How do I build a good product management career?

This is some general advice I give to budding product managers early in their career. This is also applicable to those who are in adjacent roles like program management, product marketing, product planning, technical project management, etc. who wish to get into product management.

Of course, everything is contextual and so is this advice! If you share more information about you as person and professional, you can get advice that will work better for you.

With this caveat, let me begin.

The number of skills a product manager needs to be good at is fairly large. In fact, bring me a skill and most of the time I can show you that a product manager needs it. However, I think there are a few key skills that make a good product manager a great one, and it is important to work on them early on in your career because they take time to perfect (if you ever become perfect in them).

If I have to pick 3 (different people will pick different top 3 I am sure), they will be:

  1. Dealing with ambiguity – Taking a vaguely defined problem (“increase product reach by 300% in 4 quarters”) and working on it to deliver results.
  2. Active communication – Ability to listen well via verbal and non-verbal (to the customer and to stakeholder), assimilate what is being said or implied (customers don’t know what they want), and articulate at the right time to the right audience in the right way (what works for a developer doesn’t work for an exec or a customer).
  3. Persuasion and Negotiation – Ability to navigate bias, ignorance, politics, self-interest, and rationality to achieve agreement on solutions you care most about

Once you believe that these 3 (or some other 3 you have prioritized) are the right areas to focus on at a certain stage of your career, you need to constantly evaluate whether your role and tasks give you the opportunities to hone your skills in these areas. The way to evaluate this is to set goals for building competencies in each of the identified areas, and periodically checking if you are meeting your goals. At some point, you may find that they do not.

When you discover this mismatch, you need to change your your role and/or responsibilities (or tasks) by working with your manager. If you have been using your 1-1s with your manager effectively, your manager will understand your career aspiration and will work with you to do the tweaks necessary to bring your goals and organization goals in alignment.

This is an ongoing cycle – you identify goals, set measures of success, identify mismatch, update your goals, and do it all over again. Over time, goals will become tougher, measures will become harder to achieve, but you will become much better at lots of these key skills!

You also need a mentor who can advise you on your journey. Preferably, this is someone who is in your company and has been in a similar role before (or is now). If it is someone not in your company, make sure they know you well enough and that they have time to understand your context when you talk to them for advise.

When you start in a PM career, it is important to demonstrate good product management domain skills (ability to take a product and deliver it to the market and achieve business results). As you grow in your career, your ability to work with others (leadership and relationships) and ability to navigate the organization (persuasion and conflict management) become more important.

Another thing to keep in mind is this: growth in product management typically doesn’t come via team size. It comes through the span of influence on the product. So ensure that you are growing in one or more of these dimensions. If not, it is time to intervene.

Here are some ways this influence shows up:

  1. How many products or features you are responsible for?
  2. How much of business metrics of the entire company you are managing (For ex, ‘20% of product revenue is through products I manage’)
  3. How early in the product cycle (conceptualization, market research, specification, design, development, launch, refinement, etc..) you get involved and/or own?

In all of this, being self aware is critical. The more you understand yourself, the better you can evaluate yourself and your career better, and better you can find the niche where your strengths and passion play a major role and make you a world-class product manager.

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