Career path of a Product Manager

How can one ensure growth in a product management career over the years?

 · 9 minutes
career path of a product manager

Factors such as rapid digital transformation, fierce competition, rising customer expectations, and an increasingly data-driven world have driven the demand for product managers to an all-time high. In addition to this, interest in product management has also drastically increased because of its exciting responsibilities, lucrative salaries, and increasing job opportunities. 

However - does the career have scope for growth? If it does, then how can one ensure growth in a product management career over the years?

Before making the transition from your current position to a product management role, you must understand its career path. It will help you get a clear idea of the hierarchy and tell you about the growth opportunities in the discipline. 

The Career Path for PMs

A product manager's career path is a long ladder of various positions from entry-level to executive roles with varying responsibilities. The skills that you will use most frequently take a marginal shift as you progress in the career. Focussing on technical skills and hands-on product management experience allows you to grow in the product manager career in the early stages. On the other hand, prowess in soft skills determines your progress in the later stages of the profession.

A product manager's career path in an organization depends primarily on how the product team is structured. Some organizations have a hierarchy of positions from entry-level to the executive level, while others have a single role with varying responsibilities. Company size, budget, business goals are some of the few factors that define the career path and growth in a product manager career.

Although there is significant variation in titles, responsibilities, and hiring and promotion criteria for different companies, the primary roles for product professionals are:

1. Associate Product Manager

Associate Product Manager (APM) is the first rung of the ladder in a product management career. They report to a product manager and take on similar responsibilities but on a smaller scale. APMs also work closely with product managers to derive insights from data and make user-centric product recommendations.

Since APM is an entry-level role, hiring managers are not that rigid about technical and challenging skill requirements. But, analytical skills, strategic thinking ability, collaboration skills, and system design ability are the most critical skills for landing an entry-level product manager position. Candidates that exhibit user-centric thinking and innovation, identify issues and opportunities, and excellent collaboration ability are most likely to be selected for the job.

Some companies refer to this role as "Junior Product Manager" or "Product Owner."

Responsibilities:

Associate product managers are typically responsible for defining and implementing more minor features in a larger product. Collecting and analyzing customer feedback and product usage information is also one of their primary responsibilities. This helps them recommend essential elements and UX design changes by studying quantitative metrics, survey feedback, and user interviews. 

Associate Product Managers are also responsible for collaborating with other product teams and product managers to implement their recommended features and design changes. They also prioritize and scroll decisions of tasks for their product teams and keep their peers and manager updated about the progress. APMs are also the go-to resource for UX design, engineering, and marketing teams for your product set.

2. Product Manager

The next step in the product management career path is the product manager position. Entry-level product managers get to this mid-level role by gaining experience from their senior PMs in optimizing processes, prioritizing tasks, and making informed product decisions. While the role doesn't necessitate a direct product management background, it calls for professional experience that demonstrates your communication, collaboration, leadership, and strategy skills.

Due to the position's strategic and tactical requirements, mid-level PMs are expected to have strong leadership, collaboration, and product knowledge. Product managers should also have an excellent understanding of the market their product competes in and a firm grip over customer needs and expectations. This helps them leverage their knowledge about market trends to inform product strategy and drive fact and data-driven product decisions.

Responsibilities:

As a product manager, you will be in charge of designing and implementing the overall product strategy and broader product roadmaps. Mid-level PMs are also responsible for the product's significant features and approving the parts that your associates recommend. Your collaboration and leadership skills will be your most significant resources while working with several cross-functional teams across the company. 

In addition to being the go-to person for adjacent teams like APMs, mid-level product managers also have the responsibility of solving problems for the product team. Not only this, people with different roles turn to product managers for well-informed, data-driven insights and recommendations about the product.

3. Senior Product Manager

Senior Product Managers manage high-visibility products with a more significant business value which calls for a solid hands-on product management experience. Product professionals are expected to be well-versed in strategic thinking, data-driven decision-making, leading the product team without authority, identifying and solving issues, and managing trade-offs at this level of the product management career path. The position also calls for a strong knowledge of the product and the space that it competes in.

In some organizations, Senior Product Managers can also branch off into Group Product Managers (if they manage a team of PMs) or Principal Product Managers (if they manage an extensive scope or are experts in their domain to an extraordinary depth).

Responsibilities:

A senior product manager's responsibilities overlap considerably with that of associate and mid-level PMs with a higher-impact on higher-visibility products. They work closely with product leaders in the company to actively contribute to and implement the product strategy. Senior PMs also lead junior PMs and have a critical responsibility of ensuring alignment in lower sections of the product hierarchy.

Senior PMs also bridge the product management teams and the senior leadership and act as a liaison between them. The responsibilities start taking a marginal shift from data-driven decision-making and prioritization to communication and leadership.

4. Director of Product

The Director of Product is a senior-level position in a product manager's career path wherein the responsibilities shift from hands-on product management to leadership. This position revolves around setting up effective communication channels, ensuring seamless collaboration in the product team, and improving the overall team performance and processes' efficiency.

The position calls for a strong management background and effective communication and leadership skills. The position also relies heavily on data and analytical skills. While the people working under directors monitor small-scale, individual KPIs, DoPs are responsible for connecting them to broader success metrics to measure business performance.

Responsibilities:

As the Director of Product, you will be concerned with building new processes that boost team performance and increase the efficiency of the existing operations. Researching the product landscape and analyzing market trends is also one of the Product Directors' primary responsibilities.

They are also responsible for monitoring the product's success metrics, including performance, business, and user engagement components, and devising product strategies that drive business impact. Product Directors also act as a leader and mentor for the rest of the product management team. They maximize the performance of the whole product management structure by improving individual product teams' efficiency and bringing them on the same page about the product strategy and roadmap.

5. VP of Product

The VP of Product is typically the first executive position in the product management career path. Being so high on the career ladder, the VPs of product's responsibilities overlap very little with the hands-on in product development and development process. Large enterprises with multiple product lines have more than one VPs to manage different sets of product lines. The position's primary objective is to define product strategies for the products they are managing and ensure their alignment with the company's business objectives.

Responsibilities:

The primary responsibilities of the VPs of the product include budgeting, resource evaluation, and ensuring alignment in product strategies and decisions with business objectives. They also have the heft of communicating with leadership, building leadership buy-ins, and protecting the product teams from internal politics and misalignment. The VP role in product management enables the product organization at the highest level and ensures that strategic product decisions drive business impact.

6. Chief Product Officer

The highest rung on the product manager career path is the Chief Product Officer position. The definition of a CPO might be different depending upon the company. It can be a role that is either an extended variation of the VP of Product position or the one responsible for overseeing all the VPs of product in the company. This position typically exists in larger organizations with a wide range of products. CPO oversees all the product operations at the highest level and reports directly to the CEO. 

Responsibilities:

As the VP of product, a Chief Product Officer's primary responsibility is to define the organization-wide product strategy and set the aspirational product goals in the long term. They also carry out the budget, resource, and research evaluations and ensure that the most critical areas continue to focus.

As a CPO, you will also be looking at monthly or quarterly performance and progress reports of different products to ensure that the product goals are fulfilled. These reports also help CPOs assess the overall alignment of product operations with defined product strategies and make strategic decisions accordingly.

Beyond the CPO position, veteran product professionals are also preferred for positions like GMs and COOs. Being at the highest level of product manager career path, CPOs are very experienced in identifying and solving issues, strategizing, prioritizing work, driving business impact, leading people, etc. This makes them perfect for positions like GMs and COOs.

Rising the ladder of a product management career requires you to adapt to varying responsibilities. At the start of your career, focus on skill development and learn more about product management cross-functional disciplines, i.e., engineering, UX Design, marketing. Learn prioritization, strategic thinking, and data-driven decision-making from your seniors to ensure swift growth in your product management career.

Later on in your career, your responsibilities will be inclined more towards your soft skills. Your communication and leadership skills will determine your growth as a product manager in the later stages of your career. They help you a lot in bringing every stakeholder on the same page about the product strategy and ensuring alignment with business objectives.