One of the challenges that we have as Product Managers is managing our own career trajectories while at the same time running the products that we are tasked with keeping alive and breathing. A wise mentor once told me that we’re all consultants in this day and age, and that we should be sure that we’re gaining skills and abilities that will allow us the most flexibility in the future, should a company decide we’re no longer needed, or vice-versa.
As a Product Manager, there are some skills and abilities that transfer between companies and markets, and these are the skills that we need to focus on whenever and wherever we can, so that if or when the time comes that we bid a fond adieu to our current employer, it’s with the confidence that the next phase of our career will be that much better.
Your number one tool in your entire Product Management toolkit is going to be your relationships with your stakeholders, with your management team, and with your development team. Because we live in a position where we have all of the responsibility for the product but rarely any of the direct authority to get things done, the way that we do get things done is through our influence and through the leverage of our knowledge and our relationships both inside and outside the organization that employs us. Strong relationships are the key to a strong product manager; and weak relationships almost always cause a weak product manager. Relationships are a matter of give-and-take, and require a significant amount of investment — both of time and of energy — to maintain and build. The absolute best product managers that I’ve known seemed effortless in their management of the various relationships that they had within the company, and rarely hesitated to cash in favors both internally and externally when they needed extra support for something that they deemed necessary for the betterment of their product and of the company.
Second to your relationships is the technology that you use. There are literally hundreds of different Product Management tools and applications out there, and more seem to be popping up every day. Some are project management tools masquerading as product management tools, others are glorified roadmap visualization tools that tack on some kind of knowledge management capabilities. Some are specifically designed for a narrow range of practices that may or may not fit how you do what you do, and others are so genericized to be utterly useless. Then there are the tools that your other teams use – the development kits, the bug trackers, the support systems, and even the platform itself. While you may not need to know every detail of these tools and their underlying technologies, you need to become expert enough with them all to bend them to your will and make them give you the information that you need most, when you need it. This means working your way into administrative roles in the system, understanding data structures and reporting solutions, and exposing yourself to the barest minimum of knowledge management theory necessary to ensure that your feedback systems and your prioritization systems work as well as they can to support your needs and the needs of your teams. A good use of technology makes any product manager’s job so much easier that it’s ridiculous to remain stuck in the bad, old days of using Microsoft Excel for everything from input tracking to prioritization to velocity tracking. There are better tools out there — find them and figure out how to leverage them for your own needs.
In today’s world, future opportunities rarely come based on what you know, but rather on who you know. And, in an uncertain world where markets are increasingly subject to consolidation and liquidation, it’s often true that we never really know when we might need to unexpectedly leverage those whom we know in order to find that next opportunity. Additionally, building a strong network will provide you with a broad array of resources upon whom you can rely for all sorts of things. Need someone to come in for a quick UX design contract? Check your network. Need someone to help your dev team find a new intern for the summer? Check your network. Need someone to validate a new and innovative idea or approach? Check your network. Building a good network means getting out in your local product management community — and in your community in general. Attending ProductCamps in your region; joining Meetups related to product management, design, and development; attending social events at industry conferences or going out with a client or prospect after an onsite visit…all of these are essential and time-tested opportunities to build your professional network in a way that will provide returns well above your investment.
Last, and certainly not least, the vast majority of what a good Product Manager brings to the table isn’t found anywhere other than inside their own brain. Every single thing we do professionally grows our knowledge of the market, our customers, the problems they have, the solutions that we want to build, etc. etc. etc. And unlike a lot of the other items on this list, this is the thing that you have complete control over — you decide what you want to learn, where you want to grow, how you want to expand your horizons. And this isn’t limited to only the things that are pertinent to your job or to your employer – the more we learn and the more we know about the world around us, the better capable we are as Product Managers to connect with others around us and to understand what drives them and what problems they encounter. All too often, the best and most innovative solutions don’t come from within the context of our jobs, or our market, or even our customers, but from seeing something on the periphery of our lives that just “clicks” in place, and that we can use to achieve greatness.