One of the most common questions I encounter in my work as The Clever PM is a simple one — “How do I become a Product Manager?” And, while the specifics depend greatly on the individual person, where they’re at in their careers, and what companies they want to break into, one of the things that I’m always telling people is that it’s likely that they already have the skills that they need. The best and worst part about being a Product Manager is that the role is often a “jack of all trades” role — filling in where there are gaps in the organization, ranging from the strongly strategic to the severely tactical. No matter where you sit in your organization, chances are good that with the right perspective and point of view, you can likely position the things you do to fit some definition of “Product Manager”.
You’re Already Solving Problems
One of the most important skills that a Product Manager must have is the ability to identify, understand, and solve problems. There are very few roles in an organization that does not involve some form of problem-solving — from support who resolve customer issues as quickly and effectively as they can, to sales who must understand as fully as they can the issues their prospects are facing and how the product they’re selling can benefit them, to development and IT who need to focus their efforts on a daily basis to solve the problems that are presented to them. When you’re trying to transition from another role into Product Management, consider very carefully how your current role fits into this paradigm — what are the specific steps that you take when faced with a problem, how do you decide what course of action to take, and how do you know that you’ve solved it in the best way possible? You already know the story, you just need to look at it from a different angle.
You’re Already Customer-Centric
Even in companies that aren’t entirely customer-centric, the vast majority of people that I talk to really are focused on the needs of the customer and the user, which is the essential lens through which a good Product Manager must approach their job every single day. Whether you’re working in customer service and taking calls directly from irate customers, or you’re working in sales and engaging directly with the market and helping potential customers realize the value of your product, or you’re working in development and trying to figure out not just how you would use a new feature, but how the ultimate end user will do so, you’re likely customer-centric. When considering how to describe your prior experience in a cover letter or on your resume for a transition into Product Management, you should focus on when, where, and how you’ve focused your attention on customers over your own perspective (or the perspective of others without strong customer connections).
You’re Already Leading Through Influence
I’m sure you’ve heard it repeated over and over, and I know that if you’ve followed this blog you’ve heard it repeated again and again — Product Managers lead through influence, not authority. We don’t get to tell people in the organization what to do, you have to convince them that it’s the right thing to do. Fortunately, almost every successful individual contributor in an organization already practices this on a daily basis — for the simple reason that we work with other people day in and day out, with different motivations, different agendas, and different goals. It’s entirely natural for someone who is a strong individual contributor to already have experience leading through influence — whether you realize it or not. If you can go into a meeting with different departments, or even different people on your team, and walk out with a plan of action that’s 80% what you went in wanting the outcome to be, you’re already sharpening this skill. When you’re trying to figure out what kind of statement you want to make in your cover letter and resume, remember this point and ensure that somewhere in your job history you explain how you’re capable of influencing others’ decisions.