Question: What is the career progression for a product manager?
I am a young engineer trying to plan out my career. I want to know what is the typical career progression (director, VP) of a product manager and how do the job responsibilities change along the way. Is product management a feeder career for CEO since it is entrepreneurial in nature?
Quite honestly, there isn’t a very “fixed” path to get to the CEO role. But, rising through the ranks of product management is pretty well understood and defined. I’ll walk through each stage of this progression, but keep in mind, this isn’t the only way to advance in a career, in product management, or to the CEO role.
But to kick this off, I will say that yes, product management is very good path to CEO. Especially within start-ups. Why? Well, because in a start-up you really need to know how to define, build, and ship products. And build the best team possible to help you. Being exposed to all different functions and disciplines early in your career (and regularly within product management) is a sure bet to be the type of individual VCs and start-ups covet.
With an engineering background, you are well-suited to be working in organizations that ship technical products. I’ve found folks with marketing backgrounds or sales backgrounds don’t usually excel in product management within companies that have highly technical products being released to market.
However, a common pitfall is spending too much time within engineering trying to solve their problems. Many individuals starting out in the role tend to want to dictate *how* something should be built, when really a product manager’s job is all about *what* should be built and *why*.
OK, so with that being said…on to the roles.
Junior Product Manager / Product Analyst / Associate Product Manager
This is really where it all starts – at least in my mind. You need to get your feet wet within the role doing small projects. This may be owning features within a release and managing them through, or doing bits and pieces here and there.
I’ve started folks out here before that I felt were very well suited to the PdM role and they are now exceeding – it’s all about making sure they have the skill set and the foundation to take that next step.
The bottom line: get some solid wins under your belt, and try to find a spot within a company that has a great product management organization. The best way to learn the role is to work for someone that really understands it.
So, after you gained some knowledge and had some solid wins within a more junior role, you are prepared to take over a complete product. You need to be comfortable with setting direction, developing strategy, executing, and delivering.
You should be pretty familiar with all stages of the product lifecycle and have successfully taken a product from inception through to market. It’s key you also know and understand how to gather and analyze market research (user/customer feedback and competitive intelligence, etc…).
The bottom line: ship a product. Understand, conceptually, how all cross-functions work together and use the knowledge gained from the time spent in a more junior role as a foundation to expand.
Senior Product Manager / Product Director
OK, at this point you are managing 1 large product or maybe 2-3 smaller / mid-size products so you are probably responsible for a product team, or looking to build one. Since you’ve seen this done in the past (and been a part of successful product teams before) you know how this is done.
Really, the crux here is quite similar to the product manager role. However, you will need to apply more glue. For example, if you are managing a line (as opposed to an individual product) you will need to ensure everything stays consistent and standardized.
Your team may include junior product managers, maybe a business analyst, other product managers, designers, writers, etc… It really is up for you to determine and fight for, based on what you have seen work in the past and what you require in order to ship products successfully.
The bottom line: While similar to the product management role, you really are more accountable for putting a successful product team in place and managing that team – and making sure (if you are managing multiple products or a line) that your products stick together and are cohesive and standardized.
Director, Product Management
Just like how a senior product manager is similar to a product manager, the director of the team is very similar to the role that proceeds it. You probably are managing even more products. As such, the level of detail you can handle is limited — you will require either additional product managers to take care of individual product detail or senior PMs to manage PMs, etc… This is entirely based on the size and scope of your organization.
This level really requires you to ensure there is strong cohesion and performance amongst the products you manage. Maybe you are still managing a product yourself. And really, that your PM is measured and performing accordingly.
You should be feeding your team market data as as much as you can, and working with other management-level peers within your organization to deliver things in a consistently strong fashion and always on-time and perform well in the marketplace.
The bottom line: More team management, product performance, and working with management to absorb some of the internal overhead so your team doesn’t have to. You may still be managing a product yourself depending on the size of your organization, but you are responsible for your team executing and delivering so you need a very strong knowledge of product management and how to manage those individuals.
VP, Product Management
I would say at this point, you are no longer managing a product yourself. Again, depending on the size / scope of the company you find yourself a part of. For example, in GE this is probably the case, but in a start-up – not so much.
Really, your focus is here is making sure there is strong cohesion and product standardization, product planning a delivery processes are working, and everyone is being held accountable.
Additional effort is expended absorbing internal politics and overhead to ensure your team can execute effectively, and you make yourself available for assistance wherever they need it – whether that’s a customer visit, or helping shape requirements, etc… Remember – you are still there to coach and grow other PdMs.
At this point, you should probably also be thinking, “What’s my next step?” As I managed at the outset, maybe it’s an operations role – maybe it’s CEO – maybe it’s CTO, who knows? It really does depend on what you want to do. If you’ve made it to this point, it’s probably quiet clear you are prepared and poised to continue to really excel.
The bottom line: Management, management, management. Of course, staying of top of the market you are delivering to is a constant, and making sure there is a strong cohesion amongst all products is required. Of course, be expected to be held accountable at the senior management level, and be called upon to present to investors and the board of directors from time to time.
There are several other roles you can explore, and may find yourself drawn to as a next step. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about operations. I suppose a title here would be VP, Operations or COO. These are very, very good spring boards to becoming a CEO – I could say with confidence that if you get to this point and are really executing well, it’s only a matter of time before you get the tap to take the reins.