Even though it’s been around as a formal role in software organizations for nearly 20 years (or more, depending on who you talk to), Product Management still struggles with a lot of definition problems — what is the role, how do we grow, when do we get promoted and to where, etc. One of the common issues that we run into are companies who don’t have any form of structure around their product teams, who struggle to define the actual differences between their “associate”, “general”, and “senior” Product Managers without simply resorting to the amount of time they’ve been in the role. As anyone with extensive experience in the profession can tell you, how long you’ve been doing the job has little to no bearing on your actual ability to do the job — you can work for 10 years practicing all sorts of bad behaviors that have resulted in zero growth as a Product Manager. Similarly, you can go deep and hard for 2-3 years and come out the other side as a true product leader and influencer, capable of taking on much more advanced products and projects than your companions. Here are a few of the common differences that I think draw dividing lines between a “junior” Product Manager and a “senior” Product Manager, where age is not the most important factor…
1. Junior PMs manage, Senior PMs lead
There’s a big difference between leadership and management, and many junior Product Managers don’t understand the difference or haven’t been exposed to true leadership. They tell people how to do things, not what they want them to do; they focus on the short-term gains, not the long-term goals; they encourage conformity to the rules, rather than creativity to think outside the box. It’s very common for early-career Product Managers to fall into the “management trap” whereby they focus too much on ensuring that other people are doing their jobs correctly, and not enough on expanding their own horizons and influence within the organization. In contrast, a senior Product Manager knows that the best results come from motivating others through defining a shared vision of a possible future, and not by holding people’s feet to the fire of some process or procedure. They understand that their success depends on others doing the best job that they can, and that comes from intrinsic motivation, not extrinsic consequences. Senior Product Manages accept and embrace the challenges of leadership, and eschew the constraints of mere management.
2. Junior PMs create solutions, Senior PMs define problems
Another huge leap that Product Managers eventually make in their careers is understanding that our role is not to create solutions but to define problems. Early in our careers, we’re constantly pushed to provide “specs” that define every aspect of a feature or improvement, so that the developers “know what to build”. But as we develop our relationships with those teams, and as we expand our own understanding of what Product Management really is, we grow to learn that it’s far better for us to clearly define the problem and the context in which our users encounter those problems, than it is to define solutions. Because, more often than not, we’re wrong — or at best inaccurate — in what we think the solution should be. Rather than defining the solution upfront, by giving our teams the understanding of the who, what, and why, we encourage them to grow as well, and to use their expertise to the best use. As we step out of the “how” and the narrow “what”, we find that we have a much better understanding of what our customers really need and not just what we think they do.
3. Junior PMs “know” their customer, Senior PMs learn from customers
It’s very common for newly-minted Product Managers to take too closely to heart their role as the “voice of the customer” — and far too many simply forget that in order to truly own that title, they have to maintain a constant stream of connection to the customer and the market. This happens all too often because Product Managers come up through other parts of the organization when they demonstrate clear product and market knowledge — but somehow in the transition from their old role to the new one, they forget that the source of that knowledge was their close connection to the end users. Good Product Managers grow out of this phase quickly — sometimes forcefully, but more often just as a matter of course. Senior-level Product Managers see their customers as a constant source of information and inspiration, a font of new ideas and concepts borne from their daily problems. Great Product Managers are constantly reaching out to perform discovery and confirmation, testing their hypotheses early and often against any actual customers they can find to speak with. They try to spend as much time engaging with people outside the organization as they do with people inside it.
4. Junior PMs focus on delivery, Senior PMs focus on strategy
Junior Product Managers are often brought in as glorified project managers, even in companies with the best of intentions — this is because that’s a common gap that must be filled, and the other teams simply aren’t stepping up to the plate. There’s no problem with this, inherently — understanding the process through which your product is created (“seeing how the sausage is made”) is an essential component of being a good Product Manager. Unfortunately, all too many Product Managers get stuck in a feedback loop that focuses on delivery as the most important metric, when senior Product Managers know that delivery without strategy is ineffective at best, and counter-productive at worst. Senior-level Product Managers spend as much time (if not more) focused on helping to define, understand, and evangelize the strategy behind the product improvements, so that they can step back and let others do their work to bring that vision to reality.
5. Junior PMs push, Senior PMs facilitate
Perhaps the finest point that separates junior-level Product Managers from senior-level Product Managers is how they approach others in the organization with whom they have disagreements. Whether borne of ego, inexperience, or just plain ignorance, junior-level Product Managers often just push their agenda, and push harder when they encounter resistance. Sometimes this works, but all too often the people that the Product Manager is pushing against have far greater power and authority in the organization, and the pushing simply upsets them which in turn retrenches them against the Product Manager’s perspective. Senior Product Managers understand that leading through influence is a scalpel, not an axe — it takes time, effort, energy, and not a small amount of politicking to change minds. The senior Product Manager approaches such resistance as an opportunity to facilitate discussions — to bring their supporters into active conversation with those putting up blockades. They know that running headlong into a brick wall won’t do any good, but with the right amount of pressure in the correct location, the entire wall will collapse into dust.