As I write this, I’m thinking about leading two upcoming discussions on how to move into product management leadership. I’ve promoted dozens of people into senior management roles, and I’ve been thinking about what made them standout as potential managers, and what made them successful. The good news is that being a great product manager trains you already with so many of the skills to move into a management role – being the face of the team, working with many groups, influencing to get the job done etc. So, what does it take to standout from a bunch of standouts? I want to share some interesting patterns of behavior that we implicitly look for when we have those closed room discussions with HR about who’s going to get that precious manager role. I’m going to assume all the basics are already in place: right tenure, consistent high performer, track record of delivery. If you’ve got all that, then there are some intangible ingredients that I want to shed some light on:
- Communicating like you’re already a manager. Often, being a great product manager means that you can communicate really clearly to your teams, and to your customers. This is table stakes. You have to be able to break down a vision into a clear roadmap, and then into workable chunks, and then into specific user stories. Product managers have this down – they know how to communicate what they want their teams to build. They’re also great at talking to customers – listening well, asking great questions, translating what they hear into needs. But being a people manager, and working with other senior leaders, entails taking all those skills and creating a different picture. Often PMs go into a ton of detail, they want to explain the work they’ve done, after all it was a ton of effort. But leaders don’t want to hear those – they want someone who can connect the business goals to the work being done in a way that makes sense. To be promotable, you have to be able to do this – it’s not a skill that execs are patient to see you grow into. If you can’t succinctly explain what you do and why it’s important for the business, you can’t get the right resources for your teams, and you can’t succeed. So spend less time explaining all the details, and more about telling a story, and connecting the dots.
- Working the strategy Say/Do. This shows up as how you make decisions, and how much time you spend talking strategy and actually backing up what you do with the bigger picture in mind. Product managers are expected to understand the big picture – it should reflect in their roadmaps and customer documents. But how much do you actually follow this? Someone who has “leader” written all over them is the person who asks great questions about prioritization based on strategy. Who constantly starts backlog meetings (yes, backlog!) with the bigger picture in mind. It’s not just a question of knowing the company strategy & goals, it’s how you bring them to life in the way that you work every-day. Knowing that the person you’re about to promote already “gets it” goes a long way in setting them up for a manager role.
- Feedback loops. People who are going to be good managers ask for feedback. A lot. They ask after meetings, they follow-up with senior leaders, they make a point of understanding how they show up. And then they take that feedback, try something new, and then ask for more feedback. You’d be surprised how little people do this. They wait passively for 1-1’s or monthly meetings – or even, worse, their annual performance reviews. When you can see someone is actively understanding how they show up, and are genuinely interested in improving themselves – you know that they will help others do the same – which is what you want in a people manager.
Do you still want to be a manager? Are you doing these things? We want to hear – write to us and share your stories of promotion, or trying to get promoted.