A product manager career path is popular not only because it’s an exciting, fulfilling role at the center of digital-first businesses, but because PMs (product managers) disproportionately go on to lead businesses as CEOs or found their own companies.
There are two possible product manager career paths. The first is the managerial route, advancing from an entry level role all the way up to an executive role, similar to the type of progression you might have witnessed in other functions or types of roles. This requires people management and leadership skills, with the responsibility to execute those well increasing at every stage of the ladder. The second is the individual contributor route. This is very similar to the engineering individual contributor career path, whereby an individual increases their specialization and value, but with fewer people management or other leadership responsibilities. This requires increasing subject matter mastery at every rung of the ladder.
If you have not yet started on the product manager career path, we have written about how to break into product management, including detailing four possible different ways into the role here. There are multiple ways to find a product management role, so check out that article.
The managerial product manager career path:
Assuming you already have a product management role, if you aspire to progress along the product manager career path all the way from entry level role to Chief Product Officer (CPO) there are four major transitions that you’ll need to manage along the way:
- Get a PM role
- Manage others
- Lead function
- 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 product management career 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 product management career 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. This is something to be wary of and to invest the time in understanding when it comes to evaluating product management career opportunities. Questions such as ‘How many people report into this role?’, ‘Who does this role report to, and what is the product management hierarchy within your business?’ and ‘What is the decision making remit of this role?’ should allow you to identify what the title means in distinct organizations.
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Get a PM role: Embarking on the product manager career path
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. If you’re looking to break into product management and unsure how to get your first role, check out our article on this here.
Manage others: Committing to the managerial product manager career path
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: Advancing a career in product management
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: Moving beyond the product manager career path
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 career in product management.
The specialist product manager career path: Individual contributor track
If the management path of a product 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 / product management career paths might look something like this:
As you can see, the individual contributor product manager career path accrues increasing responsibility with increasing seniority and subject matter expertise. It can fork into a product matter expert track or into a management track at later stages, depending on role availability and individual capability and interest.
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.