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Promotion to a manager

As you think about your career in product or design, you see two options: further growth as an individual contributor or a transition to management. Many people choose the management route: the individual contributor path tends to be shorter and does not promise the same level of visibility. As a result, competition for management positions tends to be high. While the field is so competitive, you can maximize your chances of promotion by purposefully demonstrating relevant competencies, such as your understanding of the business, leadership skills, and the ability to run large-scale projects.

Being a leader means thinking about your product in the context of the business and helping others do the same, and it requires that you understand the business better than anyone else.

  • What problems does our product solve?

  • Who are your customers?

  • Who are your competitors?

  • How is your product different?

  • What industry trends are relevant to your business?

  • Who sells your product and how? When do your sellers win, and when do they lose?

  • What are the biggest threats and opportunities for your product?

Understanding the answers to these questions will not only help you make wise roadmap decisions; it will also allow you competently represent your product in leadership and analyst discussions and help other team members be effective at their jobs. Luckily, you definitely have coworkers who would be happy to share their knowledge. Ask your peers, your manager, and that guy who has been in the company for 15 years. Save any materials they share with you and add your own research. Knowing the business will be tremendously helpful in positioning yourself for a promotion.

Apart from business acumen, another critical competency you will need to demonstrate is leadership skills. Even though you are not a manager yet, start acting as a leader, and promotion will follow. One of the ways to do it is by helping strengthen the team. For example, you can propose and implement improvements for some of the team processes (e.g., competitive analysis, release management, design reviews, etc.). Another way to act as a leader is by helping your manager with some of their responsibilities. For instance, delivering some presentations in cross-functional forums, managing a specific client relationship, or keeping the team on track with critical deliverables—there can be many options, so ask your manager what would be the most helpful. Finally, another way to be recognized as a leader is by becoming an expert that other team members want to reach out to for help and advice. So if you already have unique expertise, make sure others on the team know about it and feel welcome to leverage it. In short, demonstrating your leadership skills will position you perfectly for the manager role.

One final way to secure your promotion is to choose impactful projects that let your skill set shine. You can be a fantastic PM or a kick-ass designer, but it won't get you the role you want unless others see your impact. So, given an opportunity, choose the projects of high visibility and the highest impact on the business. In addition, make sure that what you work on allows you to demonstrate your best skills; choose projects that require innovation, strategic thinking, and creativity. One added benefit of impactful products is that they tend to grow, opening up opportunities to form a team under you. Thus, be purposeful in choosing your products.

To summarize, although there is a lot of competition for management roles, you can increase your chances for that promotion by acquiring and demonstrating relevant skills. First, understanding the business will allow you to make wiser product decisions and help your team do the same. Second, acting as a leader by strengthening the team will demonstrate your abilities to perform in a management role. Finally, choosing impactful large-scale projects will ensure that your talent will get recognized.


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