Your Brand is a Product Portfolio
And a product portfolio requires a strategy
This is You Are The Product, a monthly newsletter for product people who want to become product leaders. We are slowly growing, and just recently hit the 100-subscriber milestone. 🎉 At last count, 121 of you were reading. Thank you so much for your trust! And don’t forget to tell your friends!
In previous articles, I discussed the idea that in order to grow into product leadership, you needed to start treating your career as a product. In effect, you become the product. And that means your brand is a product portfolio of sorts.
Thanks for reading You Are The Product! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Your brand consists of your career as a whole, the various ways in which you present yourself to the world (a resume, a LinkedIn profile, social media, a personal website, etc.), and how you interact and network with the product community at large (in person and online).
It’s a competitive world out there, and unless your resume can sing a song in the right key and with all the right words to it, it’s not enough to present a round picture of who you are, what your story is, and how you can excel at future roles.
Moving into product leadership requires being intentional and creating opportunity for yourself, rather than waiting for it to be handed to you.
Your Career is a Product
At the beginning of a career, it’s hard to think in time horizons spanning years into the future. My theory is that, when it comes to careers, we can only plan for about half the time into the future we’ve spent in a given career. Practically speaking, after 10 years in tech, that would mean being able to imagine at least the next 5 into the future.
It’s just a theory — tell me if it works for you or not.
Few people know what their five-year-plan is in their twenties, even thirties. I certainly had no idea. But after 11 years in tech, I now know where I want to go (for the most part). But more importantly, I (think I) know how to get there.
The thing is, as you gain more experience, you start noticing patterns. You see the mistakes of your past in context, and they become an important learning tool. It’s possible to model a personal growth trajectory by correcting or amending the mistakes of yore. Best case scenario, our mistakes teach us how to strategize.
Importantly, however, a strategy is not a list of ambitions, but rather an actionable plan that leads to desired outcomes.
In career terms, it’s the set of tactics, moves, activities you intend to undertake to get you to a desired position or outcome in your career.
Let’s say you are a Senior Product Manager. You feel like you want to move up into a role with more responsibility, but you are unsure of whether that’s an IC role or a people management role. In this case, your best bet is to try out for a Group PM role, which is designed as a player-coach position allowing you to get a taste of people management while not giving up your IC focus.
Beware, this is a grueling job. Player-coach roles are IMHO the toughest in product management. There’s a lot to juggle, but you learn an incredible amount as you go.
Some of us aren’t born with a unique, undying passion that we’ve known we wanted to pursue all our lives. I find this to be common among product folk because we are by nature of our work generalists to at least some degree.
Your career strategy should be based on a personal vision, a vision you have for yourself, and while it may address your mistakes from the past, it ought to be aspirational.
It should be introspective, too.
Do you want to be a leader?
Why do you want to be a leader?
Do you want to be a people manager? Why?
What kind of leader do you want to be?
If you know the answers to all of these, you’re probably already a product leader or you have no intention of ever becoming one.
If you don’t have immediate answers to some of these questions, there’s a few truths of which you should be aware.
The path to leadership is full of stumbles, uncertainty, obstacles, and doubt:
Working hard to succeed
Learning how to present your work
Being recognized at work for your hard work
Gaining the respect of your peers, both at work and beyond
Gaining credibility and legitimacy as a product person in the world out there
None of the above is easy.
Creating Opportunity for Collaboration
But being intentional about becoming a leader is likewise very rewarding and can help you develop into a more confident individual in all walks in life.
It can help you become more empathetic, express solidarity, approach others with compassion, and accept and encourage collaboration as the foundation of all relationships.
You will learn quickly, if you haven’t already, that collaboration rules supreme. And collaboration demands mutual respect, professionalism, constructive conflict, and healthy competition for the benefit of all. It means celebrating our successes and each other. It means treating each other as equals at all times. All voices deserve to be heard and have a seat at the table.
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.
The next generation of product leaders must commit to creating opportunity for workers from underacknowledged, underserved, and underrepresented groups. As an aspiring or current product leader, you should actively seek to enable diverse voices to express opinions, participate in decision making, and help shape product philosophy, ethics, workplace policy, and user research to ensure we unravel implicit biases.
This means a commitment to diversity and inclusion that is shown in every decision, representation, pay, parity, and opportunity.
When we think of leadership, and its offspring product leadership, we should consider its ever-evolving nature, and the consequent need for us to continue to learn, develop, and grow.
Leadership is like school. You’re always due a term paper while new textbooks are thrown at you every month. What’s worse, you’re measured not only on your performance, but you’re also a teacher, measured on the performance of all those you lead.
A product leader has two jobs then: lead others to become product leaders and deliver business outcomes by empowering them to do their best work. If you’re blessed with a leader in your midst who you can learn from and is willing to teach you, avail yourself of the opportunity.
A fantastic HBR article I read said women shouldn’t look for mentors, but for Champions. Show what you are capable of to a champion who will fight for your cause.
Great leaders propel others.
Great product leaders help grow product people into leaders. But above all, great product leaders help budding product leaders build great product careers, well beyond the boundaries of the job in which they first met.
I love the concept of a mentor. I have mentors, and I am a mentor to others. But someone choosing to be your champion is a rare privilege, and a token of respect and friendship. It’s a wonderful human relationship.
Great leaders are not afraid of creating their own competition by helping others grow into leadership.
Leaders who have privilege should use their privilege to champion those who they respect, but who otherwise might not be given the chance. Who might lack opportunity because of invisible biases, systemic obstacles, and a lack of awareness.
Your Resume is a Community Product
But a champion is not enough. You must give them something to champion. Start with your resume.
A resume is virtually organic, it has so much life. It changes continually, grows, adapts, presents a different face to different audiences. I often think of LinkedIn as an extension of my resume. Together, they are so much more.
A repository of experience. A network. A community.
Here’s the thing about communities: people sometimes only understand them to be built on a common interest. But long-lasting communities are also built on solidarity.
Communities are built on solidarity. You should use all the time you have to build community.
Community is about more than networking and finding opportunity. It’s about developing a mutual support network of peers who help you grow, who help you reflect on your practice, your career, and your job in a way that helps break you out of the confines of your day-to-day.
Community enables you to look through the looking glass, so to say, to the other side.
That helps bring your experience into perspective, it helps you understand how your current situation exists within the broader scope of the role, the industry, and the market in which you operate.
Existing between Communities
There are different types of communities.
During the pandemic, many of us developed and built close ties as we were all pushed online to communicate and build community.
The many different channels, mediums, platforms, even devices through which we communicate with each other have enabled a diversity and vibrancy of online communities like never before.
From this community, this platform, this medium, this device, we establish community by interaction.
It’s a meta-narrative of community. We build community by discussing building community. It’s really quite fascinating when you think about it. But not to get too philosophical, building community requires a lot of practical, hands-on work.
Someone has to initiate contact.
Someone has to share an idea.
Someone has to make that idea come to life.
Someone has to become many someones. A group. With a distinct identity, common interests, a desire to cooperate.
Substack is a community. A product conference is a community. Your social media contacts are a community.
Communities of practice.
Communities of experience.
Communities of interest.
Communities of peers.
Communities of teams.
Your Website is a Product
Communities help you refine your narrative as you discover and grow.
There’s a lot of us out there, and it can be hard to profile yourself to stand out from the crowd. To shine through.
We spend our days at work writing stories. We imagine the future, we hypothesize steps needed to create that future. We build products.
If you treat your own narrative as a product, you can start derisking its development, testing it out, understanding yourself as ever-evolving and presenting yourself to the world as such.
If back in the day you had to dress for the job you wanted, today you have to build the brand you want to become.
Continuously refine your story. Incorporate your learning. Acknowledge your mistakes. Place emphasis on growth.
What this means is being deliberate about your career, your professional brand, your visibility, your network, and your community.
Building a brand is not an exercise in fake it till you make it.
Building a brand is intentional self-development and growth to arrive at a personal vision of the future.
It means putting your best foot forward.
But more importantly, it means telling the world your story. How you arrived to where you are and why. Your intention. Your purpose.
It brings your skills and competences closer and makes them more accessible.
Recently, product portfolios have become very popular. I think they are a good tool, even though I freely admit I don’t have one myself. But I’ve been considering making one.
The product community is so active nowadays, it’s easy and fun to connect with others.
Consider what message you want to convey. Sometimes a single static page provides all the information you might need.
Let’s Get Down to Business
Alright, that’s the theory of it all. But how do you get all of this done?
Write a personal narrative
Describe who you are, what your journey has been so far, what knowledge and skills you’ve gained, and what you are currently doing in a few paragraphs. Here’s a version of my own personal narrative, bits and pieces of which you’ll see spread across the interwebs.
I’m a product leader with 11 years of experience in hypergrowth tech, including a couple of German unicorns and a Danish scaleup. Currently I work as Director of Product Management at Dixa, focusing on conversational AI, automation, and messaging products.
Over the past decade, I’ve worked in a number of different industries and companies at various growth stages — from early stage B2C social networks, growth stage B2B2C travel tech, fintech/insurtech, streaming, data, and lately B2B SaaS in the CX space.
As a maker, I’ve shipped backend / API, data, and growth products, consulted on the development of platform products, and built products end-to-end as a venture architect.
As a product leader and people manager, I spend most of my time focusing on organizational alignment, product vision and product strategy, and actively coaching and training my reports.
My work experience is mainly within multicultural, global companies that value diversity. In addition to product management, I’m very passionate about inclusion, social justice, and work culture.
Now condense that into a single paragraph that you can use as a blurb or bio.
Product leader and mentor with 11 years of experience in hypergrowth tech, including 2 German unicorns and a Danish scaleup. Expert in B2B SaaS with a focus on automation and ML/AI. Previous experience in (B2)B2C and a range of industries (fintech, travel tech, streaming, social networks). Passionate about training the next generation of PMs & diversity and inclusion.
I use the shorter version on my LinkedIn profile and on my actual resume
Make your online presentation consistent
Make sure your LinkedIn, social media profiles, resume, personal website tell the same story, using the same language.
Limit the amount of information you present. You don’t need to show everything you’ve ever done.
While it may be interesting that you do more than one thing in your career and free time, don’t forget that recruiters, hiring managers, and generally people out there have short attention spans. If I’m honest, many people won’t make it to this paragraph in this long long article. You must be really motivated to make it all the way down here, so kudos to you on that!
Describe not only your goal, but also how you intend to get there
Many roads lead to product leadership. Here’s a few concrete methods you can try out, depending on what you are willing and ready to do. Quoting from a LinkedIn post I wrote last year:
The tried-and-tested method of working hard in one place and moving up the corporate ladder.
If you’re lucky enough to be in the right kind of environment. The downside of this approach is you can easily get stuck in the wrong company and never move into a leadership role.
Job hopping until you land into a leadership role.
Usually at a smaller company, perhaps an early stage startup, especially if you’re moving from a larger business. The downside of this can be on the learning side, because you might end up missing out on executive product coaching.
If you have a manager who cares, you can try to structure a plan for how you will move up into leadership.
A great manager won’t care whether that’s happening at your current company or somewhere else — the important part is to help you grow. Because that’s what great managers do.
Starting your own company or side hustle.
You want to build a product and grow it large enough to make you a leader? What better way to do so than to build your own. This of course comes with great risks, but the rewards could be even greater.
Joining an early-stage startup as the first PM.
While this move might be as risky as the previous, it can also be a great opportunity for growth and creating a real, lasting impact on a new product and company.
Last but not least, get ready to fail
I’ve failed many times trying to move up and get promoted. I was deemed too green, or simply wasn’t in the right environment. Rejection never feels good, but it teaches you something every time, if you’re willing to learn.
That lesson is two-sided. You probably have more to learn. But sometimes the lesson is that you need to get out of a stifling environment.
Be ready to fail. But be ready to leave, too.
Leaders not only recognize and grab opportunity, but they create it for themselves and others around them.
And that’s that.
A forever work-in-progress. But if you adopt the right mindset, moving up to product leadership can be the most fun you’ll have in your career.
Your brand is a portfolio of products: your career, your online presentation, your community
To move into product leadership, you ought to develop a personal vision and strategy to test different approaches that help you grow your brand and achieve your goals
Your strategy needs to be an actionable plan, not a wishlist of personal ambitions
Community and collaboration are crucial to getting you there and helping you stand out from the crowd
Write a personal narrative and stay consistent with your messaging
Next time I’ll talk more about how to position yourself, and what you might need to do to navigate office politics and land that coveted promotion.
ON A PERSONAL NOTE
It’s been a busy personal month, so I missed the February edition of this newsletter.
In a couple of weeks I’ll be speaking on the Zeda.io product management podcast about DEI in tech and how so much of it is cosmetic.
A week ago, I launched ✨ productqties.com ✨, a community for LGBTQ+ folks in product, and I’m happy to share we’ve already got nearly 50 members and a scheduled first event tackling the topic of Queer Product Leadership and the unique benefits and challenges of being an LGBTQ+ leader in product.
Lastly, I’m happy to share I will be speaking at ProductCamp Europe 2023 in Cyprus talking about growing into product leadership and how treating your career as a product can get you there.