Members of the PMHQ Slack community regularly host awesome events for product managers to swap tips and learn from one another.
In San Francisco, Vinay Melwani (Product Manager at HouseCanary) has organized a monthly morning meetup called AM | PM. Attendees answer a thought-provoking question-of-the-month in a round-robin fashion and reflect on each other’s responses.
One of the questions:
"What viable career paths exist for product managers?"
Below are the different paths that we explored as a group.
Vice President of Product
Vinay commented that the traditional path of a product manager is to rise the ranks internally: from product manager to director of product, then to VP of product.
The VP of Product sets the product vision for her team, ensures that product strategy is aligned, and coordinates with other executives to accelerate growth. To be a successful VP of Product, one should demonstrate success in delivering a product, in enabling junior product managers to deliver products, and in crafting a long-term product vision and associated strategies that take industry trends into account.
Product Consultant / Speaker
Tyler Swartz, a senior product manager, highlighted that one path after being a successful product manager is to become a speaker or a consultant.
After a PM gains lots of relevant experience, she may find that she is more interested in enabling others to accelerate their growth, rather than focusing on the day-to-day operations of product development.
By being a product speaker, she can inspire and inform thousands of product managers. By being a product consultant, she can parachute into product organizations of varying maturities, and enable them to scale sustainably and smoothly.
Theo Gordon, Product Manager at Leanplum, called out that another viable exit path for a product manager is to become a venture capitalist.
Theo suggested that for a product manager to succeed in this pivot, she should first establish herself as a credible opinion-maker. After all, venture capitalists primarily function by influencing and solidifying opinions on how viable a market is, how attractive an investment is, and how good of a bet a product is.
As a group, we concluded that unless a product manager had already established herself as a Director of Product or higher, she would be unlikely to be immediately hired as a partner at a venture capital firm.
Therefore, if a product manager wanted to make such a switch, she would be advised to first rise the ranks internally while simultaneously building influence (e.g. through social media, blogs, or product events), then make the switch.
Rob McGrorty, previously Head of Product at Webgility, mentioned that product managers can also be successful entrepreneurs-in-residence.
Our readers may not have heard of this role before. An entrepreneur-in-residence is a role within a venture capital firm, and the role is responsible for identifying and eventually leading a new that the venture capital firm will then invest in.
For more information about entrepreneurs-in-residence, check out the following resources:
- What is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence? (Forbes)
- The Executive in Residence (EIR) Series (Adam Nash)
- So What The Heck Is An 'Entrepreneur In Residence' Anyway? (Business Insider)
- What Is an Entrepreneur in Residence and Why You Need One (CIO)
Internal Lateral Shifts
Vinay highlighted that product managers are also well-positioned to make internal lateral moves. For example, a product manager could move into corporate strategy, marketing, or business development.
Product managers regularly interface with a wide array of stakeholders. Since a product manager already has internal exposure, one could easily make the internal shift to an area that she personally finds to be more interesting.
Advisory Board Member
Theo made a great point that product managers can also be effective advisory board members. Many CEOs create an advisory board to provide them with cross-industry and cross-functional perspectives, while also positioning themselves for strong networking and partnership opportunities.
Advisory board members typically receive equity in return for their contributions to the organization. Quite a few board members sit on multiple advisory boards simultaneously, as the time commitment is relatively low for any single position.
Serial Product Organizational Scaler
Theo also highlighted that some product managers happen to be extraordinarily talented at scaling product organizations. Some might specialize from growing a small product organization to a one; others might specialize in growing a product organization to a large one. Regardless, as a scales, these kinds of product managers will find that they are no longer passionate about the role, and will find opportunities elsewhere to scale.
As a serial product organization scaler, one should identify what size of product orgs she has the most interest in scaling, determine when she should leave, and identify organizations that she would like to move to next.
Vinay identified that many product managers wind up driving entirely new products or business models, and may mature into becoming general managers.
A general manager leads an entire business line. That is, they are not focused just on the product, but also on monetization, operational processes, marketing, budgeting, etc. To be a successful general manager, product managers need to learn to let go of the details of day-to-day product development, and focus even more intensely on using influence and data to shift the priorities of the and the business line.
Product managers have many paths to success, and not all of them have to be related to product!
To ensure your long-term happiness and success, be sure to identifying which career end point you want to aim towards. Then, laying the foundation to make a successful transition.
About Our Contributors
Vinay Melwani is a Product Manager at HouseCanary.
Rob McGrorty was previously Head of Product at Webgility.
Tyler Swartz is a Senior Product Manager.
Theo Gordon is a Product Manager at Leanplum.
Have thoughts that you'd like to contribute around product manager career paths? Chat with other product managers around the world in our PMHQ Community!
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