It’s always quite daunting when I sit in front of a professional who opens with “I want your advice as to where I can take my career next”. Even as a career expert, I still feel the weight of this responsibility after 15 years in the game! A lack of clarity in your career can be similarly uncomfortable as the lack of clarity in a significant relationship! It can cause some real anxiety and internal turmoil.
The role I find the easiest to consult on is the ‘product manager’. Not just because I have been recruiting product professionals for so long, or because I am a product geek myself, but more so because product managers have the best pedigree to go anywhere and do anything with their careers.
As a product manager, you must negotiate, influence, collaborate, commercialise, push back and cajole a zillion different stakeholders while juggling a seriously large workload. This conditioning is a terrific foundation for most other types of roles and highly transferable across industries.
As a product professional, whether you are clear or unclear (which I find to be the majority) about your next career move, worry not, below are the four main pathways I have seen product professionals take:
1. The Product Lifer – The majority of senior leaders in product have come from the front line in product and worked their way up through the ranks; from Product Analyst to Product Manager to Senior Product Manager/Head of Product/CPO etc.
The product professionals who do the best progressing their career via this route have a terrific balance of technical, commercial and stakeholder skills. They tend to possess more generalist skills and can turn their hand to most things. They are natural leaders who enjoy empowering their team and stakeholders rather than getting into the detail themselves. Most haven’t set out to get into product, however, have fallen into it and realised they have a flair and love for it.
2. The Product Crab – These are great Product Managers but aren’t entirely ‘at home’ in product. They were either more technical than their peers, more sales orientated or more financially focused. Product is not the centre of their universe and nor would they want it to be.
These product professionals head sideways (crab style!) to marketing, sales, commercial or technical roles with the view to find their home.
3. The Product Entrepreneur – While most product professionals have strong entrepreneurial flair, this breed of product professional will use their entrepreneurialism and business acumen for a new business idea or within a start-up. They are risk takers and enjoy the thrill of changing the world one product at a time – it’s less about money and more about solving problems and being on the coal face of customer needs.
These professionals tend to be from a product development background with a need to regularly work on new shiny things.
4. The Product Outsider – Product is harder than it looks. It’s a deceptive function which requires much more than just innovation and ideation (which is the common misconception). It requires excellent skills in multitasking, collaboration, prioritisation and influencing. Product can attract the ‘movers and shakers’ however in times of acute regulatory or industry change, these professionals can become bored very quickly.
Once realising Product is quite different to what they expect, these professionals will tend to head to programme/project management, change management, transformation, customer experience, marketing or sales.
One thing I am certain of is that there is no magic pill or fail-proof shortcut to successful career management and most professionals I have met do not really know what lies ahead for them in their career. That said, there are some small steps you can take to become clearer of your career path:
Identify what type of product professional you are (Lifer, Crab, Entrepreneur or Outsider).
Generate a career roadmap which will map out the next 3 yrs. Use the same methodology as a product roadmap – it’s highly transferable!
Ensure your advisory board/circle of influence of mentors possess relevant skills which can assist you.
Rather than striving for career clarity and your ultimate career move, consider gravitating to the roles and functions you most enjoy and give yourself the most satisfaction. The rest tends to sort itself out.
Victoria Butt is the Managing Director and Founder of Parity Consulting, recruitment experts in Product, Marketing, Communications and Digital – creating parity by investing in ALL relationships. An avid shark diver and lover of wine, professionally Victoria’s passionate about leadership, inclusion and diversity in the workplace and empowering women, in particular women looking to return to work after having children.