How to Get Promoted into Product Leadership
A framework and mental model
You are reading You Are The Product, a monthly newsletter for product people who want to become product leaders. Every month, I share my experience, material, and advice to help you move up the career ladder and have fun while at it.
The traditional method of becoming a product leader (or moving into any leadership role, for that matter) is to keep your head down, do the work, show up every day, and get rewarded on merit by a promotion into a leadership role.
This continues to be a fan favorite and most certainly a viable way to move into leadership. It is certainly a matter of great pride for folks, and if you ask some, the only way that a person ever ought to get promoted into leadership.
The problem with this way of thinking is that it assumes all careers are linear, that all paths are equally possible to all, and most importantly of all, that merit will inevitably be rewarded.
Why is that a problem? Well, there’s more than one reason.
Product Careers are Rarely Linear
Most of you reading this did not follow the so-called perfect path into product management, i.e., studied computer science, worked as a software engineer, moved into product. This was how people became PMs in the early days of what evolved into modern product management. And the expectation that a PM must have been an engineer first lingered for a long time after. Google wouldn’t hire PMs without a Computer Science degree for the longest time (even though its first SVP of Product Management didn’t have one).
But we’ve been over this for a long time now. Product managers today come from all walks of life, and their experiences are incredibly varied. I used to be a poetry translator, and today I work with machine learning, conversational AI, and automation products. There is nothing linear about my career.
Privilege Plays a Role
If, like most people, you moved into tech without a CS degree or engineering experience, chances are you started out as an intern, and quite possibly an unpaid one at that. Not everyone can afford that.
My first job in tech started out part-time while I was a student. In 2 years, I moved up to team lead. And then after losing that job, I found it extremely hard to land another job. My personal narrative made no sense. I was a translator for nearly 7 years, then suddenly had a 2-year stint in data management, and after 100 failed applications to full-time gigs, I realized I had to start over. I landed an internship. It was paid, but it barely covered my rent. And as a working-class kid who immigrated to Germany from Bosnia, I was broke for most of my internship and maxed out my cards every month, sometimes going without a meal for a day or two.
But I worked my butt off, and I got promoted into a full-time role in 3 instead of the 12 months that the internship was supposed to last. I don’t share this story often, because I dislike the “rags to riches” narrative ploy, but I want to be honest about the part that relative privilege plays in moving up in a career.
Merit Alone is Insufficient
Individual hard work and achievement ought to be praised, supported, encouraged, and acknowledged. But individual merit is rife with systemic bias caused by the inequities of our societies.
Some of you will ask, “But didn’t you just tell me a story about how your hard work and merit got you the promotion?”
Yes, it’s true, that did happen. But instead of putting everyone through the ringer like that, with the misguided idea that it’ll somehow make them stronger and better at what they do, what if instead we focused on creating opportunity and propelling others, especially if their circumstances don’t afford them the privilege needed to build a career?
No one should have to miss a day of food to move up in their career.
No, merit alone is insufficient. And the world is not fair. I’m not here to talk about how to change the system, because that would be a different kind of newsletter.
What, then, can I do to get promoted into a leadership role?
Alright, let’s set the stage first.
Your career path into product management probably hasn’t been linear
You know you want to be a product leader
You know why you want to be a product leader
You know what kind of product leader you want to be
Wait a minute — you don’t know? You’re unsure? You’re wondering why all of the above even matters?
“I Want to Be a Product Leader”
Here’s the thing. A lot of people dive headfirst into the idea that they want to be leaders. Maybe you think it’s the surest way to earn more money, or you crave the respect that comes with authority, or you just want your parents to be proud of you for being such a good hard-working child.
Maybe it’s all of the above or none of the above. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that you first decide that you do, in fact, want to be a product leader.
“I Know Why I Want to Be a Product Leader”
Leadership, and especially product leadership, is a really really really difficult job.
It’s also an incredibly rewarding job.
But it’s a job that will challenge you, excite you, frustrate you, stress you out, burn you out, make you grow, make you fall, force you to get back up.
So before deciding you want this, you should ask yourself why you want it.
IMHO there are no bad reasons for wanting to become a product leader. OK maybe egotrips are a bad reason. But all other reasons are valid. Money, prestige, reputation, respect from your peers.
Product management is, after all, the most exciting job in the world. You wouldn’t be doing it or reading this newsletter if you didn’t already think so. I certainly think so!
“I Know What Kind of Product Leader I Want to Be”
Leadership often gets confused with management. Product leaders are not always people managers. But people who manage product managers are always product leaders.
Much like engineering before it, product management has developed two tracks:
”OK, OK, I get it — I know the answers to all these questions, just give me the framework already.”
Well, since you’re asking so nicely, here you go.
Download your own editable copy: Product Leadership Canvas (FigJam file)
If you go through each section of the above canvas and take the time to think through all the questions, you’ll end up with a way to position your brand as an aspiring product leader.
Why do I want to become a product leader?
Do I want to be a people manager or an IC leader?
What is my ideal work situation?
Your career vision will impact how you define your career narrative.
How did I get to where I am now?
How has my previous experience prepared me for the next step?
Your career narrative will help you flesh out your standout attributes.
What unique capabilities, skills, and experience do I have that others might not?
What makes those unique skills valuable to a product leadership role?
Does my resume showcase my standout attributes?
Your standout attributes will help you determine which context suits you best.
What context makes my value obvious?
Within what context do I stand out as a candidate?
Context will help you to zero in on what proof you need to demonstrate competency.
Proof of Competency
Do my boss and coworkers perceive me as competent?
Do I have previous leadership experience?
Is there social proof of my competency (content, website, conferences, podcasts, meetups)?
These questions are designed to help you examine your aspirations and understand how your skills and experience fit within the context of a job you want.
I know some of this might still sound pretty vague, so here’s how I would fill this out for myself:
There’s no real science to this. But this is what I’ve used, albeit not in this highly formal version, to help grow my own career. And it’s worked for me. I can’t guarantee it’ll work for you.
What’s missing from this is a more detailed discussion about how to position yourself for a specific product leadership job, which is IMHO as much about what you want out of a job as what a job wants out of you. Perhaps I’ll dig deeper into that in a follow-up article.
Until then, I wish you a lot of luck with this. Let me know if you use it, and if you see some glaring flaws that aren’t obvious to me.
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