The 3 Stages of a Product Manager's Career
What's the difference between a Product Manager, Senior Product Manager, and a Director of Product?
When I was a new PM, I had no idea what made more senior PMs different from me.
I wrote specs, they wrote specs.
I wrote 1-pagers on what we should build in the next release, they did too.
Even the strategy documents that VPs sent out seemed like they were just specs for a broader scope (a product instead of a feature).
And so, I assumed career growth was like one straight line. The career guides with their grids of skill by levels reinforced the idea that we all had the same job and skills, just at different levels of mastery. I thought I’d get better and better at shipping products until I was promoted to lead, GPM, VP, and eventually, CEO.
That’s a very misleading mental model. I was missing all of the other work those senior PMs and VPs did. Most of their work happened outside of the meetings I was invited too. When I was a manager at Asana, I realized that many of my reports had the same mistaken mental model.
I wanted to make sense of what it really takes to succeed in product. Shreyas Doshi’s Scope/Impact matrix really resonated with me. As you advance in your career, you sometimes get better at your job, and sometimes expand your scope. Every time your scope increases you go back to being a beginner. You’re not as good at your new job, and you can feel it.
But, what did it mean to expand your scope? Was it just being put in charge of a larger team? As I looked into it, I realized that the differentiator wasn’t exactly the scope of the product you owned, but rather the brand new responsibilities (and accompanying expectations) that you pick up as you advance. In fact, the entire definition of being “great” changes at each stage.
The entire definition of being “great” changes at each stage
There are three stages of a career in product.
The first stage is shipping products. This is where the day-to-day product lifecycle work happens: Discover, Define, Design, Develop, Deliver, Debrief.
In this stage, a great PM ships products that delight customers and hit the business goals.
As an intern, APM, PM 1, and PM 2, this is probably your whole job. You’ll get better and better at shipping products. But, at some point you’ll start to plateau. Just getting better at product sense, analytical skills, and execution won’t get you to Senior PM. And that’s because at Senior PM, the job changes.
At Senior PM, you pick up a new responsibility. Before, you were told what to work on. Now it’s your responsibility to identify new opportunities and put together a plan for how to win them. You’ll still need to ship products that delight customers and hit the goals, but now you’ll be setting the goals.
In this stage, a great PM comes up with winning strategies that help their product succeed in the marketplace.
As a senior PM and PM lead, you’ll get better and better at product strategy. If you become a people manager, you might try to be the best boss for your reports. But, if you’re trying to make the leap to Director (especially Senior Director), you’ll find that the job changes again.
In the third stage, your job is to build a great team. It’s your responsibility to hire people, coach them, and set up processes so that your organization can create winning strategies and ship winning products at a scale beyond what you could do as a single PM.
And creating a strong organization below you is only half of the job. The other half is being a strategic advisor to the rest of the company. In this stage you sit in meetings with other executives. Sometimes you represent your organization, but other times you’re just there as another smart person who cares about the company. Your relationships and credibility with other company leaders are critical.
In this stage, a great product leader helps their company succeed by shipping successful products at scale and being a strong strategic advisor to the company as a whole.
Product Management isn’t just one job, it’s three. As an industry we haven’t been very clear about how much things change as you advance: both the role, and what success looks like.
If you want to advance in your career, it’s important to know what stage you’re in, and whether your next promotion is within the stage or across them.
If you’re looking to be promoted within a stage, it’s really about improving your craft. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” until you can do it faster, with fewer errors, with better results. Pay attention to peer feedback because it tends to accurately point at your areas of improvement.
If you’re looking to be promoted to the next stage, you need to be much more intentional. Often, you’ll feel like you’re doing a worse job at your current role when you start shifting to the new responsibilities. You might hand over some project management to the eng lead so that you can focus on strategy. You might upset one of your direct reports because you’re doing what’s right for the broader company. Work with your manager and manager’s peers to get the feedback that’s most important to get to the next stage.
If you want more details on what it takes to get promoted at each level, Cracking the PM Career has a full chapter on it with examples.
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