Do this to promoted to the next level in you Product Management career

If you’ve been reading my blogs or following me on Twitter, you know I love talking about what a product manager does (and what a product manager should do).

The one thing – that I haven’t spoken about a lot – is to understand what skills you need to be successful at the different levels of the product management career.

So today, I talk about:

1. The different levels in a product management career
2. The most critical skills required to master each level
3. How do you know you’ve mastered each level

Different levels in the product management hierarchy

Simply put, there are three different levels in a product manager’s career. These three levels are a function of the amount of experience, and the skill set a person has.

1. Entry-level (RPM/APM/PM) – Mostly, these are entry-level roles, which typically look at fresh undergraduates or fresh MBAs.
2. Mid-level (SPM/PPM) – Mid-level product management roles usually demand the person to have at least 3-6 years of experience. The persons should understand the basics of product management very well. They might not be experts in all aspects, but they should know the requirements to be successful.
3. Leadership (GPM/Director/VP) – People in these roles have had at least 8-10 years of experience. Most of these roles demand the person to manage other product managers -which means that the focus is more on empowering others to do their job instead of doing product management themselves.

Essential skills for each level

Now let’s talk about the skill(s) that are essential to be successful at each of these levels.

I use the simple diagram to clearly show the progression a product manager goes through, and the skills that she needs to excel at every level.

The heading on each level (in the pyramid) refers to the single most critical skill that will help you excel at that level.

The text on the right refers to the area(s) you should focus on acquiring to move to the next level.

Unless you’ve mastered the specific skill for that level, the chances of you moving to the next level are meagre. And if you somehow make it to the next level, the chances of you succeeding are almost zero.

Secondly, it is critical to understand that if you aim to be successful in the long run, you need to spend enough time on each level.

But, what does each of these skills mean? How much is enough time? When am I ready to move to the next level?

Let’s dive deeper to answer these questions.

Product management career ladder

Level 1 – Master of Execution

What is it:

1. This level requires you to get stuff done. It also requires you to do the “stuff” in a way that helps your product get closer to the goal. Finally, the expectation is that you do everything alone, with close to zero support.
2. To do things that get you closer to the goal, you need to know the goal. If you don’t know the goal, you have no concrete way of measuring how well (nor not) you’re executing. If you don’t know how well you’re executing, there is no chance that your manager will think you’re doing well. If they don’t think so, there is no reason for you to move to the next level.

How do I master it:

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to master execution, but following the below guidelines will get you started in the right direction.

Have a checklist

Create a checklist, which includes clear action items and deadlines. Be comprehensive and ensure not to miss any critical steps in the process. As a sample, you can use the following method:

1. List the final deliverable and due date in the first row.
2. Then, work backwards from that date.
3. In every subsequent row, list the item that is critical to making the final timeline.
4. For each item, estimate the duration. Use that to create deadlines.

Remember, the goal is to ensure that you don’t miss any critical steps. So focus on making this list as comprehensive and detailed as possible. Update the list as soon as you discover new information, and keep the list updated at all times.

Create a list for all major releases. Then, stay true to the list at all times. You will get good at execution.

Example of a checklist

Ask for help

This is the most underrated and under-utilised piece of advice for new product managers. Others expect PMs to be the know-it-all-getting-shit-done-always personality.

New product managers believe in this stereotype. As a result, they either develop an inferiority complex because they believe they do NOT know-it-all or form a superiority complex because they start believing the stereotype.

In both cases, the product manager does not ask for help. That is what they do wrong.

Asking for help – especially when you’re new – is not only beneficial but highly encouraged. There are other product managers who have done in the past what you’re doing now. And asking them for help – asking them how they did it – will help you truly understand what it takes to get stuff done.

How do I know if I’m doing it well

You’re a master of execution if:

1. you can consistently ship critical features on time with zero issues without support from others
2. your manager or most of your stakeholders want you to run the show. Always.


What is it:

Oxford Dictionary defines “influencing” as the “capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something, or the effect itself.”

In product management, “influencing” typically refers to the ability to get others – especially those who are not part of your team – to believe in your roadmap and vision as strongly as you do.

To put things into context, consider this example:

You’re the product manager for Instagram stories. You’re working on launching a new feature that impacts the design of stories on the Instagram home feed. You have an aggressive deadline for the release. The only way you’ll make your deadline is if you get support from the product and engineering teams on the home feed. And they’re already in the middle of a critical release. If and how you convince them to support you to meet your deadline is exactly what “influencing” refers to.

How to do it:

1. Build strong relationships and understand your stakeholders’ motivations. And then try to tie your demands to their goals. Make their decision to support you easier. (More tips on building relationships here and here.)
2. Build transparency by sharing your goals, approach, and thought process. Help others understand why you’re asking them to do something for you. Explain to them how your roadmap contributes to the larger company goals.

How do I know if I’m doing it well

You’re good at influencing if:

1. You have more friends than colleagues.
2. You’re confident of getting your stakeholders to go the extra mile to make your deadlines work.
3. You can walk into a room and convince (almost) everyone to agree with your ideas.
4. You have all the required knowledge to answer questions and alleviate concerns.
5. You know that your stakeholders trust you and your judgement.

Level 3 – Product Strategy

What is it:

Marty Cagan, in his article, defines product strategy as follows:
“But, how do we decide which problems they should solve? Answering that question is what product strategy is all about.”

Simply put, the product strategy defines the goal you want to achieve and, on a high level, describes how you will reach the goal.

It is critical to note that the product strategy only includes a high-level plan to meet the goal. This plan is not the same as a product roadmap. A roadmap is tactical and detailed. A product roadmap is not the product leader’s primary responsibility.

How to do it:

Typically, good product strategists have been doing their job for a long time. They understand the product, industry, market, and users very well. They’ve made hundreds of product decisions in the past: some wrong, some right. But with each decision, they learned something and got better.

So a few things that you should do to make your way to a product leader role:

1. Make decisions—a lot of them.
2. When you make the decisions, seek expertise from others around you.
3. Learn from failures, and do not make the same mistake twice.
4. Document your learnings so you can reference them easily when required.
5. Invest in learning more about your industry. It is essential to acquire knowledge that will help you make better decisions about your product.

How do I know if I’m doing it well

You’re a great product strategist if:

1. Many people in your company and industry look up to you as an expert in your area of expertise.
2. You are usually the one person who always has an excellent long term strategy.
3. You are well-informed about everything happening in the industry.

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