More than a decade of grousing about product management

Climbing the Corporate Ladder

high angle photo of woman on ladder
Photo by Samantha Garrote on

The corporate ladder can be climbed through luck or strategy. Being designated as a high potential early in one’s career offers substantial perks and a clear path to executive success. Alternatively, actively seeking out high-profile projects and then swiftly moving on brings promotions and industry recognition. However, a product manager’s long-term commitment can also be valuable.

You are early career, just entering the corporate workforce. And you know you want to climb the ladder.

But you don’t know how. How do you advance, quickly, and ever higher on the rungs of power in corporate America. How do you do that?

The Dude has a couple of strategies. One is completely reliant on luck. One is a surefire way to steadily climb the ladder.

Only one of these paths is guaranteed.

Being tapped as a Hi-Pot

This is the “luck” approach. Early in your career, a senior executive taps you on the shoulder, and puts you on the fast track. It could be from an interaction where you impressed them, or it could be a connection from a prestigious university, or some familial or network connection.

Regardless of the how, this is the golden path. Larger organizations will have programs for what they term “high potential” (or Hi-Pot in the vernacular) early career people. Literally, they pluck them from the daily grind, and have this program to build leadership skills, and a series of plum assignments designed to groom these people for the executive class.

There will be endless dollars for training and education (and often complete sponsorship to one of the elite MBA programs,) a deep bench of coaches, and almost assuredly a long-term mentorship with one of the senior leaders in the company.

Smaller organizations will have something analogous, but less formal. Still, they will pair this hi-pot individual with a leader, to groom them for the executive team.

If this happens to you, you are golden. You can expect to be assigned to the best projects and programs, to build out your network, to grow your influence until one day you are mentioned in an Edgar 8K filing, as a corporate office.

You will be expected to build a persona, a shell, that is a carefully crafted simulacrum. You will learn early to weigh your words, to not have off the cuff conversations, to not color outside the lines.

The Other Path

Here is where the Dude’s 30 years in corporate America comes in. In his tenure, he has seen this repeated over and over again.

Those who climb the ladder the hard way have a simple algorithm.

  1. Get associated with a “hot” project.
  2. Make sure you are visible. Talk during meetings, pull together slides, become the authority. As a junior person, you do this by offloading the leader.
  3. Once the project is on a good trajectory, begin looking for an out. The next project.
  4. Jump to the new project, saying goodbye to those you worked with (n.b. this is important, you are building a network of supporters)
  5. Never look back. If that prior project turns to rubbish, avoid being recalled to it.
  6. Repeat steps 1 through 5
  7. You will be rewarded with promotions, raises, equity grants, and an upward trajectory in the company, and …
  8. Headhunters will learn who you are and will begin trying to poach you.

Seriously, it is that simple.

  • Never get tied to a project – They are transactional, and your role is transitory.
  • Avoid commitments – easier said than done. But it is essential that you become adept at divorcing yourself from a team and moving on.

The Product Management Angle

The Dude recalls a presentation by the incomparable Rich Mironov that the average life of a product manager is 3 years. Either they move on or move up. Good product managers, who have a long history (like yours truly) are those who are unable to play the transactional game, to bail at the height (before the crash) and to not look back.

Sure, the Dude usually moves to a different company/product every 3-5 years, but not because he is seeking a higher role, and by this point, he is positive that he isn’t grist for the executive suite.

The only product managers who can catch this wave, are those who have no ties to the domain, to the product, and to the team. An effective product manager embeds with the team, not as in the above example where a career surfer hops in, does some highly visible riding, then jumps before they get too entangled.

Alas, the former is the better product manager, one who sticks with the grind, for better or worse, living, breathing, and surviving with the product.


Those career surfer product managers are often the ones you hear engineers grumble about (seriously, search Slashdot for “Product Managers” and read the venomous invective hurled by the techies, and you will be able to see this.)

Unfortunately, a lot of the product management methodologies and “training” out there in the wild seem to be geared to the career surfers.

The Dude has given up on #prodmgmt twitter for this reason.

Written by

A crusty veteran from the product management trenches. Plenty of salty language, references to cannabis, and a connoisseur of White Russian cocktails

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Written by pmdude