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How to build a career in product management

Product management is a popular career not only because it’s an exciting, fulfilling role at the center of digital-first businesses, but because PMs disproportionately go on to lead businesses as CEOs or found their own companies.

If you aspire to climb the leadership ladder all the way to Chief Product Officer (CPO) there are four major transitions that you’ll need to manage along the way:

four major transitions in a product management career
The four major transitions in a product career
  1. Get a PM role
  2. Manage others
  3. Lead function
  4. Become executive

Each of these is a significant change in the role you are doing, and depends both on you having the skills and credibility to do the next level of job, as well as the opportunity arising for you to step into that role. Each transition can take several years to accomplish, as the job you do fundamentally changes. This creates a Catch-22 situation where you don’t have the experience of doing the next level up without having already worked at that level!

The solution is to view each transition as a journey and work towards it in a steady way. It’s unlikely to happen overnight, but you can continually improve your credibility to make the jump and go for opportunities until you make it.

It’s worth noting that titles are not consistent across the industry, and depending on the company you are working for “PM”, “Head of”, “Lead” or “Director” might mean very different things, and even correspond to completely different levels in the diagram above.

Get a PM role

This is the first step for many embarking on a career in product, yet it’s often a senior role at many companies as you’ll be the de facto leader of a cross-functional team of 6-10 engineers, designers and other specialists. You’ll be building features that deliver value to users and the business and need to demonstrate that you have the strategy, communication and leadership skills to do this.

Manage others

If you head down the management route, at some point you need to start managing others. Whilst you might feel you know everything about product management, the big change here is that you can no longer have a direct impact on a team, but need to act indirectly through your reports. This involves hiring the right people, setting clear expectations and then motivating and coaching your reports to reach it.

Lead function

This is probably the easiest transition to make, but still far from trivial. As your ability to manage others increases, you can aim for roles where you are running the entire product function – perhaps at a smaller company. In addition to the line management responsibilities you had as a manager, you’ll need to create and maintain the processes that the product organization runs by. Without these stakeholders won’t get the input and transparency they need, and you won’t be able to monitor and address the quality of work being done. 

Become executive

Reaching the CPO seat is the default aspiration for many product managers, but it’s not for everyone. Of course, you get the shiny C-title, and often significantly more salary. However, your role is setting overall strategy for the company, allocating resources with other executives and managing the board and investors. It’s a long way from the day-to-day work of solving user needs and building exciting new features – often the original reasons people got into a role in product management.

Individual contributor track

If the management career path doesn’t appeal, then you might prefer to stick to the individual contributor path. This is becoming increasingly common, especially at larger companies. The idea is to provide a similar level of compensation, status and challenge for more experienced product managers, without forcing them into a fundamentally different role by making them people managers.

Again, titles will vary, but parallel individual contributor / management career paths might look something like this:

parallel career paths
Parallel individual contributor and management career paths


As a product manager you can head down either management or individual contributor paths as you progress in your career. If you are interested in going the management route then be prepared to make up to four major transitions in your role as you get more senior, each representing a significant shift in what your job involves.


Further reading