Taking Your Product Management Career to the Next Level (part 1 of 2)

Alan BelniakBPMA, business2 Comments

It's a race to stay on topEarly last week, I attended another BPMA mentor/mentee meeting (read more about the BPMA mentor/mentee meetings in past posts here).  This session focused on three main questions:

  • What needs to be done to get your recognition, promotion, etc.?  What takes you to the next level?
  • How long do you stick around?  When do you change companies?
  • Given the economy, we’re all going through budget cuts.  How does your company deal with this and get along?

First, there were some introductions and opening remarks.

Setting the Stage: What Is Product Management?

One mentee (mine, actually – very sharp) is going through a change process at work.  Her management team is re-examining her role, and has asked her to define (or re-define) what Product Management means to her company.  She is a one-woman band, so to speak, and the company is new to having a formal PM position.  How should she go about this?  This was one of our talk topics a few weeks back.  I suggested some tactics about how to approach it.  She is in the process of acting on this and other feedback, so we’ll see how it turns out.  In general, it’s gratifying from a mentor perspective to see advice you’ve doled out have a meaningful effect.
She is prescient enough to know that re-defining a role could ruffle some feathers, so she’s been careful to examine the issue from multiple angles.  One tactic she mentioned that I like was that she created an in/out matrix.  A list of content items that PM is ‘responsible for’, and other things where PM might simply have ‘influence on’.  This fundamentally breaks down the PM job into three main verbs: owning, executing, and influencing.   And the key action to setting this up is the stakeholder identification ahead of time.

Onto the first question…

What needs to be done to get your recognition, promotion, etc.?  What takes you to the next level?  How might someone move from one functional organization into another?

  • One suggestion: understand how your target decision makers are influenced.  Is it Forrester research?  Peers?  Testimonials?  Knowing what moves their needle will help you in your case preparation.
  • Titles, unfortunately, convey a fair amount of information to some people.  For example, you may be a Director and not have any direct reports, but having that title helps people understand internally that your position has merit and weight (more on that below).
  • A VP or SVP title means something only within that organization.  Instead, what you have for responsibilities is far more important.  It’s also far more challenging to illustrate this.
  • The functional role, title, and the compensation may not be linked.  For example, you may be a Director, and performing at the top of your game.  But if the weight of your role and the general revenue doesn’t support a pay raise, there may not be any inclination to promote you to a VP title.  In other words, there needs to be a need and room for the title you’re seeking.
  • It can’t just work for you, it needs to work for the organization.  It’s not about entitlement.  It’s about answering, objectively, “Is this new role right for the organization?  Does it fit?  Does it send the right message?  Does it not send the wrong message?”
  • When seeking a new role internally, or even externally, strive to focus on what you do rather than your title.  And with the ‘what you do’, endeavor to illustrate how you think and solve problems.  Subject matter expertise is important, but in many cases, it can be learned.  Knowing how to navigate political waters, solve issues creatively, work with teams, and all the soft skills that make a good worker a great worker are what you want to illustrate.   What you do and can do speaks volumes over the title.
  • Someone suggested the following: “What if instead of seeking the new role or title, you instead just started doing it, because you saw the gap, and filled it?  If you do/did the role well, it’s difficult to get shot down at that point.  Then, you could potentially go to management and have a frank discussion about roles and responsibilities.”
  • One thing to keep in mind with such an approach is internal politics.  On the surface, this may be a great idea, but in some companies, this could rub some people the wrong way.  So if this approach is considered, proceed with caution.
  • Go beyond the boundaries of the job description.
    • As an example to support, one person shared an anecdote.  She implemented a 360-degree business review to get a better sense of her business unit and the company as a whole.  She shared the information and results with just her boss to start.  Her boss was impressed, and shared the results to her boss’ boss.  Soon, she was getting invited to meetings to talk about the 360-degree review.   The moral of the story?  Doing good work will gain you visibility in the company.
    • Show results, even if they are not immediate.  And if they will not be immediate, be prepared to answer (non-defensively) why that might be the case.
    • Focus on socialization of ideas.  It shows others the way you think, it shows that you’re a team player, and it shows that if your idea takes a final form different than the initial form, you’re flexible in its execution.

Part two of this post will pick up with the second half of this session.  In that part, we talk about how long you should stick around in your current job, and how management at our own respective companies approach and address a contracting economy.

photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/the-o/2144485591/

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