Top Strategies to Advance Your Product Management Career Rapidly – Part 1

Many of the techniques mentioned here are things I’ve seen used by my peers that have worked very successfully. Some are ones that I have used. Some are common sense. Some took me many years to figure out. I’m hoping that by sharing them with you, it will help you move forward toward your goals and what you’d like to achieve.

Goals – set them!

The first thing that I want you to do is spend a little bit of time thinking about your career. Sit by yourself and do some writing or jot some notes down about this. Where are you now in your career, honestly? Has your career progressed the way you would like it to? What is it that you want to achieve in the coming years? Are you where you want to be? Is your career stalled or on the fast track?

Looking ahead

Next, I want you to start to envision short term and long-term goals. Think about where you want to be one, three, five and ten years from now. From there we are going to start with the 10-year goal and work our way back.

In 10 years, you can accomplish a tremendous amount so don’t sell yourself short. If you want to be a CEO put that down and write a paragraph that describes what that would look like. What type of company would you be running? What responsibilities would you have? How much would you be earning? What would your day-to-day life be like?

After you have completed 10 years then work your way back. What do you have to accomplish at 5 years to make the 10-year goal? Do you need to be a vice president? Answer the same questions you did for the 10-year goal, substituting 5 years instead.

Do this until you are back to the present. Try to be as specific as you can.

There was one point in my career where I realized I didn’t want to continue the path of becoming a CEO in a big corporation. My next step would have been Vice President of Product Management and then probably a CEO of a start-up or a publicly held company. I did some soul searching and decided instead to start my own company, 280 Group. It was a critical decision that I made 20 years ago. I envisioned where the company would be in 20 years. That vision came true beyond what I could have imagined. So again, don’t sell yourself short.

Stars Who Rise

It’s kind of baffling as you go through your career from job to job and you see some people who advance very rapidly and others who are just stuck where they are for years. I’m thinking of one person who I worked with, that within about a 3 or 4-year time-period went from being a Product Manager to being Vice President of Marketing and Product Management for a company. Within a few years he was CEO of a small startup and has held multiple CEO positions since.

On the flip side I have seen people who literally over 10–15 years have never been able to break through. Even though they have the desire to become a Vice President or CEO (or they think they desire it), they’ll stay at the individual Product Manager level for years or may have moved up slightly one notch to a product line manager.

What makes the difference?

The difference between these two types of people is not necessarily competence or how smart they are. It’s also not necessarily how hard they work (though if someone’s not working hard that will often be obvious and drag them down). The difference is that one has a plan and specific techniques and ways they go about managing their career and moving up while the other doesn’t.

It’s important to remember that your boss and company are always looking at you in terms of your attitude and your productivity and comparing you to others. If you aren’t the star in that graph it won’t matter much what else, you do—you must be viewed as a great performer with an excellent attitude to move forward. And you also must be viewed as a leader.

Get a Mentor

One of the most powerful, effective and rewarding things you can do is to get a mentor. There are very few things that can move your career forward and increase your job satisfaction faster than getting a mentor.

If you’re lucky this will be your boss. In my career out of about 15 different managers I was lucky to have had two of them who were excellent mentors and who cared about my career and helped me to move forward. I moved further forward in my career working for them than under all the other managers combined.

NOTE: If you want to be an excellent manager and gain the loyalty of your employees try mentoring them and see what happens.

Just ask

If your mentor is not your boss, it might be an executive in your department/division or in another one. Find someone who is successful that you respect and then ask them point blank if they will mentor you. Be bold—don’t be shy or hesitant. Successful people will be more than willing to help you, but you must have the guts to ask them and the tenacity to follow through.

One of the best moves I made in my career was to ask the CEO of a start-up to be my career coach and mentor. I was afraid to ask him, but I forced myself and he accepted on the spot. He only worked with me about 1 hour a week for a limited time, but it paid off (and still helps me years later).

Your mentor can be someone more senior than you or it can even be a paid coach. You might want to pay someone to spend an hour a week discussing where you’re at, brainstorming your challenges and figuring out how to rise above it. All that matters is that the person has something that you want to achieve, and you are willing to ask and work for it. So, get a mentor.

Be the Bearer of Bad News

This technique isn’t blatantly obvious—but you always want to be the bearer of bad news. And you want to deliver it as quickly as possible when things go wrong. What I mean by this is that you want your boss and management to hear the bad news from you before they hear it from someone else and it becomes a huge problem for them, then they’ll have to call you.

When stuff hits the fan

When something goes wrong (and it will) you want to reassure your boss and the executives as quickly as possible. Let them know what has happened and that you are on top of the situation. If you can, come up with two or three solutions and give them a recommendation for what you believe is the best way to solve the problem.

If you’ve ever been a manager or have run a team, the employees who do this and come to you with a solution are gold. They are the ones you want to stick up for and help with their careers. If you are part of the solution instead of part of the problem you’ll be perceived as someone who takes on challenges, which will lead to opportunities for you.

Keep Careful Company

The next concept is to keep careful company. Why? Because you are perceived to be very similar to those you hang out with. If you hang out with winners who are upwardly mobile, then that is how people will think of you. And vice versa.

Early in my career, I hung out with junior-level people at the company I worked at. I ended up being branded as junior because of who I was spending time with. When opportunities came up it was difficult for people to view me as senior-level and able to handle the challenge. So, I wasn’t promoted.

The right company

At the same time, there was a Product Manager who was spending time with people who were about two levels above him. He would take them out to lunch, get to know them and be seen with them at functions and events. He got promoted rapidly.

In the company, he was branded as someone far more senior because of who he was spending time with. This is what you want to do—find people who are dedicated to rising rapidly in their careers and rise with them. Every relationship you are building at your company right now can pay off for years. Correspondingly, if you hang out with the wrong people it can haunt you for years too.

Last but not least, avoid negative people at all costs. If there are jaded people at your company who are pessimistic, have bad attitudes or talk negatively you want to avoid them like the plague. If you don’t, you’ll be branded as jaded and negative and your career will go nowhere.

Wrap Up

Read Part 2 in this blog series to get even more strategies to help catapult yourself up the ranks in product management. To learn about these strategies more in-depth and receive a Product Management Career Plan Template, sign up for the webinar – How to Accelerate Your PM Career, Part 1: Top Strategies to Advance Rapidly on September 27, 2019.

NOTE: This webinar has passed, you can view the slide deck below:

About the Author

Brian Lawley - Founder of 280 Group

Brian Lawley
Founder of 280 Group

Brian Lawley is the Founder of 280 Group. He is the author of six best-selling books, Product Management for Dummies, Optimal Product Process, The Phenomenal Product Manager, Expert Product Management and 42 Rules of Product Management and is the former President of the Silicon Valley Product Management Association (SVPMA). He was awarded the Association of International Product Marketing Management Award for Thought Leadership in Product Management, and has been featured on World Business Review and the Silicon Valley Business Report. He is the editor of the Optimal Product Management blog and newsletter, and also writes guest articles for publications such as the Software Development Forum newsletter, Softletter and the SVPMA newsletter.

280 Group is the world’s leading Product Management training and consulting firm. We help companies and individuals do GREAT Product Management and Product Marketing using our Optimal Product Process™.

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