May 20, 2019 5 min read

The Product Leadership Career Ladder

In addition to my formal coaching of product leaders (Directors, VPs and CPOs who directly manage teams of product managers), I talk with lots of senior individual contributors about the risks and challenges of moving “up the ladder” into product leadership roles.  So I have a strong sense of what product managers want.  But — like all good product folks — I also want to anchor my personal opinions in market data.  So I fielded a survey in March to senior product managers, capturing their top questions and concerns about getting promoted.  69 people provided a total of 277 responses.

Almost half of the responses sorted into these areas:

  • What does a product leader actually do?
  • Concern about giving up direct product management work and responsibilities
  • How to move up into a Director role, or signal interest

Let’s dig in!

What does a product leader actually do?

The top concern of senior PMs about moving up the ladder was lack of clarity about what their immediate managers do.  Respondents expressed uncertainty in various ways:

  • “I have a lot of skills as a PM. Will I be able to use those skills as a manager of PMs?”
  • “What skills are required to develop a great team of Product Managers?”
  • “What should my focus be? Growing others, strategy, air cover? How can I be effective and ensure we are swimming in the right direction?”  
  • “What is it that you would actually do, now that you won’t be responsible for one product, but a portfolio of them?”

This parallels the outcomes-versus-busyness challenge for individual product managers. Stakeholders see product managers attending meetings, writing stories, presenting roadmaps or presenting shipment data. It’s easy to miss the rigor and underlying strategic thought that makes these valuable: testable hypotheses, accurate problem descriptions, customer empathy, economic insights, competitive foresight.

I see four broad responsibilities for product leaders:

  • Building/nurturing a product team
  • Creating a strategy and tooling process so that product managers can succeed
  • Growing cross-functional collaboration, trust and camaraderie
  • Working with C-level execs on business/product/goal alignment

A tall order, and often invisible.  Done well, the outcomes of strong product leadership are collaboration, clear job roles, focus on customer value, aligned goals, and more successful products..  Good leaders encourage their product teams to correctly understanding user needs, make hard strategic choices, motivate cross-functional teams, and connecting price with value.  Growing the next generation of product leaders means being clearer about the role, since most product leaders don’t share much of this with their teams.

Concern about giving up direct product work

As product managers, we fall in love with our products and customers, get emotional victories from market wins or technical achievements, nurture our teams, adopt a protective parental attitude.  A role without our own products can sound unfulfilling.  Some verbatims from survey respondents:

  • “How far removed will I be from the product strategy work I enjoy? How can I still provide value and steering there?”
  • “I am concerned that by becoming head of product I will not be doing product management. I will spend my time in meetings.”
  • “How do you empower PMs and not make yourself redundant? You’re no longer an expert in the domain.”
  • “Basically, I love being a product manager. But I want to have more influence on the world. Will I love doing that as a Director?”

And this is a valid concern.

But this role can be as rewarding, if along slightly different axes.  Product leadership is a chance to nurture people and organizations rather than individual products, work on knotty organizational issues, become a student of human behavior.  Move company-wide metrics rather than individual product metrics.  After a long hitch on the front lines, some veteran product managers are looking for a fresh challenge.  (The higher salary and stock options don’t hurt.)

I’m seeing some smart companies create promotional ladders for great individual engineering contributors – senior developer, architect, distinguished engineer, staff software scientist.  (That’s better than pushing management-phobic developers into jobs they’d hate, losing their direct contributions, and pushing them out the door.)  It’s early days for better non-leadership product career ladders, but I’m hearing encouraging rumbles from many places.

How to signal interest in a Director role

The next logical question, highlighted in our survey, was how to get on management’s RADAR and prepare for this leadership role.  Respondents phrased it this way:

  • “Balance between individual role and where I need to add more value as people manager   How do I start to present those skills while in individual role?”
  • “What experiences do I need on my resume to demonstrate readiness?”
  • “How to demonstrate more strategic level thought during interviews for leadership roles when your experience is mostly tactical. I find that I continue to get pegged for individual contributor roles.”
  • “I don’t know what I need to do to go up in the chain. I feel stuck without mentorship and growth options.”

I counsel folks to have an open, non-confrontational chat with their immediate manager, knowing that there may not be any leadership positions currently open. “I’m interested in what you do.  At some point, I might want to be in a position like yours.  I’d really appreciate your feedback: areas or skills I might work on, how I can show interest, challenges that may not be obvious from where I sit today.”  Good managers will have your best long-term interest at heart and candidly share their opinions.  And no manager wants to hear third-hand that their most senior employee is gunning for their job or quit over an unexpressed desire to move up.

Look for ways to demonstrate product leader skills to the broader organization: champion a company-wide initiative that isn’t only about your product; volunteer for cross-functional task forces; speak at user conferences; mentor junior folks in other departments; guest-write a company blog post; do an internal lunch-time talk about product strategy or customer interviewing techniques.  Increase your visibility.  Boost your brand.

Feedback for current product leaders…

The survey also asked respondents to identify something great that their direct managers do, or one bit of advice to share upward.  Almost half of the comments were about whether managers did a good job delegating decision-making.  I got mostly raves (“She doesn’t micro-manage me and she works hard to share knowledge. Gives a lot of early guidance and then steps back”) and some frustrations (“Don’t try to solve the problem for me unless I ask.”)

For me, these comments highlighted both scoping issues (being clear about which decisions an individual product manager should make) and communication issues (leaders sharing organizational or political context). Regardless, it’s clear that our teams are hungry for feedback and more autonomy.   We need to spend extra effort on explaining how/when we delegate decisions.

Sound Byte

Career planning is hard, and the product leader role is even less defined than product manager.  It calls for adjacent – but different – skills and provides different psychic benefits.  Senior product managers should think about what they want, how their company rewards various roles, and how they might nurture product teams rather than individual products.


If you’d like to analyze the data yourself, I’ve anonymized and uploaded it here alongside the original survey questions.  Thanks to Daniel Kinal, Noah Gaspar, Mike Freier, Lisa Winter, Mary Droese, Tom Gilheany and Ron Lichty for thoughtful commentary and survey QA.  Everyone who completed the survey and provided an email address received a separate communiqué.  Photo credits: Canva, UKBlackTech.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to Rich Mironov's Product Bytes.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.