Ask Women in Product: How do I plan my Product Management career?

The skills that lie at the heart of Product Management are the same skills that you can use to plan your career. Whitney Doyle explains.

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Answer from Whitney Doyle

Whitney Doyle is a Senior Product Manager at Lifesize and formerly a Product Manager at Rosetta Stone. You can find her on Twitter at @tolleywk

Manage your career like you would manage your product

If you are interested in a career in Product Management, chances are you are someone with great ideas, the determination to bring those ideas to life, and you may even have the business acumen to make your ideas stand out from the competition. Dreaming, planning, and making it happen are skills that lie at the heart of Product Management, and those are also the same skills that you can use to plan your career. So why not approach your career in a similar way that you would manage your products? Below, I will share with you examples of how I planned out the first five years of my PM Career.

Start with your big-picture vision

The first step in achieving any goal, including your career goals, is having a big picture in mind. As a Product Manager, you know that it’s those big “moonshot” ideas that get your teams and stakeholders excited and bought into the vision for your product. Similarly, your big-picture career goal should be something that inspires and motivates you.

As you define your big-picture goal, don’t be afraid to be ambitious. If you want to be a CEO, or a highly sought-after consultant traveling around the world, or the Product Manager behind the next break-out sensation, then, by all means, state that as your big-picture goal. This is not the time to be realistic; your big picture is not meant to be a SMART goal (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely). SMART goals are important (and we’ll come back to them later, I promise), but not when you’re thinking of the big picture.

To help you define your big-picture goal, try to visualize where you want to see yourself in five to ten years. Imagine what a day in your life will be like. Who are you surrounded by? What does your workspace look like? What type of decisions are you making? Heck, what shoes are you wearing?

Here’s an example of my big-picture goal:

I want to found, build, and lead a small business (<20 team members) that specializes in building scalable, socially-beneficial solutions positioned specifically for acquisition.

Your Big-Picture Goal will act as your North Star throughout your career. It will help you know when to take opportunities and when to pass on others that may be tempting in the short-term, but may not get you closer to your ultimate goal.

Determine where you are today

Once you have a better understanding of your desired destination, it’s time to figure out where you are now on your metaphorical Career Roadmap. After all, you wouldn’t expect Google Maps to give you efficient directions to your destination if it doesn’t know where you currently are.

Product Managers use several tools for determining the current state of their products — SWOT Analysis, Win-Loss Interviews, Feature Gap Matrixes, etc. You can use similar techniques to determine your current place in your career.

Create a Skill Gap Matrix tailored to your Big Picture Goal. I recommend using a Skill Gap Matrix and tailoring this to your Big-Picture Goal. For example, if you aspire to be an entrepreneur, list out the skills, knowledge, and traits of successful entrepreneurs and score your current performance honestly for each of those areas. Are you weak in some areas and overperforming in others? Use this information to seek out opportunities that will not only play to your strengths but also help you identify the knowledge and skills you need to sharpen to reach your ultimate goal.

For example, at the start of my product management career, I knew that I was a really fast learner and loved working in tight-knit teams, but the tactical, project management side of delivering products was completely foreign to me. So, I took a role as a Scrum Master/Project Manager in a product organization. I got to learn by working alongside a best-in-class product development team about the intricacies of what goes into shipping great software products. Even though my goal was never to be a Project Manager, that experience has helped me better manage my products as I work towards my ultimate goal.

Understanding your strengths and areas for improvement is a good first step in breaking down your big-picture goal into smaller, more manageable action steps. Remember those SMART goals we talked about? That’s right, now is their time!

Create your Career Roadmap with SMART goals

As a Product Manager, you know a thing or two (or two-hundred!) about roadmaps. It’s that holy-grail document that everyone wants to get their hands on because it holds the key information about their future and lets them make informed decisions today. When it comes to your career, wouldn’t you like to make informed decisions today? By creating a roadmap for your career, you can!

Start by outlining SMART goals that help you get closer to your big picture. SMART goals are those that are: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.

  • Identify the nearest and shortest-term goal. What do you want to accomplish in the next 6 months? For example, in my PM Career roadmap, my first six-month goal was to:
First six-month goal: Harness my brand. Become more confident in my voice. Grow my network of supporters.
First six-month goal: Harness my brand. Become more confident in my voice. Grow my network of supporters.
  • What would you like to accomplish by the end of 12 months? Mine was:
Goal for the first 12 months: Fully master Project Management skills at the ticket level and know it like the back of my hand
Goal for the first 12 months: Fully master Project Management skills at the ticket level and know it like the back of my hand
  • What about the 18 months that follow? Assuming you have achieved the first two goals, what would you like to tackle in the following 18 months? That milestone in my PM Career was:

By this point, you will have created a Career Roadmap outlining the next two and a half years! Awesome job! If you are struggling to fill out your roadmap, here are some tips:

  • Talk to colleagues in the role that you want to achieve. Ask them about their career path, what they wish they could have done differently, what they learned along the way.
  • Seek out mentors who are doing what you see as your big-picture goal; ask them for advice.
  • Keep in mind that hardly any two career paths are the same, so don’t be afraid to forge your own path and create your own roadmap!

If you want to take your roadmap a step further, try defining at least one more big step, one that you think might take 2–3 years to master. My 2.5- to 5-year goal was:

Putting it all together, this is my 5-Year Career Roadmap from 2015–2020.

Whitney’s five-year career roadmap

Five years is a good stopping point for your Career Roadmap because things change. In that time frame, I met my husband, got married, and moved across the country. My priorities have certainly changed. In five years, you may also find that you have changed and your ultimate goal could be something else entirely. In which case, you can go through the same process of defining your new big-picture goal, assessing where you are today, and creating a roadmap to help get you there.

Every six months or so, remember to check back in on how you are progressing. Are you on track with where you wanted to be with your Roadmap by this time? Have you leveled up on some skills on your Skill Gap Analysis? Is your big-picture goal still inspiring and motivating you? Don’t be afraid to make adjustments; nothing is carved in stone here. One of the most important aspects of Product Management is continuously listening to feedback and making adjustments. You should also do this throughout your career.

What if I don’t yet have a big-picture vision?

While no two career paths are the same, there are things you can be doing that will help you advance in your career while you’re figuring out your big-picture goal. I encourage every career roadmap to include a continuous focus on developing your professional brand and nurturing your network of supporters.

Develop your professional brand

As a Product Manager, you work hard to define your products’ key value propositions and communicate what differentiates them from other solutions in the market. Similarly, you should apply this attention to your professional brand. What is it that sets you apart from other Product Managers? What value do you provide? If you don’t know the answer to these questions, that’s okay. Here are some tips to help you get started in creating your professional brand:

  • Ask your colleagues and managers past and present for feedback on what they appreciated the most about working with you on a recent project.
  • Listen for common phrases or themes from the feedback.
  • If you haven’t built up a lot of work experience yet, pick a role model and identify what it is about them that you admire most. What traits do you also have or would like to strive for in your professional brand?
  • Try that brand out for size. Does it feel right? Does it feel forced? If it doesn’t feel natural, make some adjustments or fine-tune it.
  • Routinely check in with yourself to assess if your actions are reflecting your brand. If they aren’t, then change your actions or modify your brand to be more accurate.

Expect your brand to change over time as you learn more about yourself and what sets you apart today versus what set you apart years ago. For example, my brand at the start of my Product Management career were things that I aspired to be: “Authentic, Professional, Radiant”. Now after five years, I’ve learned a lot more about what truly makes me unique, and my brand today has evolved to become: “Empathetic, Change Agent, Life-long Learner, and Experimenter.”

Write down at least 3 things that you feel set you apart and give it a try.

Nurture your network

Another thing that you should always be doing throughout your career is building a network of supporters around you. While you’re still working out the kinks on your big-picture goal, there’s nothing to stop you from building and growing your network. The people in your network can help and inspire you. Once you have defined your goal, you will reach it much faster when you have support.

I’m not suggesting that you go out and attend every networking event or send a LinkedIn request to everyone you meet — in fact, I’m suggesting quality relationships over quantity. Throughout your career, you should be building authentic connections with colleagues. People should want to work with you again, they should want to see you be successful, and you should also want them to achieve their goals.

Product Managers know that it is more expensive to acquire a new customer than retain existing ones, and the same could be said about your network. Do not be that person who steps on other people to climb your way to your goals, and always remember to show gratitude to those who have helped along the way!

Further Reading

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