The surprising skills that help you succeed in your product management career as you get more senior
Why do some people’s careers grow quickly while others trudge along? If you’re ambitious, what can you do beyond just being good at your job?
Here are some non-obvious things I’ve learned, both in my own career and in the careers of my reports.
Career growth within a role is usually about increasing scope, complexity, autonomy, and impact
As a junior employee you usually started with tightly scoped work, lots of supervision, and very few things where you’re the final decision maker. As you grow in your career, you’ll take on larger scoped, more ambiguous work, have less supervision, start to supervise others (as a people manager or area lead), and become the decision maker on more things.
Master the skills to deliver excellent work at your current scope and you’ll show you have what it takes to take on the next level.
Career growth isn’t always fun — you need internal strength and confidence
As a junior employee, a lot of your work has a “right answer”. You know you got it right because the code compiles and it does what it’s supposed to do. You do your job well and everyone around you is happy. It’s very satisfying.
As you take on more complex and ambiguous work, there’s no longer a clear right answer. You’ll make a tough decision with lots of tradeoffs and risk assessments and you might never learn whether the opposite choice would have been better. Often someone will be unhappy with your choice. You’ll hear more complaints and less praise. That’s the nature of the job.
If you move into people management or senior leadership, things get even tougher with information that needs to be kept private. I’ve had to shift around allocations with the knowledge of upcoming departures or people who were underperforming when I couldn’t share those reasons.
And on top of all of that, you’ll have more responsibilities to handle with less free time (so many meetings), and you’ll need to get comfortable with doing the quick-and-dirty approach (aka rapid prototyping) for most things, even when you know you could have put together something better with more time.
The best advice I’ve heard on this is to realize that it’s a natural part of the job. Now as I see situations where I can’t make everyone happy or polish to perfection, I reframe it as a sign that I’m working on hard, important problems.
Partner on your career goals with your boss
Good bosses want to help you with your career ambitions, but they need some help from you.
First, it’s your responsibility to come up with your career goals, or at least a few possible options. Think about what kind of work you really enjoy and what you’re good at. Do you have any role models or people you admire?
Then, you can boost your success by planning how you introduce the topic. Your boss might be afraid of the career conversation so you don’t want to make the conversation combative. They might be thinking that the role or type of project you want isn’t available now, or that you don’t have the skills needed, or that they really need you in the role you’re in now.
The easy approach is to frame the conversation as future-looking: “I’d love to become a people manager eventually. What skills do I need to work on so I’ll be ready when the opportunity comes up? Can we brainstorm on some ways for me to build those skills?” Don’t turn it into an argument about how you think you do have those skills.
The goal here is for your boss to think you’re coachable and open to feedback— they’ll think it’s worth the investment of their time because you listen and learn from them. If you’re open, curious, and helpful they’ll want to help you.
Build trust deliberately
Career growth comes with increased autonomy, and you’ll only earn that autonomy if you’re earned people’s trust. No matter how good you are at your job, you won’t get more responsibility if people don’t trust you. They’ll be afraid that they’d have to waste a lot of time cleaning up your messes and micromanage you, which no one likes.
Judgement: Do you have the frameworks, processes, and intuition to make good decisions? Or do you need to have someone else double check your choices? To build trust here, don’t just casually make choices and spit out answers. Instead, unpack the reasons why you’re making the choices and share that framework. You can also ask someone who already has earned trust to back you up.
And of course the best way to build up trust in your judgement is to be right most of the time. If you don’t actually have the judgement yet you need to work harder: do more research, think carefully about alternate options. You can run your ideas past a work buddy to get early feedback and catch mistakes.
As you build up a reputation for great judgement, you’ll find good opportunities coming your way as people want to loop you in on more important decisions.
Avoiding surprises: Do you proactively share the right information up and down? Will you ask for and accept help when you need it? Or do people feel like they need to nag you to know what’s going on? Make sure to communicate early & often. Ask for help with “Here’s the situation, here’s what I’m planning to do about it, sound good?”
Execution: When you say you’ll do something, will you do it? Can you pull it all together to deliver? Or do things slip through the cracks? Writing up your plans and making checklists can help people gain confidence in your execution. You can also be proactive about picking up tasks before you’re asked and letting people around you know you’re handling it.
Building trust takes time, and you have to remember to repeat it every time you start working with a new set of people, but doing it well will have a huge impact on your career.
Learn how to *really* get things done at your company
Some companies have lots of official processes and some have none. But all companies have some nuances on how things *really* get done.
Some processes will be really important to follow, but some can be skipped. There might be a few key people who can help push work forward and help your team break down roadblocks. The gatekeepers might have some pet peeves or personal penchants that will help you get your work approved or accidentally derail your project.
If you’re blocked on eng time, often there’s a few highly motivated engineers who will pick up side projects they’re excited about. At Microsoft in 2004 my product only worked in Internet Explorer and I couldn’t get Firefox compatibility on the official roadmap, but a really motivated developer and I chipped away at it on the side.
At first I felt kinda mixed about not following the rules, but as I’ve grown in my career I’ve seen that this kind of scrappiness is a key differentiator for PM growth. The whole point of the rules & processes is to get great work done, and if they’re getting in the way, you don’t get brownie points for letting them slow you down.
One way to build this skill is to ask coworkers to tell you the stories of how things got built and launched. Ask if they’ve got any tricks for how they get things done.
Connect your work to the Company Strategy and Articulate an Inspiring Vision
A common career pitfall is investing a huge amount of your energy into things that your leaders don’t think are valuable. You’re working really hard, but you’re not getting rewarded for it.
There are two ways to fix this. One, you can shift the work you’re doing towards more valuable work (either within your current role or transferring teams). Two, you can reframe your work and explain to the company leaders why the work really matters.
If someone asked you to do the work and you don’t think it’s “on strategy”, don’t just drop it, do it badly, or get snarky about it, instead talk with your manager & ask for their thoughts. See if you can collaboratively come up with a connection to the company strategy or decide to drop the work. With junior PMs, I often see that they think their work is unimportant because they haven’t realized the bigger picture of why it matters. They’re trying to be very strategy aligned but it can backfire and they look short sighted.
Once you understand how your work is important to the Company Strategy, you can put together an inspiring vision. Having a team vision is important for many reasons: It ensures you’re working towards something important, it gets your team excited and gives them purpose, it helps people across the company understand what you’re doing, it gives leaders confidence that you’re on a good track, and as you’ll see in the next section, it helps recruiting.
This one isn’t a skill that you need to get more senior, but rather a surprising skill you need once you are more senior. Once I became a manager I learned that recruiting was now my job.
I had previously imagined that I would just let the recruiting org know what my open headcount was, and they’d handle the rest, but nope. I was responsible for writing up job descriptions, finding ways to reach candidates, coming up with how to pitch them, and personally doing a huge number of coffee chats and intro calls.
Within larger companies you might not need to recruit new hires as much but you’ll still need to pitch your team to internal transfers. This means not just PMs, but also enticing engineers and designers to want to work on your team.
Recruiting involves developing a brand new set of skills, but a lot of them can be shared with other PM skills. Pitching candidates is really an extension of articulating an inspiring vision. The trust you’ve build as a PM will help your reputation and attract people.
Make sure people across the company *want* to work with you
Collaboration is incredibly important for all PMs, and especially as you become more senior.
As a senior leader in the company, a lot of my job is handling escalations once something is going wrong and the people on the ground can’t sort it out themselves. My super-power here is the great relationships I’ve formed with other company leaders. I can just pull the right people from across the company into a room and know that we can lay everything on the table and work it out together. They know my intentions are good and I know the same of theirs.
When I’m thinking about moving someone into a leadership role, I’m thinking about how they would do in that situation. Would they be unruffled and add constructively to the conversation? Would they be open and humble? Would I feel like they’re on my side and glad to be working with them? Or would I feel like looping them in was a hassle — that they might get defensive, blame-y, self-interested, indiscreet, or otherwise make the problem-solving less productive?
A great way to assess your skills here is with anonymous 360-degree feedback. If you find out people think you’re hard to work with, don’t despair — treat the feedback seriously and share your intention to improve. I know of several great leaders who found out people thought they were a jerk and were able to turn it around.
Pick up great Side Projects
Side projects are a huge factor in accelerating your career growth and the great thing is that they’re very much within your control. They give you an opportunity to practice skills beyond your current scope and build your reputation beyond your current team.
Here are some types of great side projects:
Solve problems across your peers. You could share a template you designed, set up training for something you learned, put together a process to remove an annoyance. This is a great way to start doing work at an expanded scope, and get more impact out of the problem solving you’ve already done.
Buddy with your boss on their work. One of my best opportunities was helping my boss put together the yearly kick-off presentation. I got to learn directly from him and eventually grew to take the responsibility over myself. To help these opportunities come to you, you can start paying attention to what they’re working on and thinking about how you would handle it. You’ll get to see how it plays out for them, and if they bring it up you’ll have useful thoughts to share.
Volunteer for tedious work that gets you access to higher level meetings. Taking notes at an executive meeting or pulling stats for an important meeting or being the team delegate to a company-wide process. You’ll get to see what those meetings are like, how everyone operates, and learn extra context that would usually be hidden from you.
Strategic exploration. Researching how to take on a competitor or go after a new audience. To make the most of this, share with your manager and ask for specific feedback on what they think of your strategic thinking and presentation — probe for what a better version would look like. If you become a valuable enough expert in this area you might even get looped into more strategic meetings.
Stepping up when leaders are really in a bind. When someone is willing to help out when I really need them, it really stands out as a key contribution and I’ll remember it. Make sure to pair this with clear conversations around your career goals — this should bump you up in the list for getting the kind of opportunities you want.
Forming relationships that can help you later. Sometimes a side project is great just because it lets you grow closer to people you’ll work with in the future. Maybe you’re doing them a favor or maybe you’re just working together on something fun.
Work with a team you’re considering transferring to. You can try-before-you-buy by taking on a small project with the potential team. It’ll give you hands on experience with the people & context so you can learn if you’d really like it, and make them want you.