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PM Your Career Like You PM Your Product
Do for your career what you already do for your product
Over the course of my career, I have watched many Product Managers cultivate their products with great care. They have compelling product strategies, clear goals, metrics to measure progress, roadmaps, and milestones. They draft six-pagers, mid-cycle check-ins, and end-of-half reviews to ensure they are on the right track. They keep folders of virtual documents, including pre-mortems, press releases, user journeys, resourcing plans, and backlogs. If you ask any of them about their product, they can give you a carefully crafted elevator pitch on their vision, user needs, and traction.
These same attentive, dedicated PMs do not invest the same level of care in their careers.
I have maintained an open-door policy for Product Managers for the last eight years, and PMs from all over have come to me to ask for career advice. Many times, the first question I ask them is, “Where do you want to be in two years? Five years? Ten years?” They often don’t know. When I ask them for their product strategies, they’re able to reply without missing a beat, but when it comes to their own careers, many of these PMs don’t have any idea where they want their own paths to lead.
I know that feeling. If you had asked me ten years ago where I wanted my career to end up, I would have been equally unsure. It was through a process of discovery over the past year that I arrived where I am today, but if I had known years ago what I know now, I would have taken clearer steps toward my goal.
The What: What problem are you trying to solve?
The first imperative of Product Management is understanding the problem you are trying to solve. We identify a user pain point and determine how our product is going to address it. But you'd be surprised to find that many product managers don't have the same clarity when it comes to themselves.
One way to address this is by flipping the equation. Change the question from “What problem am I trying to solve?” to “What do I hope to achieve? Where do I want my career to take me?” You won’t know if your product solution will address users’ needs if you can’t articulate what their problem is, and you can’t develop your career without knowing where you want it to go. There are many paths that a career can take from a product role, and being able to articulate where you want yours to lead is the best way to ensure you can get there.
A great tool to start with is a pre-mortem. PMs use pre-mortems as a tool to envision different scenarios to reduce risks for launches. Write out the different paths you could take and then explore each of them thoroughly.
Another tool I have used is courtesy of Brad Smith, who did this exercise after he stepped down as CEO of Intuit. He began by reflecting on what drove him and then exploring the possible directions he could go. This assessment led him to see the patterns in his life and what drove him. This enabled him to decide his next chapter by eliminating some paths while pursuing others more in line with his passion.
The Who: Stakeholders and team leadership
No product is built without help. A PM can’t simultaneously run the user research, analyze the data, design the experience, code the product, and launch it to market. These are done as part of a team. The same goes for a career. You can’t build a career alone without the support of mentors, sponsors, managers, and a network.
Building a tribe of people you trust to give you feedback, such as a Lean In group or coaching circle, will help you gain insight as to where you are going and whether you are on the right track. Having a personal board of directors or advisory group can help you vet opportunities and explore new avenues of growth. Just as the PM needs the support of their team in order to successfully launch a product, you must also enlist your allies and sponsors to help shape your career. This will enable you to build faster and better.
The Press Release: What does success look like?
Before my first day at Ancestry, I wrote a 10-year retrospective on my career at Facebook and what I hoped to achieve during my next decade with Ancestry. I showed it to a couple of people to get feedback, but I largely wrote it for myself, to capture my state of mind at that moment, before I started the next chapter of my career.
I wanted to capture my hopes for Ancestry, my tenure, and myself before I got into the day-to-day work. Every couple of months, I look back at the document and remind myself how I felt when I started. This allows me to measure the distance I’ve come and gauge the distance I have yet to go.
Many products I have worked on started with a press release. Announcing and articulating the product focuses your mind on what you are building, who you are building for, and whether you have achieved it. Leveraging this tool from product launches, PMs can and should use press releases and retrospectives to write their story forward as they plan out their career.
The How: How will you get there?
A PM recently reached out to me to ask for advice. She is in her mid-thirties and wanted to step into a CEO role, as I had recently done, by her mid-forties. I asked her more about where she was today. She has a wonderful job that she loves at a big tech company, but she is at least two to three years away from becoming a manager, and she is even farther from becoming a Director. If she gets a Director-level role at her current company in five years, it will take at least several more leads to grow into a VP, and then further beyond that to a General Manager role, which is more akin to a CEO role where she has P&L ownership and responsibility. These are the likeliest paths to a non-founder CEO position. She and I worked backward and realized that the path she is currently on will not get her there. I asked her to find a way to get the pieces she needs as soon as possible:
Become a manager of a team
Get a GM role with P&L-style responsibilities
Advance quickly through the ranks
The challenge is that the company where she works now will not offer any of these three things in the next several years, so her best option is to seek them out at a smaller, higher-growth company where she is not tied to someone else’s career ladder and timelines.
I tell Product Teams, “You can’t build a two-year roadmap six months at a time.” You need to know where you are going and work backward from there to today. This is the only way to see if what you want to build is feasible given the resources you have. The same goes for your PM career; you need to unpack the components you need and determine the timeline and work environments that enable you to grow and achieve them.
The Metrics and Milestones: How are you measuring success?
Without a clear measure of success, you can’t tell if you are making progress on your product. What does product-market fit look like? What are the interim milestones to get there? A PM would never allow themselves to go without a clear understanding of how their product is doing, so why do we allow our careers to drift?
Many PMs who have asked me for mentoring have a hard time articulating how they are measuring progress in their careers beyond the next immediate step. Some say it’s about getting promoted to the next level. Others say it’s a matter of product scope. But a career is made up of many milestones stretched out over a long period of time. Some are tangible like a product hitting product-market fit or scaling to the first million users, and some are intangible like growing new PMs into strong leaders. Just like you would not automatically call the launch of a new product a success, getting to, say, a management role is just the first of many steps. The next may be to learn to scale a team, become a strong coach, or to learn to lead through inspiring others. Beyond that may be becoming a manager of managers, leading a large product area, and so on. Each of these steps builds on the last, and will ultimately lead you to your final destination.
When you think about your career, think not only about the product, team, scope, and metrics. Think about the positive impact your product has on the world, the legacy of strong teams you leave behind, and the people you helped grow along the way.
A great career, like a great product, doesn’t happen by accident. It involves planning, building, revising, and scaling. PM your career like you PM your product, and you can leverage the skills you use every day to build something that will last you a lifetime.