The product manager career path is an exciting one with lots of possible on- and off-ramps. At ProductPlan, we’ve spoken to many product leaders about their career trajectories and past professional experience, and have found there is significant variation in titles, responsibilities, and hiring and promotion criteria. Some product organizations have associate and senior product managers, while others have only a single role with varying levels of responsibility. Factors like company size, budget, business goals, and more, will have an impact on how the product team is structured. Despite the many different company-specific permutations, it’s helpful to establish a general product manager career path to help you plan your next move.
In this post, we’ll take a look at six common roles a product manager might find themselves in throughout their product management career:
- Associate Product Manager
- Product Manager
- Senior Product Manager
- Director of Product
- VP of Product
- Chief Product Officer and Beyond
Associate Product Manager
For this entry-level product role, hiring managers are looking for you to demonstrate both that you have an understanding of what product management is and that you have a clear interest in and passion for the customer. This first stop on the product manager career path is not like school. It’s not about knowing the most, working the hardest, or beating the competition. It’s more of an art. It’s about demonstrating your empathy for the user, highlighting your ability to identify issues and opportunities, and collaborating with others. It’s important to show you can hear all sides of a story, synthesize and assess the different perspectives, and arrive at a clear decision.
“Product management is about empathizing with users, identifying opportunities, and collaborating with others.”
Since much of product management involves formulating and asking the right kinds of questions, you’ll also be expected to demonstrate your curiosity. Annie Dunham, ProductPlan’s Director of Product, says she always asks candidates to tell her about something they’ve recently learned. This kind of question can reveal a lot about a person’s natural curiosity and passion for learning. You can also demonstrate these qualities by thinking carefully about the types of questions you should ask during a product interview.
In terms of the day-to-day work, associate product managers can expect to be involved with everything a product manager typically does, just on a smaller scale. In other words, you may not set the product strategy or own the product roadmap, but you will set priorities for your own projects. You may not be presenting product plans across the company, but you’ll be responsible for keeping your peers and your manager updated.
Associate product managers will be responsible for prioritizing tasks with a defined set of constraints, not necessarily defining which tasks they’re performing, but making scoping and prioritization decisions around the tasks or projects they’re assigned. Associate product managers will work and collaborate daily with other members of the product team, as well as other adjacent teams like UX and engineering. During this work, they’ll regularly communicate the status of their product to all relevant stakeholders. Your job is to balance business objectives and customer needs, reconciling the goals of the business with benefits to the customer. You’ll need to ask yourself if a feature is needed, and if so, why? How is it solving a customer problem and moving the needle for the business? This last point introduces the importance of measurement. As an associate product manager, you’ll need to continually speak to the “this is what we’re doing and why we’re doing it” question, and you’ll rely on metrics to let you know if you’re successful.
So, when are you ready to move from an associate role into a full product manager role? You’ll be completely on top of the above activities. You’ll have established yourself as the “go to” person for your product set and will have developed an excellent working relationship with engineering, UX, marketing, and other teams. You should be comfortable delegating some of your tasks to someone else and trusting in the process you’ve helped establish, and you should be prepared to speak to what is needed in the associate role in order to mentor your replacement.
To get to this point on the product manager career path, you’ll likely need to come in with some experience. You don’t necessarily need direct product management experience, but you’ll need to have had some professional experience that clearly demonstrates your communication, collaboration and prioritization skills. Though you might not need hands-on product experience, you’ll definitely need to be able to speak to basic product concepts and walk in with a hit-the-ground-running attitude.
This mid-level product role is similar to the associate level product manager position, except that in addition to being your product’s “go to” resource for other teams, you’ll be the point person for the product team itself related to your product. You’ll be consulted for advice on process, relationships, tactical moves, etc., and will need to be confident and well-informed by data.
In order to move into a senior product manager position, management will need to be confident you’re doing your job well and are driven to help the team accomplish its broader goals. You should have a demonstrable understanding of the customer benefit your product provides, be able to articulate the specific customer problems it’s solving, and be able to tie product metrics to business goals in a compelling way. In other words, everything should be running and running smoothly; internal and external customers should feel informed and engineering, UX, and marketing should trust and respect you. You’ll also know it’s time to move on to the next point on the product manager career path because you’re hungry for more.
Senior Product Manager
Typically, at this point on the product manager career path, you’ll need to have had some direct product management experience. At minimum, a successful senior product manager will come in with professional experience that demonstrates her ability to think on her feet, be accountable for decisions, lead by example, and make data-driven decisions based on a multitude of complex, interdependent factors. This role will also require deep product and market knowledge.
In terms of day-to-day responsibilities, senior product managers perform most of the same duties as described under the associate and mid-level product manager sections, just with higher-impact, higher-visibility products. They are in a position to lead other, more junior product managers and work closely with product leaders in the organization to contribute to and execute on product strategy. While other product managers might be heads down in the data or more involved with customer interviews and feedback, senior product managers begin to look more at the broader product process and start to become more of a voice for the product team to leadership.
Senior product managers that become a critical source of advice for other product managers and that successfully advocate for the product team to senior leadership are well-positioned to move on to a director-level role. This is especially true for senior product managers that are consistently exhibiting curiosity and passion not just for their product and customers, but also for the product process itself.
Director of Product
A director-level role in product will require leadership experience, and the ability to build and trust a team to do the work you previously did as a sole contributor. The Director of Product role will further focus on building better processes and honing existing ones, improving overall team performance, and building consensus across the entire organization.
You’ll regularly meet with your peers throughout the company—this is what’s happening and why, what do you need from product, this is what product needs from you, etc. This role relies heavily on data. You have a team focused on individual KPIs but you’re responsible for connecting those small-scale numbers to the broader success metrics of the business as a whole.
Directors of Product spend a significant amount of time researching the market landscape their product lives in. What’s the latest info on competition? What are new product best practices? How can we improve our product development process, relationship between teams, and executive buy-in?
Product directors are also a resource and mentor for the rest of the product management team. Product teams will have a variety of strengths and part of a director’s job is to put those strengths to work for the benefit of the company while helping individual product managers improve in other areas. You’ll advocate for the team and for your product strategy, and you’ll own and present the product roadmap to the rest of the organization, and make sure your team understands everything happening at the higher levels of the business and the market. You’ll participate in strategic projects as needed, but will spend the majority of your time crafting high-level strategy and ensuring your team’s activities are advancing that strategy in the most effective way possible.
VP of Product
At this level of the product manager career path, you are significantly less involved with the hands-on activities related to the product development process. In a large organization, there might be more than one VP of Product, depending on the number of product lines. Whether there’s one VP or several, this role is a high-level support resource for the product organization, responsible for the entire product set and how it fits into the rest of the organization.
Activities and responsibilities include budgeting for the product organization, ensuring that strategic product decisions align with business objectives, and protecting the product team from infighting and internal politics. The VP role is both there to enable the product organization at the high level and to act as a check on activities from the perspective of the business, C-level stakeholders, and, if applicable, the board of directors. VPs of Product might also participate in speaking engagements, and look at how the product contributes to thought leadership. A lot of a VP’s time is spent thinking about what needs to happen with the team today to be ready for what’s coming a year from now, i.e. future-proofing your product and team. In this role, your product team is tactical, while you are primarily strategic.
Chief Product Officer and Beyond
If your organization has a CPO, that might be the next logical step for an experienced VP of Product. Chief Product Officer is either an expanded variation of the VP of Product role, or one that oversees multiple VPs of product rolling up to one product leader. At this level, you’re looking at a product portfolio, and making sure staffing resources, budget, and research are being invested in the areas that will provide the combined best benefit. You’re tracking numbers 3-6 months out, but you’re making strategic decisions for the 3-5 year timeframe. You’re setting the aspirational product goals to inspire and push your team, i.e. “Here’s what we can be, here’s what we will be, here’s what success looks like this quarter, year, and so on.”
Apart from CPO, there are lots of other options for veteran product folks: General Manager, COO, CEO, and more. Product folks tend to make great GMs and COOs because they’re used to working across the entire company to move business objectives forward. The same methodologies they’ve been practicing their entire career—understanding an issue, strategizing, prioritizing work, testing, validating, etc.—come into play at this level as well, although they look a little different.
“Product managers make great GMs and COOs because they’re used to working across the entire company to move projects forward.”
You’ll make budgeting decisions not just across one department, but across the entire organization, relying as you always have on data and KPIs. At this level, you’ll be developing, measuring, and constantly improving on objective criteria for success, and you’ll be responsible for mentoring and energizing people doing vastly different types of work across the entire organization. In other words, at this point on the product manager career path, your product really becomes the product organization itself.
Have additional thoughts on the product manager career path? Leave them in the comments!