Intercom’s Jane Honey on perfecting career paths for product management

Main illustration: Edmund Boey

The role of a PM is riddled with variables and subtleties. Writing clear career paths gets rid of the uncertainty and helps you navigate your way up the ladder.

Ask five product managers what they do and they’ll likely give you five radically different answers. There’s a massive disparity in how people approach the role of a PM, depending on where they’re working, the products they’re developing, or even the culture of the company. Naturally, this presents many challenges. From the PM’s side, it’s hard to know what the job expects of you or how you can move up the ladder. From the manager’s perspective, it’s tricky to conduct fair and consistent performance reviews or know what skills you’re looking for when hiring new PMs.

That’s why Jane Honey, our own Senior Director of Product, is such a fan of career development paths. Jane’s career is quite unique. She started out as a nurse, got into journalism as a TV news producer, ventured into e-commerce at companies like Tesco and Moonpig, and finally, in the fall of 2018, joined the product team at Intercom.

A while back, she and Brian Donohue, our Senior Director of Product Management, wrote an article about Intercom’s take on the PM career ladder. But as is the case with almost everything at Intercom, it has since evolved. Jane took the feedback they got from the PM team, tweaked and expanded the ladder from associate PM to principal PM, created an entirely new manager ladder for GPMs, and rounded up resources for employees to have meaningful conversations with managers about their career goals.

In this episode, we sat down with Jane to talk about the perks of career ladders and what changed in our approach since last time.

If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:

  • Career development paths are not just helpful to define what you expect for a particular role, but to do fair performance reviews and even hire and onboard new people for a job.
  • Instead of focusing on business outcomes to evaluate someone’s performance, it’s better to analyze how they define those outcomes, their attitude towards reaching them, and how their insights into the process help improve it along the way.
  • As a PM moves up the ladder, their focus moves beyond the scope of a single area, they can tackle more challenges with less supervision, and the projects they lead have a much broader impact on the business.
  • People tend to think short-term when it comes to career progression. Managers can and should help them map out longer-term career goals and, together, hatch a plan to reach them.
  • If there’s one thing Jane learned, it is that repeatedly pushing yourself out of your comfort zone forces you to learn a great deal very quickly, helping you become a better, more rounded leader.

We’ve also gathered a list of principles and career planning templates that Jane and the team have built:

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Career metamorphosis

Liam Geraghty: Jane, thank you so much for joining us. You’re very welcome to the show.

Jane Honey: Thank you very much for inviting me. I’m delighted to be here.

Liam: To start off, could you just give us a little bit of background on yourself and your career? Because as we heard in the intro, you’ve had a few.

Jane: I have had a few. I have been all over the shop. I’ve had a very checkered career, to say the least. I started out as a nurse, I worked for several years at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. And then I moved into journalism. So, a bit of a shift there. I worked for nearly eight years as a TV news producer for Reuters.

“There’s no such thing as a career for life anymore. We can all have about four or five careers in our lifetime. And I’ve definitely had a crack at that”

I then moved into digital and worked primarily in editorial roles in the media. I worked at ITV, UK TV, Channel 4, all UK-based television producers. I moved slightly into product management when I was still in TV. Then, I moved into e-commerce environments and worked at Tesco, Moonpig, a UK e-commerce provider, and then Canon. And then, I joined Intercom about three years ago, working in B2B SaaS. I’m a strong believer in the concept – there’s no such thing as a career for life anymore. We can all have about four or five careers in our lifetime. And I’ve definitely had a crack at that.

Liam: Absolutely. I’ve ordered many customized birthday cards from Moonpig in the past. What is the PM team like here at Intercom? What’s the culture like?

Jane: It’s fantastic actually. We’ve got a really strong culture and growth mindset. So, lots of discussions about how we do product development and what we try and do to make faster decisions, execute more quickly and feel more confident in some of the decisions we’ve made. But it’s also fun. We’ve struggled a bit with the pandemic, but we’ve had some virtual cocktail nights, and we’ve had a pop quiz recently. So, we try and have fun, as well, along the way.

The benefits of career paths

Liam: I wonder if you could give us a bit of an introduction of why it’s so important for product managers to have a clear career path or, really, anyone?

Jane: Well, one of the key beliefs we have in the product team is that it’s really important that everyone knows what they’re here to do. It sounds so simple. And particularly with product management, that job can mean so many things to different people. There’s a huge disparity in how people do product management, depending on where they’re working, the culture they’re in, the products they’re developing.

“They make it clear to everyone, not just the product manager, but everyone on their team and within the leadership team, what’s expected of them”

So, we build what we call career development ladders that help define what we expect for the role. They serve multiple purposes. They make it clear to everyone, not just the product manager, but everyone on their team and everyone within the leadership team, what’s expected of them in the role. And this helps everyone have much more concrete conversations about how they’re doing.

It also makes it clear how to grow in your role, not just to the next level to get a promotion, but towards longer-term career goals, and they make it easier to be very fair and consistent when we’re looking at things like performance revie ws. We also use them when we’re hiring. We look at the core areas we’ve identified in our career ladders and use them to assess candidates when we’re hiring. And then, we also use them when we’re onboarding PMs to help them understand exactly what we think about when we think about product management at Intercom.

“It’s been a huge amount of work, but we know from the team that it’s really helped them be much more confident about what they should be focused on”

Liam: You had a fantastic post on the Inside Intercom blog a while back about the PM ladder, but you’ve recently rebuilt this. I’m wondering how you rebuilt it and why?

Jane: Yeah, it’s interesting. Over the last couple of years, ever since we did that blog post, we’ve built a series of ladders. We’ve plotted the expectations for product managers, from associate PM all the way up to the principal PM. So, we’ve extended the product management ladder that we had published. And we also created a manager ladder that describes what we expect from our group product managers and directors. It’s been a huge amount of work, a heavy lift, but we know from the team that it’s really helped them be much more confident about what they should be focused on and what it takes to get to the next step. And that’s shown up in lots of engagement surveys that we’ve done. We’re really happy to share where we’ve got to since we did those original ladders.

Beyond chasing outcomes

Liam: In that post, you mentioned you’d arrived at five big buckets or skill areas. And then two to four discrete areas within them. I think it was a total of 17. You said that maybe you’d cut them down next time. I’m wondering, did you get to cut them down?

Jane: No, we have not cut them down. Most of them have held up strong, but we did change one of the competencies. There’s a competency in there all about chasing outcomes. And we didn’t quite get it right in the original ladder. It became clear that the way that skill was described in the ladder wasn’t that good because it could have been that a product manager wasn’t that strong and hadn’t defined the right strategy or overseen the right type of execution, and yet, by some fluke, or because the sales and marketing team have really over-performed, they were able to deliver impact. And vice versa. It might be that they’ve got a fantastic strategy that’s very well-informed, the team has executed it brilliantly, but there’s been some reason either in the market or outside of their control that meant they haven’t had the impact they should have done.

“We’ve moved away from the pure ‘have they hit the goals they set out to?’ grading we had to be much more about the behaviors and the skills they brought to the discussions”

So, we’ve redone that ladder and broken it down into two parts. One is: are they really able to define the outcomes we should be pointing out and build out the assumptions that are going to help us learn about those outcomes? And then the second one is about their behaviors. Are they fighting for impact? Are they working hard with sales? Are they working hard with marketing? Are they learning what’s worked and what hasn’t worked and changing the roadmap based on those learnings? It’s that sort of attitude we’re measuring for that competency now. We’ve moved away from the pure “have they hit the goals they set out to?” grading we had before to be much more about the behaviors and the skills that they brought to the discussions about whether or not we’ve hit those goals.

That’s one way that we changed the original ladder. But we did a deep dive with all the PMs and came across several other problems that we weren’t aware of that we’ve since gone on to solve as well.

“It was hard to understand how we used the ladder to measure performance and define someone’s readiness for promotion. So, we’ve been a lot clearer there”

Liam: And you’ve launched a GPM ladder too.

Jane: Yeah. We’ve extended the product manager ladder to add staff and a principal role. We firmed up that competency that I just talked about around outcomes. We created a manager ladder, too. And then, we also made some more recent changes because we could see that there were some problems. It wasn’t that easy to understand the differences between levels. So, we have done some work there. There was also a lack of clarity about the principal PM role and how we see that working at Intercom. And it was hard to understand how we used the ladder to measure performance and define someone’s readiness for promotion. So, we’ve been a lot clearer there. A fourth area we wanted to tackle was longer-term career planning. So we’ve built out some material there, as well.

Moving up the PM ladder

Liam: I’d actually love to hear a bit more about that if you could go in a bit deeper.

Jane: We had a lot of feedback from the PM team that it was quite hard to tell the difference between the different levels in the ladder. And this wasn’t just on the PM ladder. It was also on the manager ladder. And so, we really dug in to understand what makes a PM ready for senior and what makes a senior PM ready for staff PM. What were the differences between those different levels? And we boiled it down to three core dimensions that we could use for both of the ladders. And these three dimensions are scope, autonomy, and impact.

“As a PM becomes more senior, their primary focus is going to move beyond the remit of a single team or product area”

In terms of scope, what range of product areas is the PM responsible for? How significant are those areas? How important are those product areas to our overall company strategy, and how far out can they think? As a PM becomes more senior, their primary focus is going to move beyond the remit of a single team or a single product area, and they’ll be thinking across a multiple-year timeframe. So that’s the first dimension, scope.

The second dimension is autonomy. How much support do they need to define and create a product strategy and successfully deliver results with their team? Senior PMs and managers are able to operate in the role much more independently, and tackle more difficult challenges or ambiguous problem areas with less supervision. And the third area is around impact. The impact they deliver will increase as they become more senior, with the projects they lead having more value to our customers and our business. They’ll be able to move beyond their immediate team and execution towards a much broader impact on defining strategy, influencing how we work as a function and the performance of the people around them. They’ll have a broader impact on the department or the way we work.

That’s how we made the differences between the levels a bit clearer. Then, we went through each competency and defined the scope for this level of the role, the autonomy we expect and the impact we expect. And we plotted it out against each of the competencies.

Liam: Just to expand on the career development, you mentioned Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory about mastery, that it takes many hours to become an expert in any given field. And I’m super interested in your take on this because it’s off the back of what we’ve been talking about. What’s your feeling about that theory?

“There’s still an art to this. It’s not an algebraic equation, defining on how we measure performance”

Jane: That’s related to how often you have to practice something to really become an expert at that. And I suppose the PM role is a classic role where you won’t have been a PM for years and years and years. It’s not something that’s taught at school, or that’s even that old as a career. PM’s need to be able to jump in into all sorts of ambiguous situations and suddenly become an expert and be expected to lead the team. So, we are definitely looking for some science behind how much they can demonstrate that they have the skills that we’re looking for and how well they can navigate those using things like scope, autonomy, and impact. But there’s still an art to this. It’s not an algebraic equation, defining on how we measure performance. We’re still looking for some mixture of art and science in how we apply the career ladder to really assess performance. There are going to be several factors that we’ll be able to take into consideration. Some of those might be about the context you’ve been operating in or where you started from and your progress against some career goals that you’ve defined for yourself, not just this career ladder.

Liam: And so, you’re looking at all of that when you’re hiring a product manager. It’s all of those skills you’re on the lookout for.

Jane: Yeah. We’re looking for the five skills we defined in the original ladder around insights, leadership behaviors, execution, strategy, and defining outcomes. We’re looking at those five skills, but we’re also using our judgment to assess whether or not we have confidence that they have what it takes to move to the next step and identify where growth areas might be.

Investing in longer-term goals

Liam: And like you said at the beginning about your many careers, and you’ve written before about how we can invest in reinventing ourselves, which I think is so relevant in how we live these days and the world we live in. What are the things that we could do to invest in ourselves?

“We’re a little bit short-term-ist when we think about career progression”

Jane: That was another of the problems that we surfaced when we talked to the PMs. Often, we’re a little bit short-term-ist when we think about career progression. We spend most of our time talking about immediate sources of frustration or disengagement or specific steps you might take to get better to get yourself to the next level. And so, one of the ways that you can invest in yourself is thinking about how to have longer-term career discussions with your manager, where you’re looking at a much longer timeframe of two, maybe five, maybe 10 years, and mapping out some career goals that would help you achieve those dreams and aspirations. We have spent some time being very intentional about that in the product team.

We’ve built out some career planning principles we think are important as a product leadership team that help people think about how to approach their careers. And then, we’ve also built out a template for how to have productive career discussions and how to invest in yourself and your long-term growth at Intercom. We’ve built out career discussion guides to help you have fairly loose, open-ended discussions, which you can then synthesize with your manager and turn into a concrete plan to help you get to a longer-term goal. That’s one of the things we’ve done recently, and we can definitely share some of those principles and the career planning template we’ve built. I think it might be useful for anyone who wants to think about how to invest in themselves, and also any managers who want to ensure they’re not just having short-term conversations with their teams, and moving to a longer-term, deeper relationship with their direct reports.

“We’ve built out career discussion guides to help you have fairly loose, open-ended discussions, which you can turn into a concrete plan to help you get to a longer-term goal”

Liam: Absolutely. We can definitely share that in the blog post because, as you said, I think that would be super useful. Are you working on any big plans or projects for the rest of 2021?

Jane: In terms of career ladders, we definitely want to improve the way we hire and the way we use the ladders in our hiring process. That’s something we’re keen to improve. We do it now, but it’s a bit light, and I think we could be a bit more intentional there. We’ll constantly be talking to the PMs and using our performance cycle to understand whether or not the ladders are helpful and whether or not they could be more useful in specific areas. We’ll check with them again to see whether or not they’re fit for the purpose.

And we’ve just introduced a principal PM role and a staff PM role at Intercom. These are senior roles. It’s not until the proof’s in the pudding, we want to have some people in those roles. And then, we can really understand whether we’ve shaped the roles correctly in the way that works for Intercom. That’s something we’ll be keeping an eye on as well.

Push yourself out of your comfort zone

Jane: I think it’s important to have strong relationships with peers you really trust that help you understand where your gaps are and help you believe in yourself more. I’ve not been lucky when it comes to having strong female leaders or managers. Intercom’s brilliant because we have Karen as our CEO and she’s an amazing role model, but this is my 21st, 22nd job, and I’ve never had a female manager apart from some managers very, very early on when I was a student nurse, and they were the Nurse Ratchets that you would see in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’ve never felt like my manager has been like me. That’s been a gap. So I’ve really lent on peer support to understand what strong female leadership looks like.

And then, I suppose, also challenging yourself. Going back to that reinvention piece – every time you feel slightly out of your depth, you are learning so, so much. So, push yourself out of your comfort zone repeatedly. I think that’s a really good skill to get comfortable with. It’s very tricky to get comfortable with it, and you can feel anxious, but it does eventually help you learn once you start to gain context and get to grips with the new space you’re in. I’ve moved from industry to industry, role to role, and I’ve often been out of my depth. Going back to that expert concept that we talked about the 10,000 hours, I’ve often been the person with the least context, but that’s a fantastic way to learn and push yourself to be a more rounded, balanced leader.

“Every time you feel slightly out of your depth, you are learning so, so much”

Liam: 100%. Lastly, where can our listeners go to keep up with you and your work online?

Jane: Well, the Intercom blog is, obviously, a useful place to see the features and products we’re building out at Intercom. Plus, we’re often writing about our support use case, one of the programs that I lead at Intercom. Anything you read about what we’re building in the support space has probably got some fingerprints of mine behind the scenes, although primarily the team. I’m a voyeur on Twitter. I don’t go on Twitter myself. I’ve had too many negative stories about it.

Liam: I think that’s the way to be. Jane, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

Jane: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much.