Businesses have shifted from traditional ways of operating to truly becoming customer-centric digital organizations — and the global pandemic has accelerated this inevitable shift. Product managers, who sit at the nexus of customer needs, business strategy, and technology, play a critical part in building their companies’ digital fluency so organizations can evolve and transform their products to meet market and customer demands.
That said, product management is often ill-defined as a function, especially in traditional companies, and business leaders and managers have a responsibility to precisely understand product management skills and careers to help these nascent leaders succeed and unlock their full potential.
By developing and integrating product managers as strategic thinkers who help evolve organizations into being customer-centric, leaders and managers can tap into many benefits:
- Improved leadership pipeline and succession planning: Product managers are responsible for many things, but skills development strategies to level-up their subject matter expertise into leadership roles are not often clear. By connecting product management skills to a long-term and articulated career path, you can improve your leadership pipeline and increase career satisfaction for your product managers.
- Clear hiring objectives: Evaluating candidates against a documented set of skills can decrease bias and help recruiters make vital distinctions between hiring project managers, product managers, and product owners.
- Increased product management talent pipeline: Creating consistency around what early-career professionals understand a product manager to be and what they must learn creates access to product management careers for people who don’t already have product managers in their networks.
We formed the Product Management Standards Board with a wide-ranging set of product management leaders across the consumer goods, technology, finance, and education sectors. We’ll channel our collective experience into increasing clarity of and access to product management skills and careers so that the next generation of product management talent can maximize their impact in organizations and the world.
We’ve crafted a career framework as a valuable tool for:
- Product leaders who want to build capable, well-balanced teams.
- Aspiring product managers who want to understand what skills they need to enter the field and help lead organizations.
- Mid-career professionals who wish to understand their career options.
- HR leaders who want to build transparent, consistent career pathways.
What Defines an Excellent Product Manager?
We drafted a career map that captures our collective thinking about what makes a product manager and the career paths and associated skills required for an employee to one day become a product leader.
Let’s break down each section of the framework and see how they’re used to guide
Associate Product Manager
To begin a career in product management, individuals often move into associate product management roles from within or outside an organization with some existing understanding of the business, product, and/or customer base. While we firmly believe anyone can become a product manager starting at the associate level, we commonly see analysts, software engineers, designers, project managers, or product marketers moving into this role. In this stage of career development, product managers learn to use data to make decisions, influence without authority, and understand the balancing act of prioritization.
Product managers learn a mix of skills based on their particular product, area of responsibility, and expertise. Product managers in charge of a new product or feature may heavily focus on research and development. In contrast, product managers responsible for improving the quality and efficacy of an existing product or feature may focus more on data analysis to understand what drives an improved experience.
Squad leadership is critical to ensuring all people understand the goal they are working towards and what success will look like. Product managers at a large organization have the opportunity to either specialize in a single domain or can work with their managers to rotate ownership over product areas to develop a breadth of experience and skills.
Product managers at a startup will likely get to experience all of these skills in rapid rotation as their teams iterate quickly to identify product-market-fit and the right set of features for their product.
Senior Product Manager
The senior product manager level is where product managers start differentiating between becoming “craftmasters” in the individual contributor path or people managers on the leadership path. While craftmasters still need to provide inspiring team leadership to those working on the product, they often become particularly versed in a product domain, like product growth and analytics.
In contrast, a people manager in this role largely focuses on team management skills. Either way, this role is a critical step in someone’s career as it allows them an opportunity to practice developing and sharing a vision for a product with their team and working with more moving parts to guide people towards that vision. Understanding and prioritizing these moving parts become a key skill to develop at this level.
Additionally, the responsibilities to make decisions related to product growth also increase here. This level is a product manager’s opportunity to demonstrate an understanding of how business, market, and product intersect to inform the direction of the product and distinctly articulate how they expect that product to impact the company’s financials.
Director of Product
At this career point, directors of product are making a critical transition from manager to leader. They have to bring the threads of the product strategy and the product roadmap together and take ownership and responsibility for their decisions and impact. The Director of Product also starts to gain ownership of the cost side of their decisions – at some companies, this can extend as far as P&L ownership for project and product costs. They move into managing a portfolio of products and connecting the dots between how they work collectively for users and guide teams to work through complex problems to develop goals on a longer, future-driven timeline.
VP or Head of Product
Once an individual reaches this leadership level, they have mastered the key functional skills of product. They are now the pivotal connection point between the rest of the company’s leadership plans and the product team. They have to get beyond “product speak” and help connect the dots between technology, customers, and business goals with other leaders and employees across the business. There is a fair amount of time spent aligning resources and plans with other leaders to drive the strategy forward. As product leaders, they are also driving innovative thinking and are responsible for either the entirety of the product or a significant portfolio in terms of the company’s financials.
A Few Notes
We’ve had many rich discussions while building out the career map and teased out some nuances listed below that may come to mind as you work your way through this framework.
What about a product owner?
While product owners play a critical function, we do not see this as being a distinct job title for someone. If you’re curious about the distinction and who might play a product ownership function in your teams, read Product Dave on Medium.
What about the difference between startups and large organizations and everything in-between?
Product leaders at a large organization should consider rotating their product managers between a few different areas before moving them into more senior roles to build a range of skills sustainably. Product managers at a startup will likely get to experience all of these skills in rapid succession as their teams iterate quickly to identify product-market-fit and the right set of features for their product.
Does the framework change for “craftmaster” vs. “leadership” paths?
We have focused this framework more on the leadership path, but there is a continued path as an individual contributor, especially within larger organizations. Senior product managers, principals, and distinguished product management roles often see product managers tackle increasingly complex problems and mentor their colleagues on critical product skills while remaining in the “craftmaster” path.
Where do tangential functions fit in?
Some roles work closely with product managers to enable the full execution of products, but they are excluded on this map as they are adjacent to a product manager career path. A few of these functions include pricing analysts, product marketers, and product operations.
What happens after VP of Product?
The next step after VP of Product is very dependent on the organization. Some VPs of Product already report to the CEO or a business unit owner, in which case, those roles would be the next step. In other organizations, a Chief Product Officer role exists and becomes the next step. Data from Emsi shows that there has been a 140% increase in CPO postings from Nov 2019 to Nov 2020; a clear reflection of organizations’ increasing awareness of the value of the role of product leadership in aligning customer needs, technology, and business strategy, and the increasing number of opportunities for advancement to the executive suite in this field.
Next Steps: Putting Words Into Action
We formed the Product Management Standards Board to increase clarity of and
access to skills and careers so the next generation of product management talent can maximize their global impact in organizations. Our career framework is a first step toward achieving this goal, but it’s only effective if followed by action.
To put this theory into action, we have started using this framework within our
- Explain career progression and roles across our teams to guide development conversations and linking individual activities to strategic objectives on our product teams.
- Guide high-potential employees on how to maximize their leadership skills.
- Evaluate job candidates based on their skills match with the function for which they are applying, rather than exclusively what schools they’ve gone to or previous roles they’ve held.
If you could benefit from these same actions, we encourage you to join us in using the framework for similar purposes in your organizations. Our industry needs to use a common language around product management, and that language extends beyond our board.
This is a living document, and we’ll be seeking feedback from partners in our executive teams, industry associations, and peers around the world. We’re also asking you. If you have feedback on how this could be useful for you, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By coalescing on what it takes to succeed in product management careers, we can begin to solve some of the pertinent talent challenges facing the profession and better prepare the next generation of leaders. We look forward to working to standardize product management career paths together.