The normal product manager career progression is you start small, perhaps as a product owner in an Agile organization, and grow in responsibilities. You learn about business finance (NPV and IRR), you get more than a smattering of project management acumen (so you can call BS on bogus task estimates), you familiarize and immerse yourself in the technology around you. All the while progressing to a Senior rank. Time required? Six to eight years “feels” right.
Then you are expected to make the jump to executive. Director or even VP (depending on the size of the organization). Maybe the title is Director of Product Management. But that change is not all roses. Rich Mironov comments in both his blogs and his excellent book, “The Art of Product Management” about the differences between being a product manager, and a product management executive. Your focus moves from the daily product related activities (blogged to death) to being an enabler for your product team under you. You need to become an advocate in the senior staff level, breaking down barriers, strong-arming uncooperative groups, and in general ensuring that the product management team under you has the resources, the firepower, and the authority to move the needle.
For some, this is a difficult transition. It often is impossible to step away from the product management role. There is something about being in the chaotic realm of product management, balancing strategic efforts versus boots on the ground tactical warfare. If you can’t make that transition, and trust it to your team, you will probably make a miserable product management executive.
One thing to add, there is a huge dis-service to someone who is elevated to the Director role in the same organization. In my experience (N=2) there is one failure that is made when someone is elevated in an organization. That is the failure to backfill that position she vacates with a fresh, **dedicated **product manager. This is horrendously unfair to the person you elevate, as well as to the entire product team (from engineering, thorough marketing, and support) as you suddenly have taken someone who has a full time job as product manager, and then add the burden of team management, and the senior executive politics and interaction, and you have a person ripe for failure and burn out.
Reasons Why Product Managers Fail to Make the Jump
They are poorly prepared to manage a team of people. The effective product manager lives and dies by their ability to influence a wide range of groups and personalities to get on the bus. This takes charisma, vision, and an innate leadership. But one thing that is lacking is the management of direct reports. While the title has “manager” in it, it is not common for product managers to have a direct staff. Hence, they don’t get training like “Effective and legal interviewing” to name one. Typically this middle management has a well defined path of entry. You start as a supervisor, or group leader. You get management training, and as you progress, your team becomes larger, and you start managing higher level people.
They are often dumped into the role without support. Related to #1 above, but instead of a quick executive training, they are just airdropped into the role. Perhaps this is because product managers are excellent at triage and crisis management. However, while we are good at politics, horse-trading, and “getting shit done”, that isn’t enough to manage a team. Things like coaching, mentoring, performance management, HR systems, budgeting are all new and foreign to most product managers. Good managers and above learn this over a decade or more and are given low risk assignments as they progress, to temper their skills. But to lay all this on a product manager, at the director level at once? That is a monstrous hot quench that will test the durability of any metal.
If they come from within the organization, they often have both roles. This means that you are trying to (rapidly) climb the management learning curve, AND manage a product line (or two) at the same time. In this day and age, it seems that the trend is to promote, but not backfill. Sucks, but it is the environment. A good product manager will just hunker down, and do their best. But what happens is that the new responsibilities fall by the way side. Regular 1:1 meetings with your staff? Hard to schedule and easy to skip. Document performance as the year progresses? Nah, you will rely on your memory (which is the first thing you learn on the path to management, document winds and losses for your staff as they happen). Performance review time? That is usually the worst of it all. It is hard to write accurate, truthful, and insightful reviews. It is hard when you are a supervisor with 3 or 4 layers of management above to catch your gaffes. To do it as a Director with only one level above you? Very hard. So these essential personnel management tasks get down prioritized, dropped or just plainly poorly executed.
They may not want to be a Director. Shock as it might come to senior management, but some people are really happier being in the individual contributor column. They just like being a product manager, in the heart of the organization, and really uncomfortable with the jump. However, some organizations have a bizarre policy that you have to always be moving and preferably upwards. So if you as a manager have an employee hitting the top of his scale, you need to “promote her”. But not everybody is suitable for the next level. Promote such a person at your peril. They may become unhappy enough to actively seek another position. Count me in this category. If I could do what I do for the next 15 years and then retire, I will be abundantly happy.
There are many reasons why a product manager stumbles and falls when they are promoted to the director level or above. However the most common barriers is a lack of preparation for the duties of management of staff, and a failure to make the full commitment (i.e. staff a new product manager to assume the day to day of the new directors former role).
If you are a product manager and you are seeking to make the jump, do yourself a favor, and begin to piece together the personnel management skills first. Dropping into a director position without 5-7 years of personnel management skills is tough. You can do this on the outside in your spare time, but do it.
Lastly, if you want to make the jump, go to a new company. The ties you make as a successful product manager in an organization will keep drawing you back into the day to day. And you really can’t do both jobs at once. It is much easier to start fresh. Cast the net, connect with executive recruiters, and take the plunge.
Tired of the grind? There is another option, going Consultant, and one that many product managers take. But that is for another blog post.
Personally, I am happiest in the thick of product management. I have tasted the other side, and am glad to be back in the product management role. One day I will share my personal flirtation with executive status, and why I jumped back.
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