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Why Your Product Career is Stuck
The 3 Big Mistakes Almost All Product Managers Make
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“I’m feeling stuck & frustrated. My career isn’t progressing.”
When a Product Manager says this, it really means one of two things:
They are not able to get promoted
They are not able to get a new, better job at another company
The big question is this:
Why is that Product Manager not able to progress?
I’ve coached over 260 Product Managers in the last 3 years. From that experience, I’ve observed that, in the vast majority of cases, it comes down to two things:
a) An inability to sell their experience effectively and/or b) a lack of real product experience.
Now most Product Managers who feel stuck are broadly aware of this.
You hear things like,
“Well, my manager doesn’t really see everything that I do.”
“I just don’t know how to answer when it comes to a product interview.”
“I’m just not learning enough to get better at product…”
They focus on the wrong things to try to get un-stuck, whilst ignoring the ONE thing they can do to really fast-track their career (something we’ll come on to later in the article).
Why Product Managers Get Stuck
Unfortunately, when Product Managers realise they are stuck - lacking experience, or not sure how to sell their experience - they follow convention.
They make the same mistakes that most other Product Managers make, keeping them stuck indefinitely!
Let’s call this group “Stuck PMs”.
Stuck PMs usually make these 3 mistakes:
Stuck PMs read too many product books/articles or watch YouTube videos:
They believe that by simply consuming content, such as reading an article, they will magically gain a load of new experience.
Understanding theory conceptually is important, sure. But there is a big difference - particularly in the messy world of product - between theory & practice.
Reading an article on “product strategy differentiation” is very different from actually crafting & testing out a differentiated product strategy on your target market in the real world, for example.
This dedication to books, articles & YouTube videos mean Stuck PMs get lost in the land of theory, learning new concepts they know neither how to apply in an interview, let alone in the real world.
Stuck PMs focus on building their network
Whether it’s trying to find a mentor, or reaching out to other product people to network with, Stuck PMs seem to think this is the way to get them unstuck.
Here’s the harsh truth: Unless you have something interesting & unique to say, you will struggle to network.
Why? The realities of human nature! It’s boring to hear about some obscure technical feature you’ve been working on for 2 years, or about why you keep failing at your job interviews.
A bigger network won’t make a Stuck PM’s CV more compelling, won’t help them to master the product interview, and won’t help them become a far better Product Manager.
3. Stuck PMs try to stick it out in a dead-end job for “just a few more years”
Many PMs work in companies where decisions are made top-down, where their work is mainly focused on execution, where they are under constant pressure to deliver an unrealistic amount of work under unrealistic deadlines.
These companies are what we call “Feature Factories”: Churning out as many features as possible, as quickly as possible, regardless of whether those features even make any sense to build.
Unfortunately, rather than realising that they won’t learn a thing, Stuck PMs usually still stay in the role for a few more years (!), hoping that:
a) The company will magically transform itself into a proper product-led company or b) Another company will magically come along & hire them.
Firstly, Feature Factories VERY rarely change, so give up hope on that one.
Secondly, why the hell would a good product company hire you if all you’ve been working on is delivery for the last 3 years? Simply having “3 years of experience” doesn’t actually mean you have real product experience. It just shows that you are happy to settle. Happy to stagnate.
So Stuck PMs working in Feature Factories just remain stuck for years, with the situation getting worse & worse, as they become less & less attractive a hiring proposition for other companies.
The Critical Belief Holding Stuck PMs Back
Hope is a powerful thing.
We repeatedly read books & watch Youtube videos hoping that we magically absorb more experience.
We repeatedly try to reach out to our network in the hope that someone will magically ease our path to finding a great new job.
We repeatedly sit & wait, hoping our Feature Factory company will magically turn into an amazing product-led one.
Here’s the BIG myth that Stuck PMs buy into though.
The one thing that REALLY holds them back:
Stuck PMs believe that the only way to get real experience is through that new, hypothetical job itself:
Sit & wait for a great job to appear, then pray they accept us.
Once accepted, then we’ll be able to learn.
I.E. That, unless we work in a high-growth startup, we can’t build real product experience.
Which is simply not true.
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Here’s the real truth:
Whether pursuing promotion, or applying for a new role, hiring managers want to see experience.
They want to believe that they can trust you with the (expensive) resources you will be managing. They want to believe you will succeed in helping the business survive and, ideally, thrive.
And the way they tend to assess that is by asking themselves:
“Has this person done this kind of thing before? And if not this exact thing, where is there evidence suggesting they will be able to succeed?”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean they need to say “5 years experience as a Product Manager” to hire you for the open Senior PM role. Years of experience is just a proxy - a substitute - for experience.
It doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have “defined & aligned a team around a product strategy” to do the same thing in future in this new role.
It just means they are looking for experience i.e. “practical contact with and observation of facts or events” (a definition of experience).
In the next article, we’ll talk about different, surprising ways to build valuable experience without needing to clock in “5 years of experience”.
See you then,