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How to Reach Senior and Leadership Level as a Product Manager

Written by
Yasmin Desai Yasmin Desai
Product Lead @ Wayflyer
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Your route into product management was likely never a straight road. It’s very rare that you enter straight into a Junior/Associate level role and work your way up. Despite your route into what is arguably in my opinion, one of the best functions that exist, you may be wondering how do I level up. What’s the best way to reach senior leadership level as a product manager?

For this article, we will consider how you move from a mid/senior level into group/principal/lead PM level. From what I’ve experienced, and the PM’s I coach, there tend to be two types of companies - those that have clear progression frameworks which detail how you need to upskill to be promoted, and unfortunately the other type of company where frameworks are either non-existent or blurry/not in use.

The two areas I advise people to focus on to level up are:

1. Taking on more responsibility in the form of an additional squad

2. Taking on more responsibility by helping to drive the product strategy

Let’s focus on the first. It’s very likely that if you are mid/senior level you run 1 squad, the answer to taking on more responsibility here is very simple, speak to your manager/product lead and see if taking on one more squad is possible. Now note that I do not advocate that a PM should be responsible for more than 2 squads (where the average team size is 6-8) as it becomes unmanageable. However, if you are in a position to do this, what you’ll learn and demonstrate is your ability to take on a huge product area (ideally the squad you are taking on is within the same product area), drive efficiencies between the two squads, adapt between the people and process differences between the two squads. What you want to do, is successfully show that you can take on this larger area of responsibility (usually for a minimum of 1 year). I always suggest that as a PM you:

- Keep and update a list of the team achievements correlated to the OKR’s/north star

- Update and keep a track of the ‘state’ of the team. This should include anything related to people’s motivation, speed of shipping, speed of learning, experiments you ran, team’s happiness.

"What differentiates between a good PM and a great PM is one who can contribute towards the strategy"

Yasmin Desai, Product Lead @ Wayflyer

What differentiates between a good PM and a great PM is one who can contribute towards the strategy. As a PM, it’s easy to get lost in the time frame of 3-6 months. If you look at your product roadmap, how many times have you gone further than one year? The answer is probably not ever. One of the key parts of the role when in a product leadership position is to be able to answer questions such as: What product verticals will the company be investing in 2-3 years? What’s the product’s route to profitability? How are you going to differentiate from your competitors? What industries might you work to acquire customers in, that you’re not currently working in now? You’ll probably have heard of the advice that you need to perform at the level of the promotion you want before you get the promotion, this is a clear example of where this is necessary. It would be quite rare to promote a PM to a leadership level who has not demonstrated that they can take on a certain level of strategic thinking in their role. So, how do you do this? Speak to your manager and see where you can get involved. Decide to spend 20% of your time focussed purely on a particular area product strategy, whether that be expansion, new verticals, pricing or marketing.

Doing the above needs to be combined with informing people that a promotion/upskilling to the next level is what you want. As a manager, I love nothing more than when someone is vocal about what they need and want. It means I can drive their development and more importantly, I can keep that person in mind for opportunities that may arise that help them showcase their skills in the run-up to a promotion/progression conversation.

For women particularly, this can be a really difficult and daunting exercise to undertake. For those that might be nervous, I’m sharing a 3 step process to make it (slightly!) easier.

Step 1: Devise your own progression board.

I like to do this on Miro. State your strengths, weaknesses, where you’ve worked, what you’ve learnt and what you WANT. Make it bold and make it stand out. Now write what you think you need to do to get there. I also encourage adding someone who you aspire to be like and why (this should be someone who is 1 -2 levels above you). - For an example please see here

Step 2: Share this with your manager, but not just your manager. Share it with other high-level people who hold positions in your company.

Request to speak to other people in leadership positions in your company for feedback. Take them through your visual, and ask their thoughts on whether they think it’s achievable, how they can help you and what you’re missing. What you’ll find is people’s willingness to help, but also their honesty. Ie if there’s not the ability to progress in the next 1- 2 years in the company, they’ll likely state this - at least then you will be in a position to decide whether that’s something that aligns with you.

When requesting to speak to your manager, here’s a suggested draft:

“ Hi Yasmin, I’ve spent some time putting together some thoughts on how I would like to progress my career. Could I ask that we spend 30 mins every month discussing this and my progression towards my professional development? To kick this off, may I suggest we walk through this miro board which outlines what my goals are and what areas I think I need to improve on.”

Step 3: Keep your own ‘personal wins tracker’.

It doesn’t matter what form this takes, a google sheet/miro/presentation. List out what you’ve achieved, what you’ve learnt, and what you could have done better. I recommend doing this on a bi-weekly basis, especially if your sprint runs are 2 weeks long. What should you do with this? Draw out your wins when pitching for why you deserve a promotion and include it in your monthly progression conversations.

All the above is dependent on one major element - the fact that you and only you need to be responsible for driving your own development conversations. It’s often felt that you should only plan for a progression conversation when HR has put it in your calendar, but realistically only exceptional managers will sit there and drive a development plan for their reports (and that’s if they have the time for it!) If there’s one thing that should be taken from this article, is that you as an individual need to be vocal about what you want in your professional development.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yasmin Desai

Yasmin Desai
Product Lead @ Wayflyer

Yasmin Desai is an experienced product leader managing early-stage teams and scaling up businesses.

Yasmin is highly passionate about hiring, developing PMs and creating the foundation for them to go on and become world-class product managers. She has over 10 years of experience working in tech and 6+ years working directly in product, currently, she leads the growth & acquisition team for Wayflyer.

Yasmin also runs a product coaching and workshop service - www.yasmindesai.com

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