Boost Your Career: Think Like a Product Manager

Think Like a Product Manager

When I entered the working world, it came as a big surprise to me that what I had learned in school, while valuable and interesting, hadn’t really armed me with what I needed to know to succeed in my career. I needed to learn a whole different set of subjects and skills. And this wasn’t even something I could pick up by taking classes at a school. I had to seek out expertise and insight on my own. We probably all know what that’s like.

As I’ve worked to master new skills for my career, much of what I’ve focused on was directly related to my job duties. I am a Product Manager for software, so I paid attention to the core needs for a Product Manager role. But I’ve also found that some of the most helpful guidance came from unique sources that are far removed from the common knowledge of my career area. I learned to look further afield to gain information that could give me a rare leg up.

I also saw that different jobs – lawyer, accountant, customer service, sales – naturally drive the people who work in them to develop very different skills and behavior. I realized that if I wanted to pick up traits and abilities that are not typically developed by doing my Product Manager job, I should look to other professions.

And what those other professions have to teach has proven very helpful.

I’ll give just a couple examples:

  • From the Sales profession, I learned to understand and relate to people on the level of emotions and feelings, rather than only relating on the level of words and ideas. I learned to move past the literal meaning of what people said so I could understand how they felt.
  • From banking professionals, I learned a whole lot about how to manage and spend money. They get schooled in this as a side effect of their job, with exposure to lots of examples to drive home the lessons learned.

Just as I’ve profited from the expertise arising from practicing other professions, so too can you. Which is why I have written this article that shares the abilities and practices I have developed through almost two decades working as a Product Manager. I hope this window into a very different job from your own will provide you with valuable tips which you can put to use in your own career, however different it may be from mine.

Here’s how to think like a Product Manager.

Be the CEO – of Your Job

The nature of a Product Manager job is that it must cover different functions and coordinate between them to align the full range of activities that go into the creation, launch, and market success of a product. The activities to be aligned run the gamut from sales, marketing and market launch, through research and development, to consulting, training and customer support, with finance and strategy thrown in there as well.

This means that a Product Manager is called upon to be responsible (maybe not fully, but a little bit, at least) for every aspect of the product. It’s like the Product Manager is the CEO of the product. Not of the company – that would be the actual CEO – but of the end-to-end set of departments or functions which contribute to a successful product. This often runs counter to the tendency within every company to specialize and form into separate and independent functional groups. The Product Manager finds him- or herself obliged to cover all these areas, much like the CEO. It’s a perspective which is not shared by most other positions.

I’ve also seen the mindset that develops with this situation described as owning your job. The Product Manager learns to push his or her circle of concern out as widely as possible within the organization, and take charge of his or her piece of every activity, in order to make everything come together for the product’s market success. The Product Manager carves out as big a scope of responsibility as possible – so as to ensure that every single component of product success is covered – and proactively tackles it all, to the extent possible.

You can do the same thing with your own job without being nudged in that direction by management or the nature of your position. Make yourself the CEO of something. Identify the important touchpoints your role has with other functional areas, and extend your ownership to them. Proactively ensure the activities in those intersecting functions align nicely around the central goals of your role. You will find that your colleagues in these other areas appreciate the active alignment and collaboration. And you will come across as someone who is central to the company’s success, specifically in the tasks or projects for which you are responsible.

Mind you, you’re not forced to own the exact job that has been presented to you as your role. There’s a fair share of interviews of CEOs where they talk about how they chose to focus their efforts on the areas that played up their strong suits, maximizing their success. Because the definition of the Product Manager job varies so widely from company to company, Product Managers often take advantage of this lack of a standard definition to own the parts that make them most successful, like CEOs. While there are always limits to this approach in the real world, work to define your role in a way that plays to your strengths, and then own that role.

Think Strategically to Practically

The CEO, for one, can be found at the heart of discussions of strategy.

In most businesses, a select team of leaders decides on strategy, and a separate and much larger group of employees puts that strategy into practice every day. The latter group does its best to understand and live out the strategy, and the former analyzes the results and makes further decisions from there.

The two groups don’t overlap. But there are exceptions. Product Managers usually find that they’ve got a foot in both camps. They are brought into the strategic discussions (often among individuals who rank much higher than they do) because their holistic knowledge of the product and all its aspects is required. They don’t just have an understanding of features, but of how those features influence marketing and sales. They not only know which pricing tiers are offered, but also how those tiers drive profitability. Their knowledge ranges from the thin-air strategic altitudes to sea-level practicalities. They have to know the product in depth in order to effectively guide new development.

When it comes time to put a strategy into practice, various leaders from the strategy team will work to do so in their respective areas – Sales, Marketing, Development, Operations – with the help of the teams under them. But Product Managers have to cross all these functions, and without the benefit of a team to support them. This means that Product Managers are in the unusual position of needing to take the product strategy and carry it out themselves, hands-on.

Product Managers discover that being in this position gives them a rare value to their colleagues. The strategy team members rely on them to ensure strategy is put into practice. And the hands-on team members rely on them to understand and interpret company strategy.

Take this same end-to-end perspective in your own position and your colleagues will come to value your contribution to their own success and seek out your input.

Get Everyone Pulling Together

If, like a Product Manager, you’re CEO of your job, and thinking both strategically and practically, then you’re working with a lot of people dispersed throughout your company. Without intentional guidance, people scattered in different functions and roles don’t work in a coordinated fashion. They each have their own priorities and compartmentalized focus.

The only way a Product Manager succeeds in launching a product on the market is by making sure that the many individual players are coordinating the effort to fund, design, develop, test, launch, market, sell, train, implement, and support that product. Product Managers discover that getting everyone pulling together towards the same destination is rarely explicitly stated as a need, yet it constitutes part of the secret formula that makes their efforts succeed. And that neither the individual team members nor the functional leaders are fully focused on it. It falls to the Product Manager to fulfill a responsibility shouldered by nobody else, the same way it falls to the CEO to align work across independent functions.

By realizing that something similar applies to projects you work on, you, too, can step up and play a vital role in aligning the activities of your teammates. And this will be noticed, not only by your peers but also by leadership. It can lead to you moving up in the organization.

Become an Individual Supercontributor

Part of the struggle with moving up is moving into management, so that you can start working your way up the management track. But what if you’re not in management? You could look upon such a position from a traditional perspective like worker bee. Or you could think of it in a more modern way as an individual contributor. The Product Manager, despite that Manager in the title, is an individual contributor, and has to make the most of that role.

While acting as individual contributors, Product Managers are thrown right into the thick of management discussions, because of how their work gets them deeply involved in strategy. Strategy work often involves coordination of goals and processes across multiple functions, which means dealing with those functions from a higher, top-down perspective – in other words, thinking like a manager. So, while a Product Manager is an individual contributor, they’re also operating from a manager’s point of view as they work hands-on to implement company strategies decided by the management team. You could call this role one of being an individual supercontributor. It’s a step towards being a manager when you’re not one (yet).

In your own individual contributor job, reach out to your manager and across functions to see how you can become a supercontributor, acting very consciously with a more comprehensive management mindset to broaden the scope of your individual contribution to the company goals. Create a situation where you’ve already got a foot in a management role when one opens up which you can apply for.

In this discussion, I’ve been using the term manager, a traditional term now often expressed as leader. One thing I like about the term leader is that as a newer term, it’s not so narrowly or specifically defined. Leadership is less about traditional top-down, directive managing and more about defining goals and motivating and encouraging performance toward those goals. This makes it possible to adopt a leader mindset without being a manager per se. A supercontributor can morph into a leader who, while he or she doesn’t have a team of direct reports, nevertheless plays an essential role in identifying goals and shepherding teammates towards their execution.

You can increase your career momentum by expanding your role to that of supercontributor, which blends into the leadership end of the continuum, as a stepping-stone to a formal leadership role and the management track.

Build a Framework

At any given company, the Product Manager role can be maddeningly non-standard, even undefined. From your previous jobs at other companies, you bring a mental list of product management responsibilities to your new employer, only to find many of those items are not expected or even understood. This pushes Product Managers, through no virtue of their own really, to look to best practices that ensure their efforts cover the full depth and breadth of what they should be doing.

This is a situation where it is helpful to define and structure your role by adopting a framework. A framework is basically a compilation of the required major components of your job, and within each component the efforts or tasks needed to fulfill it. The framework aims to identify all the pieces of your job which need to be successfully completed in order to do your job right, according to the best practices of your industry (and other industries as applicable). For example, a framework for product management might include Product Strategy, Product Development, and Market Success, where:

  • Product Strategy includes the Product Roadmap and Product Pricing,
  • Product Development includes Product Requirements and Agile Development Support, and
  • Market Success includes Product Launches and Customer Success Stories.

In this example, the major components are like the three legs of a stool which together support a successful product management effort.

For your own job, adopt a framework to give it the full definition and structure it needs. If your company already has a framework it uses, make sure you fully adopt it. If the framework is non-existent or lacking, create your own structure by combining the best practices you can learn about over the internet. The framework becomes the list of responsibilities for which your contribution is crucial.

You can tailor this framework to your exact job. Just remember to think big: if you could wave a magic wand, what are the things that are critical to succeeding at your job – including those things that nobody is asking you to do, but are necessary?

Use the framework to make sure that you complete all the tasks that, combined together, make for great results at your job. When no framework has been provided to you, the one you provide yourself will offer the vision and inspiration you need.

Follow a Program

Product Managers find themselves pulled in many directions, dealing with conflicting priorities from various parts of the organization, and struggling to try to fit too many best practices into too little time. Adopting a framework, while ultimately helping with these problems, only adds to the amount of work to be done, especially at first. Hence the idea for adhering to your framework by creating and following a program.

A program takes the list of responsibilities in your framework and lays it out in a calendar that repeats every year. For example, you might revisit the product roadmap every January, then pricing in May, with major requirements and product launches four times a year, and customer success stories in October and November.

By setting up a program, you create a schedule, one that may only be apparent to you, that keeps you focused on the next task and driving towards results. It fights the delays and distractions that inevitably slow your momentum. By having the same tasks recur on a predictable cycle, you keep things moving forward for your own work and that of your colleagues and company. You’ll get more done. You’ll get better results. Meaning you’re giving your career a boost.

Uncommon Advice For Uncommon Gains

So there you have some advice from an uncommon source, namely Product Managers, based on the things they’ve got to do to succeed at their job.

  • Make yourself the CEO of your job. Own your role and all aspects of it.
  • Let your work run the gamut from strategic to practical and tactical.
  • Get everyone pulling together, ensuring that vital interconnection between the independent functions which feed your success.
  • Boost your output and influence by becoming a supercontributor and take a step towards a leadership role.
  • Structure that higher level of accomplishment with a framework and carry out that framework with focus and momentum using a program.

All this can help you advance no matter what your role and in all sorts of situations, from positions where your role is highly defined and dictated to jobs with much less standardization or guidance from above. By applying these ideas, you can steer your career in the direction you want and build momentum to reach your next career goal.

Epilogue: Sounds So Easy, Doesn’t It?

Uh … no. It’s not easy. It is, however, simple. This advice only requires you to use about half a dozen strategies, and each of those strategies requires only a handful of tactics to put into practice. That means it’s simple, and can be learned quickly. But it’s not easy, because it takes sustained effort that builds up results over time. That’s where the challenge lies: dedicating the focus and time to put new behavior into practice.

When we want to change our current situation, it’s often the confusion between simple and easy that trips us up. The fact is, making changes for the better is simple and quite achievable, but it takes effort. But that’s a subject for another day. Good luck developing your career!

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges

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