Climbing the Career Ladder Part 2: Senior, Product Lead and Product Director Roles "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs December 12 2021 False Conflict, interpersonal skills, Prioritised Members' Content, Product management career, senior product manager, Series, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 2877 career ladder Product Management 11.508

Climbing the Career Ladder Part 2: Senior, Product Lead and Product Director Roles


You’ve spent a few years learning your craft and establishing your skills as a product manager, so where do you go next? This second part in our series looks at what’s needed of the senior, product lead, and director roles of Martin Eriksson’s foundational post Product Management Job Titles and Hierarchy.

If you missed it, you can also catch up on Part 1, focusing on Associates, Juniors and Product Managers now, and look out for Part 3, focusing on Head of, VP of product, and C…

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You’ve spent a few years learning your craft and establishing your skills as a product manager, so where do you go next? This second part in our series looks at what’s needed of the senior, product lead, and director roles of Martin Eriksson’s foundational post Product Management Job Titles and Hierarchy. If you missed it, you can also catch up on Part 1, focusing on Associates, Juniors and Product Managers now, and look out for Part 3, focusing on Head of, VP of product, and CPO roles.

Table of Contents

At a senior product manager level, says Lily Smith, Head of Innovation at GoCompare and co-host of our podcast, The Product Experience, the challenges may have become bigger than those of a product manager with less experience, but they are still focused on the success of the product itself. That said, it’s difficult to be prescriptive about the skills and experience needed to climb to this rung of the ladder, and as ever with product management, often the answer to what’s required of a senior product manager is, “it depends”. To Nick Charalambous, co-founder of recruiters Few&Far it depends on many factors - the size of the business, the size of the team, the type of product, the stage the product organisation is at, to name a few variables. But there are definitely some common skills and experiences that are expected from a senior role.

Senior Product Skills and Experience

Effective interpersonal skills are key in senior roles but there’s a long list of other competencies In brief, everyone we spoke to believes that product managers in senior roles should:
  • Be able to confidently manage broad relationships
  • Communicate well with other executives
  • Get buy-in thanks to their excellent storytelling skills
  • Easily construct the conditions for productive conversations
  • Confidently direct a team
  • Create clarity where there's ambiguity
  • Show domain experience and expertise
  • Be comfortable with data
Let's dig a little deeper into these. Effective interpersonal skills are top of the list for everyone we spoke to about this post. A senior product manager should be able to manage broad relationships with technical teams and design teams and communicate well with other executives in the business, says Chris Mason, Director and Founder of recruiters Intelligent People. For Nick at Few&Far it also means effective storytelling and the ability to get buy-in, “you need to be able to engage people to get them to buy into your vision of the product,” he says. Every product manager, not just product leaders, needs to be able to practise strategic thinking. As Mind the Product co-Founder Martin Eriksson says in Strategic Thinking Skills for Product Managers: “The challenge for product is often that especially if you’re ‘just’ a product manager, that you get so stuck into your day-to-day, so all-consumed by the process of taking something off the roadmap and working through all the steps to get it shipped and then moving on to the next thing, that you forget to look up at the horizon. That’s how I think about strategic thinking – it’s not the one foot in front of the other, but where am I actually headed? Where is it taking me? Is it getting me closer to the company vision and mission – or further away? What’s working? What’s not working?” Saielle Montgomery, Head of UX at car-buying site Cazoo, comments that “as a senior product manager you must know how to construct the conditions for a productive conversation about whatever the opportunity might be with a product”. Saielle adds that part of product management is being able to direct a team and point a team in the right direction to go, so looking for influencing and negotiation skills is more important than “controlling skills”. “It's a social craft, software is a team sport. So growth means growth in social aspects of yourself and your self awareness.” The most important thing that you can do, says Saielle, is learn to be very clear, and create clarity where there's ambiguity. “If you can help people align on a vision, help them to understand a problem or why a decision is important, that clarity gives people a sense of calm. Humans don't like ambiguity, and the product manager's job is to find a way to thrive in that ambiguity.” Domain experience and expertise is usually a prerequisite, says Chris. “If it’s a consumer product or service being sold, companies are usually pretty open. It doesn’t matter if you’ve worked for a holiday company or an eCommerce retailer because it’s all about the customer journey and conversion,” he says. “But if it’s something like a SaaS product or a health tech or financial services product, then companies are looking for some relevant experience.” Comfort with data is another given, says Chris. “The ability to understand, analyse and interpret data - is very much a prerequisite, whatever the domain,” he adds. [caption id="attachment_22716" align="aligncenter" width="983"] A senior product manager must manage broad relationships and communicate well with other executives (Image: Shutterstock)[/caption] How can you prep for a senior role, and demonstrate that you’re ready to take the next step up the career ladder? The content we recommend to support your skills development journey includes: To get a handle on where your product skills could improve, head to your library of self-paced online training modules. In Assessing Your Product Skills, you'll see how your skills and role fit into the wider product landscape. The module itself is broken down into the key phases in the product development lifecycle, enabling you to identify where your work sits within that, and to explore how your mindset changes throughout that lifecycle.

Expanding and Working Your Network

Involve yourself in the product community and make sure people know what you can do Lily comments: “If I was hiring, I wouldn't necessarily be looking for someone who must have ‘three years product management experience’. It's more, do they know how to ask the right question?.” She highlights the importance of expanding and working your network as you develop your career: “It’s not so much about the people I’ve worked with in the past but about people knowing about who I am and what I'm good at. Then they can make recommendations at the right time and say, ‘you're looking for someone like that, you should talk to Lily’. It’s also about being visible within the network, because you go to events and so on.” She adds that she landed her current role when she was asked by a contact if she would like to apply and would not have considered herself a potential candidate if she had seen the job advertised on a job board.

Join Upcoming Member Events

Mind the Product events and roundtables can be fantastic opportunities to get more involved with the product community and to network and showcase your skills and experience. You can find the link to this and more events on your dashboard.

Be Open to Opportunity

Lily feels there is an expectation that a career path should be linear and cautions that this may not be the case: “I have no evidence to back this up, apart from my own career journey.  My advice is to be open to opportunity. If someone says ‘can I talk to you about this’, or if you see that there's a gap in the business, then raise your hand and go for it. Don’t expect your next job to come to you, put yourself out there.” In her GoCompare role, Lily is something of an outlier - the other product people work in squads whereas she works on a project basis to conduct tests and experiments to validate potential growth opportunities. “It plays to my strengths because I'm used to working in startups where there's a lot of ambiguity. Our other product managers very much have an optimisation focus. We also should understand, says Lily, that very few companies do product well, and command of the craft takes “a lot of self learning as well”. “I think what's missing from a lot of the product books is that product is really hard. Yes, here's a framework to help you, but product is still really hard. Here’s a prioritisation methodology, but by the way, it's still really hard.” As you go through your career you learn that you never have all the answers, she says, and you come to accept and embrace this. Marty Cagan talks about this in a ProductTank talk Product is Hard, and he looks at why product leadership is so difficult to get right in this #mtpcon digital talk Product Leadership is Hard. One reason why self learning is important that product managers are typically under huge amounts of pressure and don’t have the time to try and test new tools and techniques as part of their day-to-day roles, says Lily. It’s another area where leveraging your network and learning from the wider product community can be immensely valuable.

How to Broaden Stakeholder Relationships

Work with other people in the business, start to teach and mentor Chris advises that someone looking to move up the ladder should broaden their stakeholder relationships as much as possible: “Look across the business and try to get experience of working with senior people, technical people, you know, business users and customers, so that you're starting to learn to communicate with a different, diverse range of people. This post from Mind the Product Managing Director Emily Tate looks at how you can use the 5 Whys to manage stakeholders. As a stepping stone towards this, Chris suggests you ask to get involved in training or mentoring. You may not have direct line management responsibility for anyone but you can use the responsibility of training and coaching to help you reach your first management position. Says Saielle at Cazoo: “I encourage the folks who work with me to sign up to give talks and mentor juniors. Teaching is a great way of networking.” And you should of course seek out your own mentors. Chris adds: “Cherry-pick the people you want to learn from. Finding a mentor, someone who can coach you, somebody you recognise as an expert in an area, is really important.” This post, The Value of Mentoring for Product Leaders, examines mentoring and the benefits of the relationship for both mentor and mentee, and this previously referenced podcast, The Power of Mentoring with Devaris Brown is a great listen for anyone who wants to learn more about mentoring. [caption id="attachment_22717" align="aligncenter" width="912"] Cherry-pick the people you want to learn from (Image: Shutterstock)[/caption]

Show you can Manage Conflict

As people become more senior, and they start managing teams the ability to manage conflict becomes increasingly important, says Chris. He points out that a group of like-minded people is not necessarily the highest performing team, and that diversity creates discomfort and conflict. “This should be managed correctly,” he says, “so modelling good behaviour, being able to listen and demonstrate listening as well as having an opinion, is important.” For more about managing conflict see this post from Kate Leto, Manage Conflict by Building Your Product EQ. It’s also worth watching Shaun Russell’s talk from MTPEngage Manchester 2020, The Magic in Conflict. In it, Shaun examines why product people must lean into conflict and find the right solutions to bring about success. He says: “A great product manager, in my view, is someone who can go into the room and throw a well placed, well measured tantrum about the important things. They know to ask why, and to keep on asking why until there is a satisfactory answer to the question. And they know to hold the product accountable to reality, the reality of ‘is this going to work for the business?’.” Ultimately career progression is all about sustaining these behaviours, as Saielle Montgomery observes. “It's not, do this one project or this one thing. Do you consistently demonstrate behaviours that show you are influencing your team and those outside your team in a positive way? That, to me, is a much more important and reliable indicator of growth than time in a job.”

Understanding the Job Spec and Scope

Expectations can be unrealistic, so understanding what’s required is vital Remember that the people at the company doing the hiring may well not know what sort of person they’re looking for or have very unrealistic expectations about the sort of person they might be able to attract. Says Allen Bastow, VP Digital Leadership Roles at Few&Far: “Sometimes what you're looking for [when recruiting], and what's available are two very, very different things. We can get people looking for product managers who’ve done startups, been at Google, been at Facebook, been an entrepreneur, done B2C, done B2B, and they’re not going to find them.” Keep in mind that job title isn’t always the most important thing, rather you need to understand the spec and scope of a role in order to start working on developing the skills expected of a more senior role. Product management has become much more defined as a skill set in Europe over the last 10 or so years, says Nick, but in the US the role is yet more evolved and more clearly defined. “If you say product manager to someone in the US they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. In the US it’s also much more of a commercial job,” he explains. “Here [the UK] you’ll probably report to the CTO, but in the US it’s more like an entrepreneur in residence role.” He adds: “Because product management is not a well-defined skillset across Europe, founders and CEOs are not familiar with the role. And because the role of a product person takes a lot of responsibility away from a CEO or a leader within a digital business in Europe, they feel uncomfortable about it. If you don't understand the value of product in your business, you won’t understand the value of a product manager. More founders in the US come from a product management background and that makes a huge difference.” Allen comments that job titles can be different in different markets. Product lead is a common title in the US whereas in Europe group product director is more usual. “Product director is usually quite a senior role in Europe,” he adds, “whereas it’s not a senior role in the US.” The market is awash with vacancies at the moment, so it’s important to match your skills to the job - this is something that LinkedIn, probably the biggest job board globally, has recognised. Last year it started using AI to generate screening questions for candidates. Allen cautions that companies have the mistaken belief that there’s an abundance of talent on the market because so many people have lost their jobs through the course of the pandemic. “It’s true that if you advertise at the moment you’ll get four or five times more applications, but the relevance isn’t there.” He says clients believe that they’ll find someone who ticks “11 out 10 boxes” and this is unrealistic. Just because there are more candidates doesn’t mean there are better candidates available.

Tips for Senior, Product Lead, and Product Director Roles

Let's recap:
  • Examine your interpersonal skills, and be honest about the areas where you could improve. How are those influencing and negotiation skills for example? Presentation and persuasion skills are increasingly important as you move up the career ladder.
  • Set time aside for self learning. Product is hard, as we all know.
  • Seek out people in the business you admire. Get advice from the experts.
  • Involve yourself in the product community. You never know where the next opportunity will come from, and it will help you learn. AND it will help you to polish those interpersonal skills.
  • Sign up to mentor more junior product people. It will also help to demonstrate that you’re ready for more responsibility.
  • Get comfortable with discomfort. The ability to successfully manage conflict becomes more important as you move up the career ladder.  

Further Resources

Remember, there are two more parts to our Climb the Product Career Ladder series: To browse even more useful reads, check out our dedicated page Product Management Books page. If you think there are books we should add, let us know!

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