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Product Managers Career Path Hero

Steps to success: The importance of a clear career path for product managers

Director of Product, Intercom

Jane Honey

Director of Product Management, Intercom

Brian Donohue

@brian_donohue

Main illustration: Janice Chang

Product Management is an elusive craft. We all think we know what we’re talking about, but when it comes down to it, the difference between great, good and not quite good enough can be pretty slippery.

And what makes this even harder is that, because PMs own so few clear deliverables (such as code or designs), it can be tricky to pinpoint what exact impact a PM had on a team. The result is that performance reviews can be hard to do well, consistently, across multiple managers. In reflecting on the reviews we’ve delivered, we’ve found that it’s too easy to be overly reliant on peer feedback and thus too ad hoc in the areas we’ve focused on.

Career ladders to the rescue

This is where career ladders come to the rescue. Career ladders serve multiple purposes:

  • They make it clear to folks on your team (and to their colleagues who do peer reviews) what’s expected of the role.
  • They make it clear what’s expected of them to get a promotion (which is really the main question everyone has).
  • They make it easier to do fair, consistent, well-weighted performance reviews.

But, frankly, they’re a pain in the ass to write. It took four of us to get our latest ladder over the line (thanks, Colin and Paige)!

“Having a solid framework for framing the discussion is a big step forward”

Of course, there’s still heaps of ambiguity and subjectivity. As our colleague Paul Murphy recently wrote: “People tend to ask a simple question: ‘What do I need to do to get promoted?’ However, this question rarely has a simple answer. Getting promoted is usually more nuanced than just nailing a series of discrete tasks.” But having a solid framework for framing the discussion is a big step forward.

So we’re sharing our ladder in the hope that it can act as inspiration when considering what the PM career ladder should look like in your own organization.

Our approach to evolving the ladder

The first part of the challenge is choosing the “buckets.” There are so many aspects to being a successful PM, and lots of great articles articulating these. But just amalgamating these into a long laundry list of skills and attributes isn’t helpful enough. So ultimately we arrived at five big buckets – called “skill areas” – and then we had two to four discrete areas within them, leading to 17 in total. 😬 (Hmm, maybe we’ll cut that down next time around.)

Our goal was to ensure we had space for the wide range of important feedback that we’ve given to folks on our team over the years. We wanted to ensure reality (well, at least our experience) was informing this, rather than theory.

“Our goal was to ensure we had space for the wide range of important feedback that we’ve given to folks on our team over the years”

Here are some highlights of our thinking for each of the areas:

1. Insights driven

The need to be close to your customers is a given, but most PMs have a natural tendency toward either people or numbers. Both are needed, and both require very different skill sets. We love hearing from a PM who has customer anecdotes close to hand for almost any conversation but also has numbers to back up their important claims. There’s almost no phase of work that doesn’t rely on this. A PM who drifts away from their customers is a PM in trouble.

2. Strategy

This skill ebbs and flows in importance depending on where a team is at, and usually leadership provides clear direction on this front. The product roadmap should be the translation of strategy into execution. If the company strategy isn’t giving much clarity to their teams, the best PMs also frame the roadmap conversation around the right level of strategic debate. Always much harder to do in practice than in principle.

3. Execution

We believe that how you execute has a huge impact on success. So in this bucket we’ve explicitly tied in our R&D principles to what we’re evaluating our team on: 1) start with the problem, 2) think big, start small and 3) ship to learn. And though we don’t have a principle on this, we’ve included “ship the whole customer experience” (hat tip to Brandon Chu).

4. Driving outcomes

This skill seems so obvious to include, but it’s actually new for us to explicitly call out. It’s critical that our PMs are focused on impact and are prioritizing initiatives with this in mind. (But we’ve deliberately ensured that outcomes don’t come at the cost of shipping. You can’t have an outcome without shipping something, and the faster you ship, the quicker you learn how to make it better.)

5. Leadership behaviors

There are so many to potentially include here, but ultimately we agreed on four: communication, collaboration, ownership and decisiveness. Communication and collaboration are no-brainers. Ownership isn’t quite what it sounds like – it’s about doing whatever it takes, and never optimizing for a local product area over the greater good for Intercom. And also it’s about being “on top of your shit.” That phrase didn’t make it into the ladder, but it’s there in spirit. And of course it’s important to evaluate your team against your company’s core values – ours include values like having a growth mindset and being confident yet humble.

Defining these skill areas was just the first part of the work. To complete the document, we articulated our expectations for each level, from Associate to Principal. We’re now focused on building a second ladder that plots the management path to help our PMs decide the right route for them (and to help us progress too). We’ll share that with you when we get there.

👉 Check out the full career ladder 👈

So you probably just jumped down to this section, right? Fair enough – here’s our PM career ladder PDF with all the details.

And while you’re here, you may as well check out our open PM roles in London, Dublin and San Francisco. 😊