What does it take to rise from product manager to product leader?

by Mike Fishbein in Leadership
February 1, 2017

Over the years, there’s been a lot of insight (and conjecture) as to what sets elite product managers apart from the pack. There’s a wonderful discussion on Quora that highlights many widely agreed upon best practices. But we decided to follow one of those best practices and actually look at our data to substantiate claims and determine how product managers move up the ladder. Consulting our survey of more than 150 product managers and my podcast interviews with over 80 experts from This is Product Management, we were surprised by our findings, to say the least. Whereas processes and practices are important, they seem to matter far less than grit, persistence, and a little bit of good luck.

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To conduct the analysis, we split survey respondents into two roughly equally-sized groups of product managers and senior leaders within the product department. We then looked at the responsibilities that each group reported having in their day-to-day jobs. Unsurprisingly, we found that leaders are overall more likely to be responsible for P&Ls, hiring, and revenue targets. Meanwhile, product managers are more likely to manage the development team and write user stories. All the data appeared as we expected, so we dug further to try to identify correlations that could lead us to how someone becomes a leader in the first place.

Education level seemed like an obvious place to start. Product managers are an impressively educated bunch overall, as our annual report shows. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2012, roughly 11% of those over the age of 25 held graduate degrees. Compare that to the 46% of those in product management with graduate degrees. But is education level the reason why a product manager gets promoted? On the surface, it appears not. In fact, product managers are slightly more likely to have graduate degrees than their superiors.

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So we moved onto background, considering if roles held earlier in one’s career serve as the foundations of future success. Anecdotally, we were skeptical, as numerous product leaders I’ve interviewed on my podcast stumbled into product management from hardly related fields. For example, Teena Singh, Director of User Experience at ADP, began her career in human resources. Brent Tworetzky, Executive Vice President of Product at XO Group, began his career in management consulting. And Dan Blumberg, Product Director for New York Times Global, was previously a radio show host and producer. And the data confirmed our skepticism, as product leaders aren’t any more likely to come from one background as opposed to another. However, I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that domain expertise can play a critical part in landing a leadership role in an industry vertical-focused organization.

Thus far, 0 for 2.

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So we went a step further and explored whether product leaders report being able to overcome challenges that block their subordinates. While there are no breathtaking differences between the two groups, product leaders are slightly less likely than product managers to say that they are most challenged by internal politics.

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Pivoting from biggest challenge to biggest wish, we again found virtually no difference between the two groups. This was perhaps most surprising of all, because we expected that leaders would at least be less likely to wish for a clear product roadmap and strategy, given that they presumably have more power to set it.

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For the record, we cut the data in a number of other ways, but by now you’re probably getting the point. We could find absolutely nothing noteworthy that product leaders ‘did’ that product managers ‘did not.’ Product leaders weren’t more likely to know how to code, write data queries, talk to customers, or do any of the myriad of ‘best practices’ we commonly associate with excellence in the discipline. And that might in and of itself be the takeaway: there’s no specific skill that elevates a product manager aside from simply learning on the job in the first place. Indeed, the only indicator of whether someone is a product leader is the number of years of experience they have in product management.

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One thing I’ve certainly learned from all the product leaders that I’ve interviewed is how seriously they take hiring and mentoring. Perhaps they’re modeling product managers in their own image, which is why there isn’t an obvious quantitative difference between the two groups.

To that end, the key to becoming a product leader is to first become a product manager. And, besides a little bit of luck, that means studying what companies are looking for and why, just as you would when searching for a pilot customer. When I interviewed Jon Stross, Co-Founder of Greenhouse, he explained how he prefers to hire product managers from within his customer support team because they’ve already developed empathy for the company’s customers. Similarly, David Cancel, Founder of Drift, specifically tries to hire people from HR, sales, and finance.

After that, it’s just about persistence and an uncompromising desire to learn. Virtually every single leader I’ve interviewed on This is Product Management hit a wall (if not many) at some point throughout his or her career. But all that matters is that they got back up and were stronger because of it. And while following best practices certainly help, time and experience are the most critical factors to becoming a product leader.

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