Both you and your manager should want you aiming for the top product management job, whether the situation makes it the vice president or chief executive. It’s not about propagating unrealistic, naïve expectations that everyone can or should be the CEO. Healthy organizations need leaders at all levels who think proactively about requirements for success and who take responsibility to ensure the right things get done at the right time.
Several years into my product management career, I transitioned from a smallish, closely-managed product organization where executives had high-fidelity context on our business to a company so massive that executives were swamped by keeping multi-billion-dollar business units on track. My prior CEO called bullshit on sloppy analysis and imprecise product planning. The new executive team – hundreds of them – was unable to proactively identify problems unless things were so bad that negative feedback was incoming from multiple senior vice presidents. By then, of course, problems were much harder and more expensive to address.
My abrupt change from being closely managed to essentially unmanaged was an exciting opportunity and daunting challenge. It was exciting because I had a shot at developing executive leadership skills of my own. It was daunting to realize there was no longer a safety net. There was no meaningful filter on the product plans I developed or the marketing content I released. Any big screw-ups would eventually become known – and I wanted to win by building and selling a great product.
The situation quickly taught me to pretend my managers didn’t exist for purposes of data-driven decision making, recognizing market conditions, and executing within available budgets, timelines, and resources. In short, I operated like I was the executive.
Did my executive leadership feel I overstepped my bounds? To a person, the executive team encouraged my development and invited me into the highest level conversations. They wanted me to take their job. They were already too busy and desperately wanted leaders to help shoulder the burden.
How to take your manager’s job
A confident, want-to-win manager needs someone to take her job so she can grow with the business and create space to tackle increasing responsibilities. This realization changed my perspective about successful product managers. To preserve anonymity, I’ll synthesize real examples of good and bad product managers I’ve worked with into two pairs of people.
Good product manager #1
Gertrude knows her technology, validates use cases she hears from others, is proactive about engineering outreach, and crisply documents her thinking. She doesn’t fall for red herrings. Instead, she sets the record straight when anyone makes an inaccurate claim about her product, customers, or market. Engineers trust and respect her judgement because they know she’s in their corner, while fiercely representing customer needs and not accepting incomplete use cases.
Good product manager #2
George knows the economics of his business and the value customers are willing to pay for. He is proactive in analyzing what works and what doesn’t, communicating tangible outcomes quickly and accurately. He puts focus on the product’s value, ensuring that partnerships and marketing return maximum value. George identifies where sales is having trouble, driving product enhancements and enablement activities to respond.
Bad product manager #1
Barbara can’t or won’t learn the product, market, and underlying technologies to be conversant with engineering, customers, or sales. She doesn’t understand the core value of her product beyond the marketing messages that have been created by others. She depends on her manager to set and manage her goals and timelines. While Barbara can execute basic tasks that have been assigned to her, she requires close ongoing guidance to ensure a successful outcome.
Bad product manager #2
Bobby transcribes engineering plans into requirements documents and cannot explain why they are being implemented or how they will meaningfully improve user experiences. He repeats last year’s strategy with incremental changes regardless of market changes. He actively avoids challenging plans of record with new analysis of market threats and opportunities. Lots of people like Bobby and sales often invites him to meet with customers because he presents well.
It’s about your career
“Hiring your replacement” is an axiom that confident, want-to-win managers take seriously. Whether or not you work under such circumstances, think about how holding yourself to executive discipline without a safety net can improve your product management skills and opportunities for the future.