Ask Women in Product: How do I know if I’m a good fit for a PM role?

Ashley Wali and Vidya Venkatesh offer tactics that will help you work through the doubts that are holding you back.

Photo by @adamkuylenstierna via Twenty20

This week’s question: How do I know if I’m a good fit for a PM role? I feel like I’ve moved up too fast and still lack many of the essential skills (like persuasion, communication, and comfort with ambiguity) that would make me a good PM. There are many many times when I think a project management role or a product owner role might be a better fit.

Answer from Ashley Wali

Ashley Wali is Director of Product at Discuss.io

There are a ton of great pieces already written about the skills that are necessary to succeed as a Product Manager and the career options for PMs. It’s tempting to write more about that, but I don’t hear that as being your real question. What we don’t talk enough about — and the struggle hidden underneath this question — is the crucial role that confidence plays in success and the insidious way that Imposter Syndrome can hold you back from being and doing your best.

Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you are a fraud, that you aren’t good enough for the job that you have (or the conference that you’re speaking at, or the awards that you’ve won). It is the belief that you don’t deserve what you have, and the fear that you will be exposed as a fraud.

The original definition from 1978 is a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

How big of a problem is this? An informal 2018 study showed that over half of tech workers feel it. A more formal study from 2011 found that around 70% of people experience it at some point in their lives.

For the remainder of this article, I will describe four techniques that will help you wrestle with imposter syndrome. The feeling of being a fraud may not go away completely, but these techniques will keep that feeling under control.

In product management, this applies to honing your product intuition, persuading colleagues, and everything in between.

Look for people who are talented at the skill and learn what you can from them. If it’s a soft skill like persuasion or selling your idea to your team, identify who excels at this in your company. In meetings and on sales calls, pay attention to how people approach a topic or warm up their audience. Ask the person out to coffee to get practical tips as well as recommended resources. Find out what books, podcasts, and articles they’ve used to deepen their expertise.

If your company is large enough, make use of in-house training resources that are available to employees or take part in a mentorship program. If you’re not sure how to get a mentor relationship going, start here.

The more chances you have to try something and the more mindful you are about the practice, the more likely you are to achieve mastery of it. Whether you think of it as the 10,000-hour rule from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers or the deliberate practice concept of the more recent Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, the fact remains that to build a skill, you have to do the work.

Look for opportunities to practice the skill that feels weak. Develop a framework for applying the lessons in your work. How do you want to practice these skills? Should you start with a trusted colleague or apply it in a real project? In what types of situations will you feel comfortable stepping up and applying your learning?

Be deliberate about creating space to practice the soft skills and approach each encounter with a learning mindset. Plan how you’re going to approach a topic before you have the conversation, then evaluate yourself afterward. It helps to reserve 10 minutes after a meeting to debrief on questions like:

  • Did I stick to my plan? Why or why not?
  • How successful was the conversation?
  • What did I do well? What should I have done differently?
  • How will I approach the next conversation?

With mindful practice, you will build skills and, more importantly, you will build confidence. You’ll know you can do it because you will have already done it.

Practice may make perfect, but chances are, you’re already pretty good at what you do and just don’t recognize it. When it’s really the mental game that needs work, try these techniques:

  • Check yourself: Do you find yourself thinking “I don’t deserve what I have. I shouldn’t be here.”? If yes, consider challenging yourself to see the inaccuracy of that statement. Consider reflecting on these sayings; they have helped me push through my own imposter syndrome.
  • Separate the facts from the story: The fact may be that the team was reluctant to prioritize a feature improvement as high as you want. But the story you tell yourself may be that it’s because they don’t trust your judgment and don’t think you know what you’re doing. Without hearing it directly from your reluctant teammates, the story remains just that — a story in your head. Recognizing that the facts and the story you’ve told yourself are two different things will defuse the emotions and let you evaluate the situation more clearly.

Finding the right career takes a combination of skill set, interest, and opportunity. Growing and succeeding in that career is the product of opportunity and a commitment to self-reflection and improvement.

If you’re considering switching roles, take a step back and assess if it’s because you don’t want to do the job or because you don’t think you can. If you find that you want to be in your current role but don’t think you’re good enough, seek feedback from impartial, trusted mentors or peers to see what skills you need to develop. If the feedback comes back more positive than you anticipate, the problem is more of perception than ability. Prove yourself wrong by putting your head down and doing the work. Show up, try, fail, learn, and get better.

There are many types of product management roles, and if you enjoy the work, chances are there is a great fit to be found among the myriad combinations of company size, industry type, and product stage.

If you find yourself truly drawn to another role, go for it. But don’t switch because you think it will be easier. Every role comes with its own challenges, and success in any role is at risk if you’re stuck with a mental soundtrack that holds you back.

Imposter syndrome is hard to recognize and harder to beat. You can keep it at bay by getting yourself ready to do the work, then creating space to practice and strengthen your skills. In the process, you’ll build confidence and prove to yourself that you can do the job you’re in. Do what you can to separate facts from stories so you can clearly evaluate where you excel and where you need more practice. If you find that the intersection of your skills and interests don’t align with the role you have, look around for a better fit. In any case, know that the key to your success usually lies within.

Answer from Vidya Venkatesh

Vidya Venkatesh is Director of Product Lifecycle Management at Genomic Health

“Am I good enough?” When you find yourself asking this question, know that you are not alone. It’s a thought that has crossed the minds of many professionals at various times in their career. Anytime we take on a bigger role or a more visible project, we are stepping outside our comfort zone, and it’s natural to feel awkward and uncomfortable, especially in the initial stages.

Whether that feeling of self-doubt is coming from your own perception or is a true fact, overcoming that feeling is critical to driving your career success. In this article, I share several tactics that will help.

To assess if you have a true skill or competency gap, go into an active-listening mode, seek feedback from trusted sources, and learn by observing professionals that you consider experts in action. If you do find yourself lacking in specific areas, outline an action plan of tactical steps- on the job as well as professional training. Build on a series of consistent, small wins to buoy your confidence and you will start to feel more comfortable with that job role or project.

You are far more likely to be successful in situations that leverage your strengths than those that reprehend you for your weaknesses. As Marcus Buckingham said, “Go put your strengths to work.” Begin with a quest to gain a deep understanding of your own strengths and personality traits. With this frame of reference established, you are now equipped to evaluate external factors.

The role of a PM can be loosely defined; the roles and expectations vastly vary with the product’s lifecycle. For example, with an on-market, mature product, driving revenue by leveraging channels may be crucial for success. For a young company trying to enter a new market, a strong knowledge of that target customer segment may be the most critical trait. In a highly matrixed organization, the ability to influence and corral various teams may be the key to achievement and recognition. It is, therefore, possible that while you may not be a perfect fit for a PM role in your organization, you may indeed be a perfect fit for a PM role in a different context. Depending on your strengths and career goals, you may benefit from selecting a team/company where you feel set up for success.

We are far more likely to stay motivated at a particular role if it feels like it’s helping us make progress towards our career goals. If you find yourself choosing between staying in your current role and up-skilling to another one, keep that North Star career plan in mind. If you feel overwhelmed or underconfident in your current PM role, it is okay to make that conscious choice to pivot to a different role that will equip you with the skills you can better get you to where you want to be. After all, today’s corporate world is much more of a jungle gym than a traditional ladder. The struggle is real, but finding a great team where you are marching towards your next career goal makes the journey totally worth it!

It’s natural that, in the course of your career, there will be times when you’ll feel like an imposter or question if you are good enough. Try these tactics as you work through moments of doubt. Start with a self-assessment, then equip yourself with a deep knowledge of your strengths and personality traits. Product management roles come in many forms, so seek out roles that leverage your strengths. If you find yourself considering a different role, take a moment to acknowledge that every role comes with its own set of challenges, then consider whether or not a potential role will take you closer to your goals. Finally, look for roles in teams that will keep you energized and make you feel like the effort is worth it. I wish you every career success!

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