Advance Your Product Manager Career Path

July 10, 2020

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David Schumann

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3 Mentors Share 8 Pieces of Advice on How to Advance Your Product Management Career

 

In Product League’s latest Ask-Me-Anything session, three Product League mentors shared their opinions on how product managers can advance their careers. Terhi Hanninen (Senior Product Manager at Zalando ), Asaf Bord (Product Lead at WeWork) and Anya Ruvinskaya (Previously Product Lead at Spotify) invested their time to answer questions and give us precious advice. Below, you will find a summary of the session in the form of 8 key takeaways.

Watch it here:

 

Many Roads Lead to Rome

If you’re just starting out and looking for a way to get into product management, you don’t necessarily have to apply for the role of product manager. Think about the industry you would like to establish yourself in and the professional experience you would like to gain. Once you’ve identified the industry, you have several options:

Either you apply for an entry-level product position or a management role in a smaller company or you take on another product-related position and eventually make the transition to become a PM. Starting off as a designer, a UX writer, a product marketeer or an engineer will allow you to build expertise in one area and use this domain or market knowledge when you move to product management. Identify your knowledge gaps and keep pushing forward.

 

Both Startups And Corporations Have Their Own Upsides And Downsides

After you already got experience as a product manager and have to make some career choices whether to go work for a startup or a big corporation, consider the following things:
In startups, you will gain a lot of experience quickly. Potentially, including low-level management experience.
You will be exposed to a greater range of departments which might accelerate your product manager career path. Startups require you to be much more hands-on and will often allow you to scale the career ladders by getting a promotion faster than you would in a larger organization.

 

On the other hand, in a startup, your career might depend more on your immediate colleagues or team. If they are not the right people to help you progress, there aren’t many other departments to escape to.

In corporations, you often join an established product team with experienced specialists working on an existing product. You will be able to learn from those product people and the knowledge they accumulated. You will have the ability to build your network and leverage it during your entire career.

However, if you choose to go to a corporation, try to choose a company with a good reputation which will invest in your development. Adding a recognisable brand name to your CV will be a great stepping stone. In addition, make sure the product role is impactful enough and you don’t find yourself in a niche where you don’t have enough exposure. Keep in mind that your direct product management experience will be limited to only a few of the trades that participate in the process. And as the entire organization and the product organization employ hundreds if not more, of professionals, not all your product initiatives will be heard, depending on the stage of the product.

 

Switching From One Industry to Another

Don’t be afraid to switch from one industry to another. Often enough, there are similarities with the products you have encountered previously. Leverage your experience, and reframe your strength into the context of your new organization. Just like on your product job, explore opportunities for new value propositions to an already acquired knowledge and expertise.

“When switching industries, think about how you can showcase your acquired strengths to a new employer.”

For example: Anya transitioned from the gaming industry to the music industry. While on the surface there are few similarities, she was able to leverage her experience and deep understanding in marketplaces and payment systems in her new role. When switching industries, think about how you can showcase your acquired strengths to potential employers who may need skill sets from different backgrounds. In order to succeed, a tech company is in need of product leaders with deep understanding in varied verticals of product developing a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Doing Different Things at Different Stages

Depending on the stage in his or her careers in product management, one will be performing different activities. You need to constantly develop and understand what you need to add to your skill set as you grow as an individual.

As junior product managers, it’s more about learning the execution side of the job. You will be focused on understanding how to build things. Your tasks will revolve around day-to-day work with your cross-functional product team and especially with the development teams.

As you grow and progress on the path for product managers, your responsibilities will change. You will have to adopt more of a birds eye view and understand the bigger picture. This is when your stakeholder management skills and your ability to lead important strategic discussions with fellow senior product managers will become more important. You will need to feel more comfortable presenting to a wider audience and C-Level executives and will have more work experience with your chief product officer.

 

Get Your Hands Dirty If You Want to Make Data Driven Decisions

If you’re trying to take data-driven decisions, you need to start dealing with your own sets of data. Don’t rely on a digestible version of interpreted data but make sure you look at the raw version. This is the only way you will be able to form your own opinions. Anything that has been analyzed by your product analyst or BI Team is an interpretation of someone else’s point of view. 

 

Shadow the experts in your company and learn from their experience until you are able to draw your own conclusions. You don’t need to complete an SQL course. Just start working with databases such as Mixpanel or Intercom. Once you are comfortable dealing with data, you will be more adept at implementing data-driven attributes into your process and eventually, into your product roadmaps.

 

Leverage Your Network And Start Building Your Profile

Building your network is an essential aspect of your career and to some degree can influence how successful you will be as a PM. A wide network will help you grow your career. The more connections you have at the company you apply to, the better chances you will have to get the interview. Google, for instance, is renowned for hiring individuals with many connections inside the company.

“Google is renowned for hiring individuals with many connections inside the company.”

Though none of the mentors actively blog, they do recommend you start building your profile and persona by writing blogs and showcasing your achievements online, in meetups, and presentations.

 

How a Mentor Can Help You to Become The Best PM You Can Be

Having a mentor can help you by giving you an external perspective on what you are doing. A mentor may help you get a different perspective when considering career moves. Moving from one company to another represents a big junction in your PM career. Have somebody there, not related to your current company, who can help you with this and have your best interest in mind can be crucial to making the right decision. 

 

In addition, a mentor can help you understand and analyze the problems you are facing. Sometimes you may just want to dump some emotional baggage so it’s good to have a shoulder to cry on. This process also helps mentors as they are able to listen, learn and reflect on the problems you share with them. It’s a win win.

To learn more about Product League’s mentoring program click here.

 

Acknowledge Yourself and The Progress You Are Making

Many product managers suffer from imposter syndrome. Getting acknowledged by your peers for the work you’ve done is as much satisfaction as most people get and that’s nothing to worry about. However, there are other indicators that will show you that things are moving in the right direction.

  • As you gain more experience, you will encounter similar problems time and time again. Build your confidence from solving issues you weren’t able to solve before and celebrate it. 

 

  • Take a moment to evaluate yourself, make a list with all your achievements from the last 12 months. This will make you realize just how far you’ve come. Go beyond achievements that have to do with your technical skills and embrace success that has to do with product strategies and product leadership.

 

  • You can guide others with your experience. You will notice a change when you turn from asking other PMs for advice to becoming the person giving advice to people around you.

 

When this happens, this may be the greatest indication that you have acquired meaningful product management skills allowing you to offer your colleagues across varied product management positions a piece of good advice that will help them turn pain points into potential successful product offerings.


After all, as you climb up the product manager’s career path, you realize that above all, we are people managers.

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