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.
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…
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 to 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:
- The 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.
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.