💎 Advancing from Product Manager to Product Leader
Navigating your most important career inflection point
👋 Mind The Beet: Two working parents (both product leaders in tech) discuss our journey with career, parenting, and life. We publish every Sunday. Subscribing is free.
Apprentice, journeyman, mentor. Assistant professor, associate professor, distinguished professor. Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Colonel. L1. L2. L3. L4.
Every profession has level bands of proficiency with rising expectations. The transition between those bands is a critical time of growth and a lot of uncertainty about the new expectations – “what worked before might not work going forward.”
Product Management is a relatively new profession and so the bands of proficiency are not as steeped in institutions – yet there are clear stages in the careers of most PMs. Today I wanted to talk about the stages and then focus on a critical moment in a PM’s career – the transition from “Product Manager” to “Product Leader.”
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The Stages of a Career in Product
Let’s start with a framing for the entire story arc of a career in product. I’ve rewritten my theory of PM career stages almost half a dozen times over the years as I refine what’s important and as the industry evolves.
Emerging Professional: You start your career here. You are learning how to incorporate feedback while on the job instead of in a classroom. You are learning how to be a professional – clearly communicating, following through on commitments, and building a network of trusting relationships. You are learning the basics of features and experiments. Some companies call this job an Associate Product Manager (APM). This is generally between 10-20% of a PM team. Folk often spend 1-3 years focusing on these skills.
Product Manager: This is when you scale up your impact – getting 10x faster at the job of defining the Why and What of products. By the end, you are comfortable running a multi-feature backlog. You can think through how a set of features build together into a scenario or outcome. You own a collection of metrics and run multiple tests to move them. This is generally between 20%-40% of a PM team. Folks often spend 4-10 years focusing on these skills - a few people might spend their entire career in this stage but 90%+ are encouraged to either move on to product leader skills or switch disciplines if they can’t make the leap.
Product Leader: You are asked to solve 100x more ambiguous problems than before. Often these are outcomes that the org has not achieved before. The goal is to deliver results AND improve the org/culture so that there are fewer headwinds on similar problems next time. Coalition building is important and so is accumulating social proof and exec support for ideas, as the point is to dramatically change the status quo. The time horizon for success on a project often spans multiple years. Companies use various names here including Principal PM, Head of Product, PM Manager, and GPM. Most frontline and M2 management positions are in this stage although there is a strong individual contributor track that encompasses well over 50% of product leaders. This is between 25%-45% of a PM team, although in smaller or less mature organizations it might be well under 25%. Product leadership roles are the capstones of most PM careers.
Product Executive: Your job becomes empowering very senior product leaders to do their best work. Building culture and new multi-org coalitions are a primary focus. Executive relationships, brokering new x-team/x-functional solutions to unarticulated needs, and securing funding are part of the day job. Names for this include Chief Product Officer, VP of Product, Director of Product, and Partner GPM and often they are M3 or higher roles (i.e. managers of managers of managers). This is generally between 2%-5% of a PM team. Many people reflect the job feels less like building product anymore (“a lot less time playing with Lego blocks”) and more about creating systems of people.
It’s intentional to have a framing for these stages of skill development that are separate from promotions and company titles. You own your skill growth and leadership potential; promotions and titles are multi-faceted decisions involving other factors like whether you take a new job, the business context, team opportunity, budget, HR timelines, and ability to instill leadership confidence. In my career, I’ve had examples where my promotions came both before and after I perceived I was demonstrating the skills of the next stage of PM development. That being said, they do track, and here’s something I pulled from levels.fyi and overlayed the framing on top of it:
Emerging Product Leaders: How to Get There
Let’s dig into the transition from Product Manager to also being a Product Leader when the situation requires it. I find coaching people through this to be interesting because:
You just learned how to be a really awesome product manager. So you have some habits you are committed to that may or may not help with the transition.
This pivot to 100x ambiguity comes when you just got 10x faster at your job – so it can feel like a frustrating slow-down.
You are transitioning from being a participant of a team to being more responsible for its culture, strengths, and flaws.
Most product management careers will go through this transition. This is rare compared to other professions: most electricians are journeymen, few are master electricians. Yet since product management is so much about leadership, most PMs will grow into product leaders (as individual contributors or as managers). It also helps that software is eating the world, creating more opportunities for all of us in tech products.
The Formula For Product Leadership
At the risk of oversimplifying, here’s a quick shorthand that I’ve found helpful to encapsulate product leadership:
Product Leadership = Product Judgement + Emotional Intelligence + People Systems Thinking
I’ll start with an example that showcases this in action. Just the other week I was discussing how we had major risk in the business model of an upcoming new product. In this discussion with the product leader of the area, she pointed out to me that she wanted to delay escalating the problem to our business planning team until after she had worked on an alignment issue with a partner engineering team. That way, the joint engineering teams could go together to the stakeholder.
This may sound trivial when summarized like this, but it’s not. It shows excellence across the entire product leadership formula: She showed product judgement in identifying what indeed is an existential vs. transient issue, had the emotional intelligence to stay calm and not immediately jump to solutions or increase tension, and showed knowledge of the systems of people around her to realize issue resolution would be improved after having more allies if an adjacent issue was resolved first.
These are the strategies that need to be employed on a daily basis as you grow into a product leadership role.
Traits of Natural Product Leaders
What’s the key to a fast transition into product leader? While there is no avoiding the hard work and self-reflection required in all skill growth, I will share the most common traits from people who seem to naturally gravitate towards this higher stage of PM more quickly:
Overflowing with purpose & passion. Self-motivated. People who make the transition to product leader look easy are those who ooze passion and are ahead of the game in defining their purpose at work. This grounding in purpose enables them to get more advanced coaching from their managers and mentors, as it’s easier to coach someone on how to unblock them to a destination they’ve defined vs. help someone adrift.
Knows the product/industry/org context. A product manager who has found the time to look beyond their areas is one who is ready for product leadership opportunities. Those with the intuition to look beyond their immediate horizon will adjust to the higher ambiguity situations quickly as they will be better at pattern matching.
Passionate about improving org culture. People who focus on improving their org culture – be that diversity and inclusion priorities, better team process, owning learning initiatives, driving retros, or more – tend to find less shock in the transition to product leadership. That’s because their brains are already trained to look at how systems solve multiple problems at once and the art of finding balance.
An eagerness to teach others how to build great product. Generosity is a force multiplier in a matrixed tech world and people who teach will be better at synthesizing their own lived experiences into best practices. This is also a good litmus test that someone has understood the skills of product management and is ready for new challenges.
The Path to Product Leader: Traps to Avoid
Avoiding pitfalls and traps is an important way we share our knowledge with others - so I’ve thought recently about common stumbles that I made myself and have seen from those making the leap into product leadership heavy roles.
Almost everyone falls into one or more of these traps on the way to product leadership strengths. It’s part of the journey - so don’t feel ashamed if you recognize these mistakes in your own work. Instead, celebrate your self-awareness.
Here are the top 3 traps I see and how to avoid them.
1. The “That particular raptor was never going to eat you” trap.
Let’s start with a funny meme, this one from the Product Management Memes group on Facebook:
Listen, I get it - a lot of the job of a product manager is about reducing risk (looking out for those raptors!). It’s easy to get your hackles up and respond to situations from a position of fear of loss. What’s more, product managers often feel total ownership and are rewarded for handling all aspects of a scoped problem. Product leaders need more judgment on what to either delegate or accept risk today to solve over time. This can be a tough transition.
I’ve realized over the years that when I hear about PM’s on my team who seem to have focused too hard on the wrong issue, it was mostly from folks that are in the middle of transitioning from product management to product leadership type roles. As I reflect on my own career, I also noticed that was the time I most overreacted to situations. I felt vulnerable as I was no longer in a role where I had as much control and I was learning how to regulate emotions in more ambiguous situations. Here are a few tips I have for folks to avoid this trap:
The Six-Month Test: Ask yourself, will you care or even remember about this after six months have passed? If you can virtually give yourself that time distance, it helps you identify the existential vs. the transient issues.
Name your emotions and ask what they are trying to tell you: A big unlock for me was realizing that there are a range of negative and unproductive emotions I could be bringing to the workplace. I prided myself on avoiding the typical table-thumbing angry tech person stereotype but left myself exposed to a range of other ways I could be contributing negativity: cynicism, shame, guilt, and being judgmental. We often aren’t taught as children to name our complex emotions and untangling all that is a job for adulthood. It often comes out in that transition to leadership roles. If you are in Seattle, I highly recommend the Emotional Intelligence training from the Team & Leaders group. I’ve had dozens of folks take it over the years and it’s perfect for this particular career transition.
2. The “It’s not politics; it’s just harder because now you have to change people’s minds more.” trap.
The problems faced by product leaders will test your communication style. You need to frame things the org has never seen before. You need to frame the unarticulated need. Changing existing momentum is the definition of the task and the point is to get all disciplines to avoid doing what’s easy. Product managers are 80% descriptive and 20% persuasive but product leaders are 80% persuasive and 20% descriptive. People who struggle with this transition often end up confusing their own need to improve at driving clarity and energy with org politics or preferred communication style. Yes, some orgs ARE too political and every org can continue to improve so that more voices are heard and decision-making is smoother. But think about it as generating social proof for your ideas rather than the cynical “it’s politics” framing. This will force you to be more curious about why there isn’t a consensus for an idea yet.
Check out these two resources:
3. The “Tell Me Why, Not How!” trap
This time the meme is from the Product Humor IG account:
All product managers should focus on both the What and Why at all stages of their career. Yet the truth is that early in their career, many PMs focus a lot more on the What or even over-function on the How. It’s often possible to cover for lack of experience or talent in the Why by focusing on execution and Getting Stuff Done successes. For these PMs, they stumble on the transition to product leadership because the Why conversations are no longer optional.
I see two pitfalls as execution-focused PMs grow into roles:
Not enough ambition at all, as folks have their heads down and have lost the spark of ideating
An ambition that lacks the context of org-wide priorities. This manifests as a “Why haven’t we fixed all these things I care about?” vs. a learner’s mindset of learning larger team objectives.
The biggest unblock for me in this trap is to be explicit about Impact vs. Execution mindset. Once you look for this, you’ll see it in almost every product conversation. Impact is about the results needed for success, and execution is about the tradeoffs that we need to make.
It’s a trope in product making that the most common disconnect is a product executive who focuses on impact (e.g. “Hey folks, let me explain why this work is essential because of this change in the company’s revenue goals”) and product managers who want to talk tradeoffs and what’s possible given existing constraints (e.g. “Hey, look how hard it was to get to where we’ve gotten [e.g. 50% of goal] and let me list all that we had to overcome and the risks we managed.”). The executive is being clear about success so that roadblocks can be removed if necessary and the manager is working within the existing system and managing risk. Both are necessary but it’s a problem when both conversations are happening at once.
As you grow into product leadership, spend more time forcing early Impact mindset conversations that tee up Execution mindset tradeoffs and you’ll avoid this trap.
If you are navigating this important career transition, I wish you success, joy, self-awareness, and Flow! Let me know what resonated with you in this post or other tips you have for product leadership - I’ll share in a follow-up post all that are sent to me.
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