Product management roles demand the ability to think about both strategy and tactics. Ironically, the most common product management career mistakes stem from failure to do exactly this.
If you’re wondering how to build the product management career you want, you need to get proactive and plan for it. Because product management careers can take many paths. Don’t wait. Don’t look up from your desk 5 or 10 years from now and realize you’re no closer to enjoying the career you’d envisioned. Start planning now.
Let’s discuss some of the most common product management career mistakes and how you can avoid them.
Why Is It So Easy for Product Managers to Make Mistakes with Their Careers?
First, though, how is it that product managers allow their careers to slip off-track?
The day-to-day responsibilities of a product manager can be taxing, stressful, and all-consuming. Sometimes you don’t think you have time to stop, take a breath, and take stock of your career. Or perhaps it never occurs to you to take a step back, review where you are in your career, and assess whether you’re on the right path.
Which leads us to the first product management career mistake you’ll want to avoid.
Mistake #1: Failing to Set a Career Vision
New product managers often assume they’ll follow a traditional product management career path.
Many envision themselves spending their careers climbing the product management ladder. Starting as an associate product manager, then product manager, and senior product manager. Maybe they’ll later become a director or even VP of product management.
They may not consider the organizations, industries, or products they’ll manage in their careers. Instead, they’ll focus only on finding jobs that let them jump to the next rung.
Others may let their product management careers play out as they play out, taking whichever jobs come their way.
Both of these paths can be perfectly legitimate and rewarding. But the question is: Can you carve out a product management career that aligns with yourself as an individual? If you know your interests, passions, and strengths, the answer is yes, you can.
One strategy is to set a vision for your product manager career. As a post on the Brainmates blog suggests, you can actually roadmap your product management career plan.
Some helpful exercises for this include writing down your favorite (and least favorite) aspects of the product management role, your current skill set and where those skills might be transferable, etc.
The point is, don’t just let your product management career happen to you. Take charge of it yourself.
Many product managers prefer to focus on the areas of their role where they are most confident. Usually while avoiding the others.
This mistake can create problems for a product manager’s team, company, and products. We think it applies to a product manager’s career as well.
For example, let’s say you enjoy strategizing with your sales and marketing teams. But, you don’t feel technical enough to hold productive conversations with your development team. This leaves you with two choices.
- Continue finding excuses to make someone else responsible for working with your developers. (i.e. a product owner or a technical project manager)
- Force yourself to have those uncomfortable conversations with your technical teams. Use the experience to build skills in those areas. And accept that eventually you’ll get comfortable digging into the development details.
The second option will pay far bigger dividends in your product management career. You won’t be able to take the product management career path you really want if that path crosses skills or strengths you’re not willing to acquire.
Mistake #3: Over Specializing in One Area or Skill Set
The corporate copywriting industry gives us a helpful parallel here.
Successful copywriters often advise newbies to specialize. Specialties could include writing sales letters or deep knowledge in the software industry. Expertise in these niches gives copywriters an advantage over generalists who write a bit of everything.
Seasoned copywriters also warn newbies not to become too hyper-focused in one area. They still should amass experience in other areas. As a copywriter, you want to be able to market your services as an expert for a particular niche. But, you do not want to concentrate your experience completely on a small niche. Doing so can severely limit your options.
When you’re planning out your product management career, one mistake you can’t afford to make is to focus too narrowly. For example:
- You should build your skills at communicating the big strategic picture for your product. But, you can’t then neglect the equally important skills of being able to dive in and discuss the ground-level details. (Or vice versa.)
- You can’t afford to learn only how to communicate effectively with your internal teams (although that’s a necessary skill) but then fail to develop similar communication skills when speaking with customers or even to the media on behalf of your products and your company.
The broader the product management skill set you develop, the more options you’ll have for crafting the career you want.
Mistake #4: Failing to Leverage the Broader Product Management Community
Few product managers even realize they’re making this product management career mistake.
Product managers today have access to a broad community of product professionals. And these communities are full of insights and advice these professionals share every day.
You can also connect with product managers via LinkedIn groups or at product management events. Building your network of colleagues and contacts can help with your long-term career goals—whether you want to ask a seasoned product manager for advice about your career, or you’re reaching for a better job.
Bottom line: Don’t keep your head down and limit your professional contacts to the people at your organization. There’s a broad product management community out there; become a part of it.
Mistake #5: Letting Your Product Management Skills Go Stale
This might be the most common product management career mistake of all. It’s easy to settle into a routine in your product manager role—especially if you’re enjoying success and things seem to be working.
The results of a customer survey can’t provide answers for every product decision forever—because new realities render those responses less useful over time. For the same reason, you also can’t afford to stop expanding and refreshing your skills, strengths, and knowledge.
Product managers’ roles and responsibilities are always evolving. Today we have access to data analytics tools not available to most companies 10 years ago. With that access comes a new responsibility for us to learn how to use them. Otherwise, our products could lose ground to competitors whose product managers are more willing to adapt to these newly available resources.
As we’ve pointed out before, product managers should develop technical knowledge.
But that’s just one area of many. You’ll want to keep learning and expanding your knowledge and skill set every day. (If you want to enjoy a rich and rewarding product management career, that is.)
Start Planning Your Product Management Career
Successful product management careers don’t just happen. They require strategic thinking, self-reflection, and planning. We hope this post has helped you get started on that path. Hopefully, you can now spot and address the common product management career mistakes before they become issues holding back your career.
If you’d like more guidance, read our free career guide for product managers.