5 Steps to Jumpstart Your Product Management Career

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Are you a new product manager — or an experienced one who is interested in re-invigorating your career? If so, you’re likely looking for strategies, tips, and insights for how to make sure you are on track and moving forward.

You’re in good company. A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out that product management is one of the most desired career paths for M.B.A. candidates. According to the article, Harvard Business School, Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management are all introducing new courses aimed at putting students on the path to becoming a product manager.

Just like those elite schools, product management isn’t for the faint of heart.

But there are things that can make you much more effective, increase your job satisfaction, and increase your chances for getting a promotion.

With this in mind, let’s cover five ways to jumpstart your product management career:

Find a mentor or a coach
One of the things that can have the most impact on your career trajectory and on your day-to-day is to find a mentor or coach. This could be an executive or even a peer who has achieved the accomplishments you want. Perhaps you want to be a better product leader, or maybe you want to learn to think more strategically. Decide what you want and make a commitment to yourself to find someone who will help you get it.

Don’t be afraid to ask someone to be your mentor. Almost 100 percent of the time they will be flattered and more than willing to help you out. In the rare case where someone is too busy or not willing, don’t take it personally. Great people help others, and you will find someone to help you. And if you can’t find a mentor you can always hire a professional product management coach. A coach will keep you accountable, help you build a plan to achieve what you want, and can be incredibly useful as a sounding board in difficult situations.

Learn more about your market
If you want to be a great product manager you have to understand your market and customers at a level that is far beyond anyone else on your team — or even in your company. Find every piece of data that you can about your market. How big is it? What’s the growth rate? How does the market share break down? What are the problems that customers face? How are your competitors doing?

Find out if competitors are hiring (and for what positions), who their leadership team is, what their product mix looks like, and what their profitability and overall marketing and development spends are as a percentage of their revenues. Much of this information will be available via annual reports and quarterly shareholder calls if they are a public company. If they aren’t a public company, read their press releases or the sites of the venture capitalists that funded them.

Of course, customer visits and market research will give you crucial insights. Make sure you are regularly investigating your customer’s challenges and are asking questions to try to figure out what additional value your products or services could add. Find out what your customers read and make sure you read it too. If there are user forums for your market make sure you frequent them to gather other insights and ideas.

Once you have the knowledge and data about your market and customers, share it. As a product manager you should always have at least eight to 10 pieces of data about your market and customers handy. Bring these up when your team is having discussions. Forward new data and share it when you find it. Every time you use data with your team it increases your credibility as the market and customer expert; over time you’ll find they rely on you to relay the voice of the customer.

Upgrade your skill set
Product managers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from sales to support, marketing to engineering. And almost all of them have to learn how to do their job … while on the job. In fact, few product managers ever receive training on how to do their jobs.

The result is that the work you do and the deliverables you produce may end up taking much longer than they could or should — and the quality may not be at a level that will get you your next promotion. Even if you have several years of experience and/or an M.B.A., investing in a little bit of training will pay off significantly (studies show that productivity improves by 18 percent after training).

So what kind of training should you get? To start, make sure that you get training that covers skills across the entire product lifecycle and can serve as a foundation for all of the work that you do. Start with this as a basis, along with a course in people skills for product managers. Training isn’t a one-time thing. Make a commitment to go to a course at least once (or better yet twice) a year.

Once you have completed the foundational courses, take courses on more advanced topics like leadership and working more effectively with agile teams. And you can earn certifications, such as those offered by the Association of International Product Management and Marketing (AIPMM). Certifications show your team, peers, and management that you have a deep understanding of how to do your job, and can help to differentiate you from the crowded pack of other product managers vying for a promotion.

Get your technical chops in order
If you are a product manager you have to have enough technical skills and understanding of technology to gain credibility with engineers. You don’t have to be a software programmer, but you do need to understand the fundamentals.

Create a list of the 10 technologies that your product is dependent on and make a commitment to learn about them. Read books that will give you a deeper knowledge about them. And don’t be afraid to ask your engineers to explain the underlying technology. Tap into their expertise so that you can gain the knowledge that you need.

Communicate like a leader
If you truly want to jumpstart your product management career you have to become a leader. Whether you are subtly leading and influencing without others noticing, or you have a more forward approach, you must learn how to get others to follow you and help you achieve the vision for your product.

With this in mind, make sure everything you do has the tone of being a product leader. Make your communications impactful and meaningful. Convey your thoughts and what you are asking for with authority.

Here’s a simple formula that can help you communicate complex situations and challenges more effectively:

  1. Describe the situation briefly (no more than three sentences)
  2. Provide three facts or data points related to the situation
  3. Clearly articulate the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches
  4. Ask for your informed colleagues thoughts

No one can be a great product manager without being a great leader.

Using these five strategies should help you elevate your product management career, make your job more fun, and move you into becoming a true product leader. When applied consistently you should see a dramatic change and great results.

This is a guest post by Brian Lawley. If you are looking to be a great product manager or owner, create brilliant strategy, and build visual product roadmaps — start a free trial of Aha!

Brian Lawley is the CEO and Founder of the 280 Group, a product management consulting and training firm located in Silicon Valley.

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