Designing a Product Manager Career Journey
Before I hired my first product manager, I reflected on my own career experience. What were the traits I valued from my managers? What did I not? What kind of manager did I want to be?
I knew that’s one size fits all approach would be insufficient. I wanted to be in service of my product managers and give them the appropriate autonomy and mentorship they needed. As a coach, how do you know what someone needs? I’ve taken the approach of applying frameworks to set a baseline, layering on adjustments to play into strengths and objective measurement to help product managers know where they stand and what they need.
When Experian acquired AdTruth, as part of being in a large organisation, I was exposed to many frameworks such as the Pragmatic Marketing framework.
This framework starts a conversation about the different types of product managers, across the spectrum. It might not make sense to create these functional sub-divisions now, but awareness is key here. Based on this, you will identify the most important characteristics you need.
In this post, we’ll start with selecting these characteristics, placing them into a career ladder and wrapping it up with structured 1:1s to setup regular measurement through the course of the year.
Product Manager Characteristics
What would PM characteristics look like in your organisation? Here are some examples you can draw from:
- Leads and inspires (inspires, sets the vision, confident with ambiguity and change, models the culture)
- Product mastery (customer-focused, passionate about building a great product, T over I shaped skills, growth mindset)
- Intellectually curious (deeply technical, ability to dive into complex topics and become is a subject matter expert, I over T shaped skills)
- Drives outcomes (driver, prioritises, balance speed and quality)
- A great communicator (presents clearly and confidently, listens and collaborates, strong storyteller, knows and caters to the audience)
You will not need all. Start with the top three and you may use the phrases as a starting point to clearly define what your expectations are from that characteristic.
You might feel inspired to reinvent the wheel on the career ladder but more often than not it bears little fruit. For a good starting point, refer to Intercom’s publicly available career ladder. Sachin Rekhi wrote an article about product titles at eight tech firms which you can use to calibrate. And there are many more you can find in a Google search. Pick a company whose product leadership you admire and start with that ladder, editing it to reflect your selected PM characteristics and job titles.
In the early days of Marqeta the product organisation hired specialist and generalist product managers. In earlier stages of a startup velocity can be more important than calibration. As we scaled, PMs wanted clarity around having access to a career path irrespective of their interest in management or breadth of skill set.
When your company is at a stage where your PMs are expecting a career ladder, resist the temptation to assume you only need generalists, as it will limit your ability to scale and their ability to grow in a one-dimensional framework.
Design your 1:1s with these tips:
- Pick a cadence (weekly or bi-weekly) that works for you and your employees
- Have a secure document for each product manager that lists open and resolved items so you can track conversations, action plans and progress
Also schedule specific action items to cover during a 1:1 once a month
- One-time or bi-annual peak experience for new employees to learn about what drives them
- Creation of a career journey
- Review of the career journey and goals and action items from a mid year or previous review
- Skill gaps, training and leadership opportunities
- Evaluation against a career ladder when seeking promotion
Structuring these regular conversations are incredibly important. While it can be a time to just chat and build trust, I’ve found it to be really valuable when focusing all your time on your product manager. Time does indeed fly and so doing this makes you very prepared for annual reviews and avoids any surprises at the end of the year.
Putting it all together
Using the peak experience as the template, you can now chart a course for your product managers. Here’s an example of what a peak experience might look like.
Using this document, you can extract themes about what really motivates and drives your PM and this can start to fit with the company’s PM characteristics. I’ve found this process to be incredibly revealing. You have to come at it with complete authenticity for the career of your employee. If you realise that one of your product managers might be 10x happier and more productive as a business development rep, you have to be open to helping them down that path.
By mapping this artefact to the career ladder you can generate a catered action plan that both fits with the company’s framework for how to evaluate PMs, and the product manager’s personal goals and expectations.
Now you can set milestones and track towards them on a regular cadence. Good luck, now do something great with this new knowledge!