One of the most difficult periods for product managers (PMs) is the fork in their career path where they decide between managing products and managing people. For those who want to transition to the latter, the group product manager (GPM) role is usually the next step, as it blends increased product responsibility with a small number of direct reports.
For PMs that want to take the people-management route, the main challenge is that GPM opportunities are few and far between. In a quick survey, Ken Norton found that the typical ratio for engineers to PMs is about seven to one. Let’s think about what that means for new management opportunities. If we assume that GPMs have five direct reports on average, there would need to be 35 engineers and five product managers hired before a VP creates a new management role!
So how can a PM increase her chances of becoming a GPM? While I’d love to say that just working hard and shipping great products is enough to get there, it’s not. Let’s look at the factors that drive GPM role creation and placement to understand how to get both in your favor.
Spotting the conditions for management roles to open up
One way to increase the chance of finding GPM options is to seek out startups whose growth is about to accelerate. For example, I joined as the second product manager at a marketing SaaS startup that was experiencing significant growth after raising $20M. Seven months after my start date, they raised another $40M and entered a hypergrowth phase. Within two years of my start date, the product management organization expanded from two to 15 PMs, creating three GPM roles in the process. I was selected as one of the three managers, and my peers in adjacent product areas became my direct reports. I found this high-growth startup by paying attention to which companies recently raised growth rounds of financing from prominent investors. You can identify these types of startups by looking at sites like AngelList or TechCrunch.
Also, pay attention to the headcount projections and company fundraising plans at your current company. If you are dead set on management and aren’t on a high-growth team, it may make sense to start exploring opportunities that allow you to join earlier at faster-growing companies where you’ll have, as Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha put it in their book The Start-Up of You, a personal competitive advantage. The other way for a GPM opportunity to open up is when a product leader leaves your company. After I moved on from the SaaS startup, one of my former employees was able to move into management this way.
Don’t forget, as a PM you can personally change the company’s growth prospects through solid decision-making and execution. Occasionally, PMs can pitch and get funding to lead new product areas, which — if successful — can lead to natural management opportunities for them over time.
Can you perform the job when it is available?
In the above section, I mentioned becoming a GPM after a period of rapid headcount growth. What I didn’t say was that I didn’t get the first management role that opened up, despite being the most senior PM on my team at the time.
As hiring picked up, the CEO and co-founder made it clear he didn’t have the bandwidth to manage the PM team and build the company he wanted. Given my track record at that time, I felt confident I could fill the role. The CEO pulled me aside to say he needed my help — yes?? — interviewing the VP of Product. Ouch. In his eyes, I didn’t yet have the experience or track record to lead the team. In hindsight, he was right. In situations like these, it is important to remain positive. As Elad Gil points out in High Growth Handbook, successful early employees “[accept] that their role and influence at the company will shrink in the short- to medium-term as the team scales, but that it will expand with time as they continue to learn and the company continues to scale.”
In order to increase my chances of scaling with the company and moving into management when the next chance arose, I had to both understand the risks to the company that my role switch would create and figure out how to mitigate them.
As a senior leader, promoting a senior product manager to a GPM adds a team- and culture-building job requirement and increases that employee’s leverage on good and bad decisions. This creates a significant risk that poor decision-making will be compounded and create insurmountable barriers to product–market fit. There’s also a risk that the organization itself will reject that PM as a leader. As the adage goes, people join companies but leave managers. A founder would hate to see strong PMs leave for greener pastures in protest of a promotion. Ben Horowitz and David Weiden note that getting the GPM hire wrong can sink a company. This is why they observe that there aren’t really many bad GPMs, just fired ones.
So what can you do to mitigate these risks? For one, don’t lose sight of your responsibility to master the PM skill set as demonstrated by a track record of growing your business through solid decision making and execution in the face of real-world uncertainty and constraints. That’s a prerequisite. There are many great books on product management, so I won’t cover that in detail here. Instead, let’s focus on complementing your growing capabilities to manage products with your ability to “manage up.”
It’s critically important to recognize the gap between your real and perceived suitability for the GPM role, and as your skills mature, you want to make sure that this evolution is visible to the rest of the organization. That’s why when I’m coaching PMs on my team, I talk as much about personal branding as I do about skill building: both will make or break their chances for advancement. For example, one way to improve your brand is with thoughtful and concise persuasive writing; I like to recommend the business-school book Guide to Managerial Communication for this. If your team has product council meetings or regular product strategy meetings, these are fantastic opportunities to show passion, leadership, and the ability to reflect on and learn from mistakes. Don’t take these platforms for granted. Pro tip: if your company doesn’t already implement these meetings, you can improve your brand as a leader by introducing them yourself.
As you prepare for the next steps in your career, please don’t miss the opportunity to step back and reflect on why you want to be a people manager, and make sure the GPM role is indeed moving you toward your goals. Do you really care about team building and the actual process of product management, or do you want to take on the most difficult and important product work? Of my former employees that expressed interest in people management, some other paths they have taken are starting their own ventures or skipping middle management altogether to be a head of product at a smaller company.
This post should give you some food for thought as you reflect on and take ownership of your career. Moving into a GPM role involves a combination of skill and luck, but over the long run, you can increase your chances of landing one by looking out for the conditions that lead to new role creation and being intentional about building your product management capabilities and brand.