Promotions are considered the ultimate form of recognition that you’re doing a great job, and your company values you. It signals to everyone in the organization that you’re crushing it and worthy of greater responsibilities and a bigger paycheck.
Typically, promotions are doled out somewhat regularly and predictably for many roles. For example, inside sales reps become account executives and then sales VPs. Junior developers become senior developers and then team leaders.
Yet this often isn’t the case for product managers.
Why are product managers denied promotions? Let’s explore some of the common causes of our careers stalling out.
6 Product Manager Mistakes and Missteps Sabotaging Your Promotion
No one should ever expect a promotion. That might have worked for your grandparents, but that’s not the way the world works anymore, especially for product managers.
Companies generally have zero incentive to proactively give you a raise or a fancier title just because you show up every day for a couple of years. If you’re taking it for granted that you’ll eventually get a promotion if you’re patient and do a decent job, then you’re likely going to be waiting for a long, long time.
Promotions and increases in compensation are pretty much the only carrots a company has in its arsenal when it comes to rewarding employees. But both of those are costly to employers and in limited supply.
Unless you work in banking, everyone can’t be a vice president. Moreover, few companies are so flush with cash that they can hand out meaningful raises regularly. So they’re holding onto that ammo until they need to use it.
1. You’re not on the radar
Promotions usually go to individuals that are widely recognized for their excellence. As a product manager, you may or may not be capitalizing on your strategic role in the organization to boost your profile.
If you’re not making regular appearances in front of senior management and on a first-name basis with the powers that be, it’s time to change that if you have ambitions for loftier roles. Luckily product management provides lots of opportunities to do so that don’t come off as blatant self-promotion:
- Use all-hands meetings to present your roadmap
- Include senior management in prioritization exercises
- Create roadmap views and presentations specifically for executives
- Tout the success your product has made improving KPIs
- Use your storytelling skills to create context and illustrate your big picture understanding
It’s all part of your job and a great way to stay top of mind when leaders are thinking about who’s ready for more responsibility and worth hanging onto.
2. Your review is too late
Performance review periods (be they annual, semi-annual, or quarterly) are often the time when promotions are announced. Coworkers walk out of manager offices with big smiles followed by a company-wide email touting their elevation, or with shoulders slumped while racking their brain for something to update on LinkedIn.
But these sessions aren’t for negotiating. Budgets were already set, and executives already approved any promotion decisions. No amount of lobbying will change the immediate verdict.
That’s why product managers must plant the seeds for promotion well in advance. It would help if you started making your wishes known and making your case months in advance for a real shot at getting that bump:
- Figure out when budgets are being set and work backward from there.
- Take the patient, measured approach of being upfront with your manager about what you’re looking for. Tell them your goals and identify specific things you should do or improve upon to meet them.
- Be open to their feedback about what it will take to get to the next level.
- Make progress in your perceived areas of deficiency and communicate it often.
- Don’t make it a topic in every interaction with your manager, but don’t be afraid to periodically check-in as both a reminder and a temperature check.
Most importantly, remember that your promotion may not just be up to your boss. It could require signoff and buy-in from executives, the CEO, or even members of the board. That takes time and a solid rationale for why it’s the right move for you and the company.
3. You’re not perceived to be a good people manager
Many promotions involve a transition from individual contributor to people manager. But killing it on your own is much different from successfully leading a team. That’s why management (and you) should consider whether you’re management material.
Senior leadership is going to be looking for traits that indicate you’ll flourish as a manager. Have you led cross-functional teams? Have you been inspiring and welcoming with others? Do you have the soft skills to get the most out of people? Are your communication chops up to snuff? Are you viewed as a trustworthy team player?
Meanwhile, there should be some introspection on your part. Do you want to be someone’s boss and deal with all the drama that entails? Are you open to giving up some of the day-to-day, down-in-the-trenches aspects of an individual contributor role? Does the day-in-the-life of a team leader sound appealing? Are you presenting yourself (including how you dress) as someone up to the job?
If not, there’s plenty of product management opportunities that can offer career advancement without amassing headcount and direct reports. There’s no shame in just wanting to manage products and not people.
4. They view you as tactical rather than strategic
If you’re spending all your time talking about features and reacting to customer issues, you will be considered to be reactive and tactical. While management loves having someone who gets things done and worries about the details, they’re not going to see your potential beyond firefighting and day-to-day matters.
Climbing the ladder means elevating yourself above those things and thinking big picture. Working with company-wide goals in mind, North Star metrics, and strategically important outcomes, say you’re far more likely to position yourself as a strategic thinker.
Your roadmap and prioritization frameworks are an excellent opportunity to burnish this image of yourself. Leave dates and details on the sidelines and use theme-based roadmaps and OKRs to decide what’s most important. Presenting your work in this light is more valuable to the company and shows off your strategic approach.
Additionally, it would help if you spoke the language of the audience you’re trying to win over. While they certainly care about users, their interest lies at the analytical level. Use metrics and data to justify decisions and show progress, since it’s both quantifiable and concise.
5. You’re in the wrong-sized pond
As a product manager, you can be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big one. Clawing your way to the top in a large organization is tough, as you’ve got lots of peers vying for a scant number of senior opportunities. That’s why many product managers looking to take on leadership roles end up jumping ship to startups or smaller firms.
However, the small pond can also be a blocker. You need someone above you to leave (or be promoted themselves) for much vertical movement to occur. If you didn’t come in as the senior member of the product management organization, there may be more chances to move up by joining a larger company.
6. You’re a unicorn, and no one needs a Vice President of Unicorns
If you’re the only product manager in the company, it can be a major battle to finagle a promotion. Being unique adds some extra challenges:
- You don’t have peers to be compared with.
- There might be no history of there being a Director or Vice President of Product at the company, so no one feels like they need one.
- Your boss was likely never a product manager, so they don’t understand your career path.
- If you’re not getting any direct reports, elevating you to a higher rank may not align with how other departments are structured.
- There’s no one to compare you to, so how do they know you’re worthy of a promotion?
Always be Closing
Convincing the powers that be you’re deserving often requires winning over more than just your manager. They may not have the sway or feel inclined to spend their political capital on this, so you probably need to make a case to every one higher on the food chain.
You’ll want to point to your track record of success, specific ways you’ve helped the company achieve its goals and the full scope of your responsibilities (which many people probably don’t fully understand). It can also help to present comparable data from similar organizations with some examples they can relate to.
It’s also worth pointing out what will be different for them after you start using your new title. Getting a promotion should mean taking on additional responsibilities, so point those out. Moreover, if you’ve already started doing those things, it’s going to require them acknowledging this promotion is overdue.
Securing a promotion isn’t easy, but with the right attitude, persistence, and a strategic approach, realistic product managers can eventually get what they want— or they can find a different company willing to give it to them.