to fortify your foundation – and to use those as a springboard to get ahead. Yet, even if you do, if there isn’t an understanding from all sides that you’re interested in getting ahead, your efforts may result in maintaining your position. That, in and of itself, may speak to what your next move may be in your career.
I hope this provides some helpful context for you, and wish you the best on your path to getting promoted in your product management role. For an additional product management tool, tune into my podcast “Masters of Product Management”. And be sure to check out our Product Management Essentials Workshop that will have you leaving as a certified product manager.
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