By choosing to work in product management, in either a blue-chip/corporate environment, a fast-moving tech house or a startup, do we brand ourselves with the type or size of company we work with? And, if we do, is it then hard to make the transition from one type of business to the other? Do our prospective employers see the challenge of moving to the “other side” as too much of a jump? And if so, why?
I’ve spent my latter career in corporate financial services. However, I recently looked at a role in a non-corporate, non-financial services company, as I truly believe a seasoned product professional can work across a variety of product types and technologies, and that essentially the product role is industry-agnostic. My application was unsuccessful because, as it turned out, I wasn’t seen as a desirable candidate because of the perception (or perhaps misconception) that I would struggle to transition to the “fast pace” of a mid-tier tech house. As I received this feedback it made me think – was the perceived need to ‘step up a gear or two’ the real challenge, or was it more the branding I had on my CV? Was my corporate badge the real issue?
The feedback I received, in this case, was not from a recruiter but from the product leadership at the prospective company. For me the inevitable question that arose was; how can a fellow product person – those like-minded individuals who really get the product discipline and the nature of where we drive and innovate from – can a kindred “product person” really discriminate based on the environment and the size or feel of our current or previous employers?
I can understand that a recruiter might struggle to see past our current branding – they might be working to a brief they feel unable to deviate from – and that’s an issue for us to manage in our conversations. We need to put in some research and do the work (see my “how to” tips later in this article). We must take the time to get a clear understanding of what the prospective employer needs. We need to ascertain what the hiring manager is specifically looking for so that they can see the value we could bring and not dismiss us in favour of the next, easier-fit candidate in the pile of CVs they are wading through.
It’s a harder challenge when someone from the product community assumes they need a product colleague or team who will fit the mould from day one, so let’s stop and think about the crux of the transition here. Do senior product management specialists have what it takes to move from a startup to a blue chip or vice versa? Can the skills and the experience we have in managing a scrum team of one or two then scale up to 20 people? Can we hand over the tasks to the business analyst or lead digital analyst discipline when one exists, collaborate on user research with UX and research teams when once they solely were responsible for it all, and marketing and pricing to boot?
The answer to all these questions is that we can, of course, we can. Unless you’re someone who inherently struggles to share the “ownership” and can’t find a way to delegate then these are not even relevant hurdles that need to be overcome. Nor is the frequency of product launch, number of end users, the budget you have (or how often that budget gets reviewed), or indeed whether that budget comes from a corporate committee or Series B funding. The product discipline, the work we need to do and the tasks we need to complete to get the job done, are always going to be comparable. It’s just the context that varies, but the mindset and product methodologies we adopt are constant.
So, if we agree that this logic is sound then we also agree that the concern over whether our skills are suitable for a startup/corporate is NOT the step up or down in the scale of budget, and it’s NOT the number of people we have to manage. And, if we are all working to 2-week sprints and several launches a year, it’s NOT the speed of launches either. The immediate availability or proximity of decision makers is often touted as an insurmountable difference between corporate and startup – that having decision makers working right next to you means you can move at a much greater velocity or rather change direction at an equal pace. Is this really that different in a corporate? In my experience, the goalposts are very capable of shifting in both environments, if that’s dates/scope/budget the challenge to us as product owners is always the same: manage the variety and breadth of stakeholder needs and deliver a product that adds value to the business and the end user.
What it really comes down to, I believe, is whether you’re seen as wearing the badge of startup or the badge of corporate. This leads to a level of judgement, perhaps at times even snobbery, between one and the other!
It’s not just me that feels like this. I have plenty of anecdotal evidence from friends and colleagues to indicate that there’s a real snobbery about bringing people with a perceived corporate badge into a startup environment. I spoke to talent acquisition manager Emily Muller, who comments: “Having recruited for product roles for a number of years and across a number of sectors, I have seen first-hand the way that some startups view the many who want to leave the larger corporates. The standard put-down is that coming from a corporate you operate at a slow pace and need a prescriptive mandate for absolutely everything. Some startups have this view that they are the only organisations that work quickly and with many shades of grey (in fact my personal view is the larger the org, the more the grey!). I’d agree it’s generally easier to get things done in a startup but surely this works in the favour of candidates joining from a corporate environment? It’s the more sophisticated hiring manager who can look at a profile or meet a candidate and see the value that they can add to their organisation, despite having honed their skills in a different environment.”
How do we challenge this view rather than sit and hope for the day when we can transition seamlessly between startups and corporate environments. My suggestion is that we get in front of the bias and tackle these preconceptions head on. If we as product managers want to transition between these worlds then we need to do the work for our potential employers.
How can we do This?
Work on Your CV
Think about who is reading your list of achievements, do you have a string of corporate wins, managing stakeholders, red tape and bureaucracy, budget and process wins to the betterment of a product and customer experience? Have you have gone from a team of 0 and a blank piece of paper to a product(s) launch while managing UX, marketing, and pricing in your stride? Think about the language you use and what aspects of your achievements will resonate more from each sector. I would go as far as to say that one CV for corporate hire and one for a startup might be necessary if you have only had one of the two experiences. For example “I increased the budget from $Xm to $XXm over x years” with background information is great for a corporate hire but for a startup perhaps should be changed to “I single-handedly engaged with the budget owners to inform and inspire them of the benefits of our product line, and through this convinced them to increase investment from X to Y…”.
Analyse the Current Hiring Profile
Where has your prospective employer been looking until now for new candidates? If the data tells the story we’ve come to expect of a focus on hiring like-for-like then make a call: do you want to be the first that won’t fit the mould or one of a minority (as that’s another decision right there!)? If you decide to apply then think about what the organisations they hire from offer and how they compare with your own background, then make those connections for the recruiter/hiring manager yourself both in your CV and covering letter.
At the Interview
When it comes to the interview, consider the way you dress. Packaging is important. Have your interview outfit at the ready for a corporate and dress to startup-impress if not!
When sitting across from your interviewer, however, this is the time to just be yourself. Do not tailor who you are or compromise that for anyone. This is where I have always drawn the line; if you do think you need to have a corporate persona and a non-corporate persona then you break one of the fundamental rules of being HAPPY at work…
I would love to hear about your experiences – if they are the same or differ from mine, in fact especially if they differ as that then will give us all hope! Please comment below or reach out on LinkedIn.