Becoming a senior Product Manager

by Jackie Bavaro

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Q: What does it take to become a “senior” Product Manager?

The PM career is unnecessarily shrouded in mystery. We all know you start as an individual contributor, and eventually, you can become a CPO or a VP of Product. But what happens in the middle? The answer is that you go through three milestones:

  1. You become a “senior” IC PM (the focus of this post)

  2. You become a manager of PMs, usually called a Group PM, or Product Lead

  3. You become a manager of PM managers, usually called a Director

In my experience, of these three milestones, it takes the longest to progress through the first milestone, going from an entry-level PM to a senior PM. I’d guess that the median amount of time is 3 years, followed by 1-2 years to become a manager of PMs, and another 2-3 to become a Director.

Thus, if you can accelerate getting to Senior PM, you’ll have the most impact on accelerating your overall PM career. To help you down this journey, I asked Jackie Bavaro (author of Cracking the PM Interview, and just-released-last-week Cracking the PM Career) to share her wisdom on the topic with us. Jackie’s been knee-deep in research on the product management career path over the past couple of years (for her new book), so I couldn’t think of a better person to tackle this topic.

Below you’ll find the best framing I’ve come across for what to focus on to level up into a Senior PM, including templates and tactical advice. I’m excited to share it with you all. Let’s dive in.


Becoming a senior Product Manager

by Jackie Bavaro

As an early-career PM, it can be hard to understand what it takes to become a “senior” PM, and how to get there. That’s because senior PMs don’t actually need to be much better than a regular PM at the kind of work a regular PM does. The biggest differences are behind the scenes.

Here’s an example, based on an interview question you’ll probably recognize:

A PM designs an alarm clock for the blind. They interview customers, test prototypes, and work closely with marketing to successfully launch the new product.

A senior PM discovers the market opportunity for more accessible alarm clocks while speaking to customers and partners during their day-to-day work. They create a strategic plan to win the market, analyze which audience to address first, and convince executives to spin up a new team. Then, they interview customers, test prototypes, and work closely with marketing to successfully launch the new product.

Teammates of the senior PM might not see any of that strategic planning. If they only look at specs and product choices, they might not understand why that person got the promotion.

The three most important differentiators of senior PMs are:

  1. Strategy

  2. Autonomy

  3. Nuance

Let’s explore each of these skills.

Strategy

A senior PM is responsible for developing and evangelizing a strategy that leads to meaningful customer and business success.

They paint a picture of an inspiring future and figure out the best path to get there. They ensure that people understand the strategy and agree with it. They advocate for the resources they need, convincing executives to spin up the necessary teams.

Newer PMs tend to prioritize work based on how much incremental value it adds to the product, while senior PMs prioritize work based on how much it moves the product towards the long term vision. For example, the top requested feature might be great for delighting the current customer base, but it could be more strategic to focus on features that expand the customer base.

By focusing on strategy, senior PMs are able to reliably deliver great products that make a big impact for customers and the business.

The first step down this path is to make space for strategic work. You don’t need a promotion to start creating strategies – go ahead and make a proposal for what your team should work on next.

If you keep your eyes open for strategic insights during your day-to-day work, it often doesn’t take much time to get started on a strategy. Block off half a day and pretend you’re attending a (zoom) wedding if you need to. If you really can’t find the time because your engineering team needs you that much, you’ll need to first level up your core PM skills so that the day-to-day work goes faster.

There are three parts to a strategy: (1) vision, (2) strategic framework, and (3) roadmap. You can get started with whichever one calls to you:

To get started with a vision, sketch out a storyboard of your future customers using your future product and highlight how much better their lives are compared to the status quo. I like to model my product vision after an infomercial, spending a while to explain just how painful things are today. Make sure to include a few strategic insights or bets so that the vision feels believable.

Ouch! I stepped on a lego brick. It’s so hard to get kids to clean up their toys. I hate being the mean mom who’s always telling them to clean up. Imagine a future where cleaning up toys is a game and your kids race to be the fastest!

To get started with a strategic framework, write down your target market, their pain points, and the strategic bets or differentiators that you believe will win that market. Write down some alternative approaches and lay out your frameworks for why you believe your approach is better.

With the growing trend of positive parenting, parents are looking for ways to inspire good behavior in their children without resorting to punishments. We should enter this market with a fun game that solves one of the top pain points (putting away toys, picky eating, staying in bed at bedtime), and expand into the other pain points over time. By launching a game (instead of a tool or a book), we expand the market beyond parents to anyone who wants to buy the child a gift.

To get started with the roadmap, write down a rough plan for the next few year’s worth of work, ideally grouped into strategic themes. Once you have the roadmap, imagine someone asking "why?" about each part of it. Your answers to that question will form the beginning of your strategic framework.

This quarter: launch cleaning game. Next quarter: launch picky food game. Next half: launch 2 more games. Next year: start licensing new games to expand faster.

Your strategy doesn’t have to be perfect! Your plan will change as you learn new information, but starting with a strategy helps you make better moves now. Block off the time to create a strategy now!

Autonomy

Senior PMs are able to run a team independently.

Great senior PMs ask for lots of input and advice, but they could keep their team running, work with stakeholders, resolve conflicts, and ship successful products without needing their manager to guide them. They know when to question the direction they were handed, rather than seeing it as a fixed variable. 

Autonomy isn’t just about being capable, it’s also about earning the trust to be allowed to work independently. That takes proactive communication and building a track record of successful launches. 

Ironically, if you have a high level of autonomy it can be harder to earn trust. When you’re working independently, your manager won’t see all of the great decisions you make and the tough challenges you overcome. You’ll need to intentionally share your work with your manager.

A lot can go astray when you try to share your work with your manager. You might sound too self-promotional, they might think you’re stuck and asking for advice, they might be frustrated that you’re not asking for advice.

Luckily, there’s a template that helps avoid all these problems:

  1. Hi manager, let me tell you about a challenge I ran into ______

  2. Here’s how I’m thinking of handling it (or did handle it) ______

  3. Any thoughts?

This format lets you show off the challenge you faced and how you handled it, while also making an opening for feedback. If your solution was good, your manager can tell you, "Great work!" If there’s room for improvement, proactively asking for feedback at least demonstrates that you can be trusted to ask for input when you need it.

Try to use this template the next time you want to share your progress or ask your manager for advice.

Nuance

The more senior you get, the more you’ll be faced with decisions where the right answer is “it depends.”

Senior PMs recognize these decisions and reason through them in a structured way. They can grapple with complex tradeoffs and ambiguous situations. They don’t fall back on rigid frameworks. They understand the goals and constraints of departments across the company and don't erroneously assume that their own team's goals are more important than those of any other team.

This doesn’t mean that it takes a senior PM days to make each decision. Due to their product expertise and rich mental models, they can lay out their thought process in minutes. Given an ambiguous problem area, they can rapidly pick out the most important problems to solve (and drive the work through to tangible impact).

As a corollary to working on these nuanced problems, senior PMs also are expected to engage in constructive discussions with leaders at the company. They can effectively explain the nuance in the situation and the tradeoffs. They can defend their recommendation without becoming defensive.

As you work on developing your nuanced thinking, the best guides are your teammates and stakeholders. Take their concerns seriously and look for the hidden complexity. What are the circumstances in which they’d be right? What information might they have that causes them to come to a different conclusion?

As an example, imagine you’re launching a new feature and the head of customer support complains that it can’t be controlled by her team’s operational scripts. Instead of brushing her off and saying you'll update the scripts after launch, ask questions until you understand why she cares. You might learn that without the scripts it takes customer support representatives longer to answer tickets, which means customers will have a lower satisfaction rating, which correlates with them canceling their subscription. Once you see the broader implications, you might decide it's better to delay the launch until the scripts are updated.

To practice this skill, when you make a decision, find nuances where a different decision would be better. Write out, “It depends. If X, then A is the best choice. If Y, then B is the best choice. I think this situation is X, so A.” While it's helpful to explore "it depends," only share that longer answer if it's actually helpful. You don't want to annoy your teammates. 

In summary, start these three things today:

  1. Block off the time on your calendar to focus on strategy

  2. Use the autonomy template in your next meeting with your manager

  3. Look for the “it depends” answer to practice on

By working on strategy, autonomy, and nuance, you can level up your skills, expand your impact, and hopefully get promoted to senior PM! 

In our new book Cracking the PM Career, Gayle and I go into even more detail on the senior PM role and what it means to be strategic.  If you have more thoughts or questions, the best way to reach me is @jackiebo on Twitter.

Thanks, Jackie!


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🧠 Inspiration for the week ahead

  1. WatchKurt Vonnegut on how to write a short story

  1. Watch: Home Movie: The Princess Bride (via Kottke)

  1. Read: Frameworks by Chris Paik


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