Climbing the Product Management Career Ladder

ladderContributed by John Mansour

Before your mind wanders too far, let’s set the record straight. In B2B product management, tactical, operational and strategic refer to layers in the customer organization – not your job responsibilities. Master each of these customer domains and the next rung on the product management career ladder awaits.

When the product management/marketing profession was in its childhood, upward mobility options were few: director and VP. Today, there are far more options on the career ladder for those who don’t have director or VP aspirations.

There are a multitude of new roles that encompass broader responsibilities and get product managers and marketers out of the day-to-day grind. Product strategy managers, market segment managers, solution marketing managers, and portfolio managers, to name a few. All of them have one thing in common – they require more knowledge of the market and the customers than they do the products. In fact, less product knowledge may be more beneficial as you move up the food chain.

Mirror the three layers of the customer’s business and you’ll develop that expertise and climb the career ladder with less effort and better results.

1. Tactical – The Surrogate User/Job Expert

The typical entry-level job in product management is a product owner, product analyst, business analyst, technical product manager, etc. Essentially, they’re all the same. Assuming that most entry-level product managers know their products cold, mastering the tactical customer domain requires expertise in an area that’s even more important than the product – the job of the user. So, in all of these roles, your job is to ultimately be the surrogate user and work closely with engineers to ensure your products help people succeed at their job.

The most fundamental skill required is a deep understanding of each user’s job role — key job responsibilities, how people in those jobs are measured (quantitatively), and most importantly, how they perform their job responsibilities.

That user job knowledge is the key to delivering high-value functionality in your products – and it’s ultimately the stair step that gets you to the next rung on the product management career ladder.

2. Operational – The Surrogate Department Head/Business Expert

Now that you’ve mastered the job responsibilities of the users, it’s time to step into the shoes of a department head: What’s being asked of him or her, why, and how does it impact the strategy of the customer organization?

If you get clear answers to those three questions, and there are several layers to each, you have essentially identified larger scale business needs, their quantifiable value, and their strategic impact to the customer organization.

Mastering the operational customer domain means that your focus shifts from tactical user needs to departmental business goals, metrics, obstacles that make those goals difficult to achieve – and for your organization, the market value of removing those obstacles.

For example, if you’re going to help car rental companies compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft, it’s your responsibility is to identify the obstacles have to be eliminated (for the renter and the car rental company) to create a similar customer experience. Then you have to determine how big that problem is in the car rental market and how much it’s worth to your organization to solve – without defining the product solution!

In this role, it’s not your job to figure out how the products will solve it. Your job is simply to figure out how the car rental companies plan to solve it and why, and educate the surrogate users (and all other disciplines) to ensure the relevant products in your portfolio are properly aimed.

3. Strategic – The Surrogate Executive/Industry Expert

When you reach the third rung on the product management career ladder, the terms “generic” and “everyone”need to be eliminated from your vocabulary. I know what you’re thinking. “Who wouldn’t love new product X? It’s just as valuable to healthcare providers as it is to retailers and banks.”

Here’s the deal. The product many ultimately work no differently for one industry than it does all others. But a product perspective doesn’t matter at this level. What matters most is the executive buyer’s perspective and how he or she perceives the dynamics of their industry and how those dynamics are shaping the strategy of their organization.

Let’s say, for example, that your solutions help utilities predict equipment failures before they happen and thus reduce the cost of the repair and disruption to customers. What utility wouldn’t love that? Before you answer the question, consider the following:

If you’re targeting investor-owned utilities, the name of the game is ultimately financial return to shareholders. But if you’re targeting utilities owned by cities and municipalities, the end game is public perception and transparency. Do those different strategic goals constitute different priorities when it comes to solving business problems with strategic value? If so, why, and what’s the relative value in each market segment?

Clear, quantifiable answers to those questions are the key to mastering the strategic customer domain.

Don’t let your product management career aspirations be consumed with “becoming strategic.” The definition of “strategic” is about results: delivering solutions that have strategic value to the customer, which in turn delivers strategic value to your organization in the form of growth, profitability and competitive position. It takes mastery of all three layers of the customer organization, and contributions from all roles involved, to deliver, market and sell solutions with strategic value.

The product management career ladder has far more options today than it did years ago, but the single biggest key to climbing that career ladder hasn’t changed. If you know what it takes to make customers successful and you can consistently deliver the solutions, everyone wins. And that makes you a highly promotable asset to any organization.

Products are just the means to the end!

Feature image from Flickr Commons


John-Mansour-1John Mansour is the founder and managing partner at Proficientz, a training and consulting firm that specializes in product portfolio management. John brings 20-years of experience in product management, marketing and sales in manager, director and VP roles. As the managing partner of Proficientz, John has worked with more than 2000 organizations that span high technology, business services, telecom, healthcare, financial services, manufacturing and many others. John served as the chairman for the Technology Association of Georgia’s Product Management Society from 2006 – 2010. Proficientz proudly sponsors ProductCamp conferences worldwide.

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