The Product Manager, who helps drive strategy, execution, and user science in a digital product company, has a high leverage role — PMs regularly work through at least ten other people across engineering, design, data, marketing, and user research. PMs thrive on this organizational impact and are often growth-oriented in their personal development. In my experience, PMs are amongst the most driven and career ambitious individuals across any function. Their hunger for career growth needs a great department career pathing and promotion system, or else PMs can get restless, feel undervalued, and look to find a new home and mentor that can feed their career growth. Unfortunately many Product Management teams don’t invest in a proactive career system eventually disappointing, and even pushing out their PMs.
Career pathing considers roles (titles, responsibilities, and compensation) and how that path will grow over time. Does your team have a clear, well thought approach or has Product Management leveling and pathing evolved organically, but inconsistently over time? Is your approach proactive and fair, or reactive based on PM negotiating and positioning? Or perhaps the inverse situation, when managers keep PMs at their levels as long as they can get away with it?
Product Managers want career support and PM leaders can offer this support with the right proactive setup. If you’re a PM not getting the career support you need, or a PM leader who hasn’t proactively set up clear career pathing (and may be letting down your finest people), this article is for you. Feed your PMs and build a strong Product Management team with a strong career pathing and promotion system.
While this article is written first for the person, setting up the PM career and promotion path (product executive or otherwise), Product Managers can also reference these topics to help grow their organizations and careers.
Three key principles for a clear, results-based approach to Product Management career pathing and promotion are objectivity, transparency, and support.
Note — career, leveling, and promotion principles are part of a broader HR system that also includes hiring, compensation, and culture, and these HR features work best when they all fit together.
Let’s consider these three principles more deeply across 1) PM levels and career growth and 2) promotions.
1. Product Management Levels and Career Growth
Define what your organization expects and needs from PMs at different levels, and what levels will exist within your PM organization. There should be consistency within your PM function, and ideally consistency/similarity across other functions in the company, especially the most adjacent functions of design and engineering (What is an associate? A lead? A director?). These articles share potential definitions for a Product Manager role and skill levels by Product Manager level.
Side note: while titles should be consistent within a PM department, they may not be consistent across organizations. For example, it is common for larger organizations to “level down”/use more junior titles and smaller organizations to “level up”/use more senior titles. A Director of PM may have 1 direct report at a 50 person startup, 3–5 direct reports at a 1,000 person company, and a 15–20 PM organization at a large tech company like Google.
Having explicit objective principles helps your team know that they are leveled and evaluated fairly, and that they will be treated fairly in the years ahead. These principles serve as the foundation for career advancement.
To PMs: do you know what PM levels mean in your organization? Are those levels applied fairly across your team? If the answer is no to these and related questions, then ask your manager or department leader.
Once you’ve defined PM levels, share these levels and discuss them with your team. The definitions shouldn’t feel up high from above, they should make sense to the team. I recommend getting team input in the definition phase, long before publishing/finalizing.
Just sharing the definitions is part of the system. It’s even more important to then have career check-ins between manager and report. I recommend a pre-scheduled regular cadence, such as a quarterly career session (Note: career conversations can and should happen more regularly, such as real time feedback. Consider this quarterly session as a “step back and view the big picture” session.).
A foundational part of these check-ins is to provide transparency on where the PM is today (which sets the coaching plan for growth). Note: we assume the manager is a skilled PM skill evaluator. In the first such session, the PM should prepare a self assessment and the manager should also prepare an assessment. That first conversation should be about the PM sharing the self assessment, the manager giving observations, and the two getting to a shared, transparent, objective sense of current state. This is usually a rich, valued conversation. Follow up sessions should pay more attention to where the PM has been focusing and consider what to stop, start, or continue in the PM’s development plan.
Side note: the first time PMs and managers have this career check-in, I’ve found in my experience that the PM’s self assessment is a level higher than the manager’s (and my) assessment. That perception gap in itself is so important to address. Is the PM clear on what success looks like for any responsibility, or are they equating “doing a task” with mastery? Is the PM getting full credit for the work they are doing?
To Product Managers: do you know where you are on the PM leveling path? Do you know where your manager sees you and why? Do you agree?
With a shared assessment, the manager and PM can now work together to help the PM grow in the target direction. First — what are the PM’s career goals? Some PMs want to manage other PMs, some PMs want to be excellent individual PMs. Some PMs want to run the team some day, and some are happy where they are for the moment. While many PMs are ambitious and strive for more responsibility and leadership, a PM’s manager shouldn’t assume that they know what the PM’s current and long term career goals are.
With clear role expectations from the PM department, personal goals from the PM, and a shared understanding of the PM’s current skills, the manager should then work with the PM to create a career plan that targets achievable personal growth within a target time period — often a quarterly plan to grow a skill and a longer term plan to get a promotion, with measurable skill development and product wins along the way. Ideas for career growth plans:
- Identify 1–2 areas to improve with explicit attention. More than 2 areas are difficult to intentionally improve at simultaneously.
- Set SMART goals achievable within a reasonable time period, such as within a quarter. Even better: use career OKRs, which double as career development and solid process thinking. Hat tip to Product Leader Jon Dobrowolski.
- Think about what the PM could do that wouldn’t happen as part of their natural existing activities. Should the PM attend a skills workshop? Take on additional responsibilities? Shadow others to build awareness? Side note: if a PM attends a workshop/conference for skills building, make sure there is an opportunity to practice those skills at work, else the skills won’t stick.
- Consider finding mentors beyond the manager that can help the PM with specific skills, such as a PR partner for public speaking, or a finance partner for building models. Ask for help, you’ll be surprised how willing others are to support you.
- Use the manager to hold the PM accountable at regular check ins (without guilt).
Note: PM coaching is itself a rich topic, lightly covered here, though deserving of a full article.
While the manager is a PM’s key career supporter, a PM should consider other PM leaders, including the PM department leader, as resources to help them. It is an explicit part of the head of PM’s responsibilities to grow their team’s skills and capabilities!
To PMs: do you feel like your manager is a partner and supporter in your career growth, giving you as good an opportunity as the organization can provide to develop in clear, measurable ways?
Promotions deserve an explicit section, as the topic of how best to set up Product Manager promotions within departments isn’t discussed much. What is the process to promote a PM? How often should PMs expect to be considered for a promotion? How much transparency should a PM expect about their promotion state? This promotion topic isn’t especially tied to Product Management and can be rolled out well across an entire organization, but many organizations don’t use best practices. Several product leaders need to roll out a PM-specific promotion approach as their companies don’t provide enough promotion support to feed their PMs.
At the heart of this topic, Product Managers want to be treated fairly and considered appropriately for a promotion. I’ve heard many PMs share that they think they need to change companies to get a promotion as their current position hasn’t changed in years with no clarity forward. As with PM level, PM promotions should be handled with objectivity, transparency, and support.
Expedia and Blue Nile Product executive David Fleischman notes that when done poorly, the PM promotion process can feel like an exposure game “who has the CEO noticed?” instead of a deserved outcome. This environment quickly turns political and resentful, where people vie for visibility and credit. Don’t let this happen to you!
If Product Managers know that skills are expected from them at different levels, they should expect that promotions are handled objectively as well. Some organizations promote out of tenure, some out of skill development, some out of results. I advocate a mix of skills and results.
Skills: a PM should be demonstrating the skills listed in the department’s role expectations by level, such as in this skills grid, which covers hard (e.g. strategy, analytics) and soft (relationship, influence) skills.
Results: a PM should demonstrate that they can get outcomes expected of their level. Skills are predictors of results, whereas demonstrated results are evidence.
Note: sometimes a PM may not be put into a situation to demonstrate results based on their working team’s (called a squad) state. For example, a squad may be winding down, going through re-platforming, supporting another squad, etc., and not in a position to ship new features. In these situations the PM and manager need a good conversation about expectations and how to handle it fairly.
Here is an example table of skills and actions needed for promotion in the InVision Product Manager team (around 30 PMs).
Promotions should also be considered on a regular frequency, similar to having regular career conversations. I use a quarterly cadence for PM promotion consideration, in addition to the quarterly career check-in cadence. In those regular discussions the PM management team discusses the skills levels and promotion states of all their PMs, so the department normalizes on objective, standard criteria and the PM executive can help reduce manager bias. PM leaders need to prepare for this meeting, including talking to cross-functional partners. This session is a good opportunity to flag PMs “in the window” for promotion and whether remaining gaps are skills or outcomes based.
To PMs: are you clear what it takes to get promoted in your organization?
Just like a Product Manager should have transparency in their current leveling and skills, so should a PM have transparency into promotion status and remaining gaps. The PM’s manager should share the rough time frame and criteria for getting to the next level.
Unfortunately while the skills/outcomes can be clear, the timeline cannot always be clear. For example, it can be unclear when a PM will “get an outcome” or “demonstrate a new skill” to get promoted, and sometimes a PM is far from a promotion or may never be promoted in this organization’s current leveling structure. But — I do recommend that a manager share if “you’re on track” when the PM simply needs the outcomes and has the right trajectory. And if the PM is within 6 months of the promotion (starting to show skills and results), I recommend setting the PM’s expectation of rough timing, pending results. That’s about as transparent as PM management can be while staying within the objective system.
Note that in many organizations, the more senior a person gets, the longer it might take to be promoted to the next level.
When promotions do happen, that’s a time to celebrate and recognize an individual’s growth! To reinforce the objective, transparent system, I love sending out promotion announcements highlight the promoted PM’s skills and outcomes. Not only does this communication make the promoted PM feel fairly and appropriately recognized, but the message also reinforces to the rest of the department how promotions and levels work in your team.
Note: I find it helpful to gauge the PM community’s reaction to promotions, what was or was not a surprise and why. Ideally promotions are not surprises, but several issues can obstruct this ideal state that would be worth fixing, such as exposure to each other, clear and understood results, opportunities to demonstrate skills, etc..
To PMs: are you clear on your expected promotion timeline in your organization? (To the extent your product leadership has an opinion.)
As part of quarterly career conversations, a PM should ask for support in demonstrating skills and outcomes to get a promotion. This process should be happening anyway for career progression, but the added nuance for promotions is sometimes the ability to show outcomes if the squad’s setup is challenged.
In these situations, the manager should partner with the PM to find alternative ways to demonstrate outcomes, and may need extra help to do so. For example, a PM level individual on my team clearly showed Senior PM skills but was waiting on shipping a product and demonstrating user results. The company decided to pause the product three months before launch, a year into the initiative. To avoid “restarting” the PM’s career progress, the PM’s old and new managers found some one-of short term initiatives that the PM could get quick wins with, which clearly showed Senior PM level mastery and results. The PM’s promotion was delayed only one quarter as a result, and the rest of the department still saw the promotion as well earned and outcome-based.
To PMs: have you and your manager creatively thought about opportunities to accelerate your career growth and promotion timing in non-obvious ways?
This Product Manager leveling and promotion system is a great start to a team without definition. Note that this system of Objectivity, Transparency, and Support system will need to be customized to your culture and norms. This system also doesn’t describe exception handling, and with people-systems like promotions, there are ALWAYS exceptions. For example, what if someone was mis-hired at too low a level? Easy to up-level. Mis-hired at too high a level? It is challenging to lower levels. Transferred from another team at the wrong level? Unfair promises made by prior managers? Etc. etc.
By being thoughtful and proactive ahead of time about PM leveling and promotions, you can keep exceptions to a minimum while having a motivated, career-satisfied PM team!