It’s always natural to think about the future and where your career is headed. It is also common for individual contributors to map out their plans, goals, and ambitions for moving into a leadership role.
If this sounds like you and you’re looking for practical advice to move from a Product Manager role into a leadership role, you’ve come to the place.
Heidi Ram, a member of the TPMA board and 20+ year recruitment veteran, has been building product teams since 2006 and leads the Product Practice at Martyn Bassett Associates.
In this article, Heidi will dive into the realities of getting promoted into a product leadership position as well as actionable steps you can take to prepare for the next big jump in your career:
Many candidates assume the easiest way to get into a leadership role is to be hired into one, but crossing the chasm into leadership is challenging, especially at a new company.
Why? Because most employers assume that if you were ready to be promoted, your current employer would’ve promoted you. After all, your current employer knows you, your work and is invested in/benefits from your intellectual capital. So many hiring managers assume that if a company isn’t promoting you, there must be a reason. Right or wrong, this is often the reality. This leaves those looking for a path into leadership to their next idea, Recruiters.
When it comes to leveraging a Recruiter to help you move up the ladder, it’s more likely that you will need to take a different approach. Search firms are paid to do outbound sourcing of candidates who their clients want to meet. They are tasked with finding candidates who are already doing the leadership job their client needs to be done.
We are also in an employer’s market, meaning employers have their choice of candidates. When you’re applying to any role, chances are you are facing off against stiff competition, which can be tough if you’re an individual contributor competing against those already at a Director or VP level.
So where does this leave you? This may not be the advice you want to hear, but it might just be the advice you need to hear.
It’s time to book a meeting with your boss to have an honest discussion. It’s also a time for you to be open and vulnerable to receiving feedback that may require you to take action.
But first, ask yourself why you want to be a leader. One of the greatest questions a Product Manager can ask is "why?". Understanding why you want to advance into management is foundational. If the reason is related to a perceived compensation increase, it's time to broaden your understanding of product compensation.
Product Management as a craft, can be financially lucrative without requiring management responsibilities. Some individual contributor Product Managers earn more than a leader of a product management organization with a team of direct reports. What determines this is the scope, scale and complexity of a product or ecosystem of products someone is responsible for.
If compensation is not your #1 reason for seeking advancement into a management role, then continue to step #2.
Book a meeting with your leader to have a transparent, honest conversation about your ambitions and, most importantly, to get their feedback. This is not a meeting to go into with a list of demands or timelines - instead, think of it as a professional growth exercise. After all, as a Product Manager, is it not part of your role to get user feedback?
To help you better prepare for this meeting, here are some questions to help steer a more positive and fruitful discussion:
After the meeting, the real work comes. It’s time to digest, analyze and work on the actionable feedback within your control. This will be hard, and you’ll most likely be stretched, but putting in the work will help you gain new respect from your employer and validate to the market that you are promotable.
This route is also not nearly as difficult as moving into a new organization where you need to learn the product and processes while also trying to be a first-time people manager. Proving yourself in a higher-level role with a new product and a new team is a much steeper hill to climb.
Product leadership roles are some of the most critical roles for a tech company, whether a startup or Fortune500. But we also know that there are fewer leadership roles than individual contributor ones. Moreover, not everyone who (a) is ready to be a leader or (b) wants to be a leader will have those opportunities available for many reasons. Crossing the chasm requires hard work and a persistent attitude, but it is possible.