directors-chair

In the second of three posts about the product management hierarchy, we’ll focus on technology product managers (PMs) who’ve been in their jobs long enough to consider what comes next.  (User story: “As a Senior Product Manager, I want to be promoted to Director so that I get more money and respect and glory.”)

Let’s break this problem into a few parts: likely candidates for promotion; how the Director job differs from line Product Management; and ways to show that you’re ready for a bigger role.

Persona

You’re a promotional candidate if you’re already a seasoned PM, with 4+ years on a few different products, and are the “go to” person for competitive and technical info. You make time for long-term planning and bits of mentoring.  You’ve been through the release cycle (and emotional roller coaster) several times.  Other departments ask to work with you.

BTW, I’m assuming that you’re in a large enough organization to have “real” directors, with 3+ PMs reporting to them and overseeing whole product lines. Generically…PM organization

What Do Directors Do Anyway?

In my experience, PM Directors work on a different set of problems than their individual product managers. Rather than being super PMs, they worry about the process of product management: building launch teams, balancing staff assignments, standardizing reporting, fostering cross-functional cooperation, setting product-line-level strategy and resource allocation. Directors encourage risk-taking and dismantle organizational roadblocks. They keep the trains running and the products flowing. A good director makes product-level decisions only to settle disputes or demonstrate technique.

Directors also focus on people issues: coaxing cooperation, aligning incentives, mentoring, cooling down egos.  They relentlessly present product strategy and roadmaps to other departments boost understanding of what PM does.

The best directors provide informal HR feedback to other directors. They look for under-appreciated talent across the company.  (“Gee, I hear that Sarah, your new QA lead on Project Orange, made some great improvements in the test automation process. My PM says the team loves her…”) Directors do this to identify great contributors, encourage cooperation within teams, and model good behavior for their peers. It also builds credibility for unpleasant discussions.  (“Manager to manager, Larry’s refusal to participate in roadmap meetings is frustrating the other architects…”)

So How Do I Get to Be One?

Like the individual PM role, Director of Product Management isn’t all glitz and glamour. It’s middle management of opinionated people and imperfect processes.  My advice is to devote part of your energy toward being more “director-like.” Look for activities that both improve your management skills and make them more visible.

  • Before you do anything else, have a humble but unambiguous chat with your own Director. (“I really enjoy working for you, and am learning a lot. I think I’ll be ready soon to be a PM Director, if a slot opens up, so want your advice. What’s your feedback on my skills, organizational style, or areas of improvement? How do you see the staffing map changing over the next year?”)  Moving up requires your boss’s active support – or her empty chair. Don’t get caught sneaking around her for a promotion.
  • Find a product-line-level issue where you can advocate for another PM’s product.
  • Think about how development staff should be allocated across products. Kick it around with your director.
  • Up-level some competitive analysis from individual widgets to market positioning.
  • Take on some cross-functional projects or task forces. Yuck? That’s how directors get things done. You’ll be freeing your director from one more committee and boosting your visibility.
  • Identify your best non-PM coworkers, and thank their bosses.
  • Start mentoring one of the junior PMs. You’ll learn a lot, improve the team, and show that you’re management material.

A few disclaimers:

  • FunnelThe promotional funnel for director-level jobs is very narrow. Slots rarely come open, and there are probably five PMs for each director.  Watch for other organizations that need leadership
  • Front-line experience makes you a better product manager, and boosts your value to the organization. Your company has an incentive to keep you in your current job for years and years.

But My Company is a Flat Organization!

In some companies, there’s little difference in work content between Senior Product Managers and Directors. Instead, it’s mostly about respect and money and who negotiated a better hire-on package. Don’t be a whiner (“But I’m a better PM than Johnny, and he’s a director…”). Figure out who is making the decisions, and have a frank discussion about how to show your worthiness.

Sound Byte

Directors of Product Management wrestle with different issues than individual PMs. If you want to become a Director, find ways to demonstrate next-level-up skills.

Comments
  • The PM Dude Reply

    Another great post. This one is of more interest to me, as I am in the process of making the jump. In my case, it was unexpected, and unasked for, and honestly, really not welcome.

    Why, might you ask?

    Well, first, it being a complete surprise is not something that at 14 years into a Product Management career is welcome. It shows a lack of planning and communication that really is disconcerting. I literally found about about it from a co-worker who called to congratulate me AFTER the official email announcement went out. Bad form. I had taken vacation the day before, but my boss knew I was out of pocket (my wife had surgery on her shoulder, and I was with her the entire time.) Still, no excuse to wait for the last minute.

    Second, unlike what you mention in the meat of the article, here at least, it is a super product manager position. I still carry the bag for our biggest product, and I was told specifically that I couldn’t hire a senior level person to backfill. So, the truth is, I am still just a product manager, with a title that will make it harder to find my next step (years ago I came to the realization that I was not executive material, and made peace with being a senior product manager until the day I die.)

    The ambiguity of the Product Management role seems magnified when you talk about Directors of Product Management. In my company (mid sized enterprise, 4500 employees, and probably a dozen BU’s), there are more directors of product management that you can shake a stick at. Really, here it seems like it is just a way to reward mid career product managers and try to keep them from bailing.

    Oh, and of course, my promotion came with exactly no extra salary.

    Why should I be excited again? Oh yeah, new business cards. If I ever get to Japan again, I will be able to meet with one level up managers than I currently have access to.

    Still enjoying the series though!

  • Dan Callahan Reply

    Great post Rich. I would add: understand the difference between a Director at a larger/more established company and a Director at a startup or smaller company. In larger companies, it’s about building and nurturing the organization and processes, as you’ve described. At smaller companies, it’s first about doing the work, as you’re often a department of one.

  • CraigC Reply

    This is an interesting subject. As you suggest at the end, “Director” can also mean a very senior PM, especially in flat organizations. I’ve also seen companies where the title “Senior Director of Product Management” is given to an individual who has the job of coordinating the efforts of senior product managers as you describe. The lack of precision seems inherent as a PM’s role in a company can vary depending on the size and complexity of the product(s).

  • Abhay Reply

    liked the reading, and the best part was ‘Front-line experience makes you a better product manager’ – I would say, explore world of sales and delivery operations, be close to the market you serve and have first hand understanding of opportunities, both current and futuristic. @mathurabhay

  • Aneesh Bhatnagar Reply

    Great Post! Very true. Have seen some of these in real life.

  • Quora Reply

    What’s the best way to advance to a management or director role in Product Management?…

    I’m always trying to spot the PM who is thinking at the *NEXT* organizational level: the single-product PM worrying about cross-product promotion and integration; the one who occasionally takes a contrarian attitude to support some development on a re…

  • RobinHdez Reply

    Great article! Insightful and accurate. These details are not always communicated when considering the PM Director role, even in extremely established and large organizations. You have to learn along the way, or have good intuition. Its nice to see a well constructed description.

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