What got you here won’t get you there

Jumping through a gap
source: Thanks to Blake Cheek from Unsplash

I want to let you in on a secret that no one warns you about: A gap on your path from a Senior Product Manager to a Product lead (or Director of Product) exists and you won’t see it coming!

The story goes like this: At the beginning as an Associate/Junior Product Manager your job is to execute on the solution outlined for you. You work with a small engineering and design team to build a product where its features and functionalities are mostly defined and you get evaluated on the product you shipped. As you progress in your career you take on more challenging problems. This time you are the one working on a couple of projects concurrently in one area defining the features on one and coming up on a road map for another one. You work with bigger engineering groups and you’re responsible for Take to Company and/or Take to Market plans as well. But at the end of the day you are still being evaluated on what you shipped in your area.

The catch is you can’t advance to the next level (becoming PM lead) just by doing what you’ve done up to now in a more complex/bigger scale. As a product lead you fundamentally need a different skillsets that you haven’t invested on acquiring. Here are some of the hurdles you will came across:

  1. You have expertise​ in your area but you are far less knowledgeable about other areas of the business. This means that while you present a road map for improvement in your area you don’t know the impact of these suggestions on the overall business.
  2. You worked in your role as an individual contributor which means ​you’re responsible for your work but don’t have experience managing a team directly and be responsible for their results and accomplishments as a team.
  3. You know how to effectively lead a cross functional team and influence your peers but you don’t know how to influence other executives.

What to do to overcome these hurdles?

After reading and thinking about these issues here is what you can do right now to break through them:

Tour of Duty

I learned this from Jonathan Nightingale’s excellent talk in Product Tank Toronto. Instead of having a vague, unactionable 5 year plan, have a specific career goal and plan your next 12-18 months to achieve it. To overcome issue 1 above put yourself in situations where you learn new skillsets and experience different types of product problems. For example if you’ve worked so far on “feature work” for your next role (aka tour of duty) look for “growth work” or try “scaling work”. This will expand your toolbox and help you identify which type of work is needed for a particular problem. When time comes you to lead your team you can help them pick the right solutions without getting into the weeds of the work itself.

Mentor Others

One of the most common traps is to keep the most important projects for yourself. You’re thinking: “This is important, I can create a better outcome myself, therefore I should do it.” But doing so has a big opportunity cost as it keeps you in the weeds and takes time away from you learning other things (obstacle #1). Mentoring others is a powerful way to combat this issue.

Mentoring others not only is personally fulfilling and helps you learn about managing other individuals but also teaching someone to get better at something you do well helps you to delegate that work and take on new responsibilities.

Be a Thought Leader

Contrary to programming or design, it is hard to demonstrate you are knowledgable in a tangible way in product management. Maintaining a blog or some sort of outlet to record your thoughts, opinions and learning is one of the easiest and most effective ways to show you know what you’re talking about. What is quite striking to me is that how few PMs do this! If you want to go to next level you need to demonstrate you are a thought leader. So write a blog post, speak in related events, answer some Quora questions!! Not only you are giving back to the community but also you are practicing how to lead and influence others with your work!

None of my above recommendations is a guarantee for your next promotion however they are all actions that are within your control. If you read this article and find it useful I would love to know what are your recommendations for jumping through this gap and landing successfully the other side!!

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