Climbing the Ladder: How to Grow as a Product Manager

Navigating the path to the more senior ranks of Product Management can be a daunting task. From Associate PMs focusing on executions to Staff PMs navigating the cross-functional relationships necessary to enable complex and impactful product strategies, the one thing that all levels of PM have in common is…

… Yep, it’s the customer. With this fundamental truth in the back of your mind, let’s dive into what Kevin Gu, a Senior PM at Etsy, has to say about climbing the ladder and advancing in your Product Management career.

Big Picture: Create Positivity

Kevin Gu began work at Etsy around the time that the company, suffering flat revenues, announced a 25% reduction in staff and the departure of the CEO. Despite reduced resources, the Product team was still expected to deliver on the roadmap that had been created during sunnier times. It was at this point that Kevin realized that the most important skill of a Product Manager is the ability to create positivity.

This is done through reassurance, through keeping the team focused on one step at a time. Even when companies are healthier, failures and setbacks are common in Product Management. Keeping people moving forward is an essential skill at all the levels of PM we will outline below.

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The Expectations of Different Level Product Managers

Generally speaking, there are four levels of Product Management:

Expectations of the PM are different depending on which level you are at. 

  • Associate Product Manager: Execution
  • Product Manager: Prioritization
  • Senior Product Manager: Strategy
  • Staff Product Manager: Horizontal Leadership
  • Director: Multi-team Management
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Key Challenges at Each Level

  • Associate Product Manager: Leading without Expertise

At this stage in your journey, you will be expected to lead teams but may not have developed all the areas of expertise you need in order to do so. One solution here is to appoint yourself as the note taker for all meetings. 

It’s not glamorous, but it works. It means you have the facts at your fingertips, and a trail of breadcrumbs to support your thinking and justify your decisions.

That said, you don’t always need to take charge. There are times when it is best to sit back and admit that you don’t yet know how to lead in every scenario. 

Sometimes, it’s better to learn and listen before stepping to the front. Early on, learn what forces are acting on your team. The key decision is dependant on the external stakeholders. Some of these you will remove. Some you will influence. Gradually, you will pivot the team towards the direction that you want to go to.

To prioritize effectively, you need to find one success metric in order to measure the impact of everything that you do. This could be revenue, user satisfaction, growth, lead acquisition. 

Whatever it is, use it across the board. If there are conflicting metrics between different teams, there will never be alignment on where to allocate resources.

One solution to conflicting metrics is to merge them into one overarching metric that encompasses what each team cares about. For example, if design cares about conversion but marketing cares about traffic, tracking daily sales will merge data from both metrics into one grander metric that you can all work towards.

  • Senior Product Manager: Getting Buy-In 

At this stage in your career, you will be expected to think long term and decide where you want your team to be in 3-5 years time. This strategy needs to be convincing so that your directors, stakeholders, and teams get on board.

A good strategy needs a convincing destination and a realistic timeline. For example, “We’re going to Mars in 10 years!” Once you have your destination and timeline, break down the journey into a series of steps. This is your roadmap.

For example, if you’re an eCommerce company who wants to reduce costs and increase delivery speed each by 10x in 3-5 years, the first problem you need to solve may be related to logistics. The goal may be to create your own delivery infrastructure in 1-2 years. Then you may want to solve the problem of high-density areas by crowdsourcing delivery.

Then you may want to focus on rural areas, and so on.

Once you have the destination and roadmap, you need to present this in a convincing way to your directors with confidence and vision. Good luck!

  • Staff Product Manager: Collaborating with Difficult People

At this stage your work is more horizontal, meaning you need to coordinate across a much broader and more diverse range of teams. When you need to get a range of very diverse people on board, you can run into trouble.

A strategy Kevin uses here is: Assuming positive intentions. If someone doesn’t respond to an email or refuses to meet with you, assuming good intentions means you imagine that they don’t have time, or that your metrics aren’t aligned. To solve this, you would reverse roles and instead seek to learn about their goals and pitch yourself as aiming to help them.

Another common conflict will be an ownership dispute. “Why are you in this area – I own this department.” Again, assuming positive intentions and seeking to actually understand their concerns and aligning yourselves towards this can help to get people on your side. Be willing to learn and listen first.

Meet Kevin Gu

Kevin Gu has had an extensive career as a world-class product person at top companies. While currently the acting Director of Product at 1stdibs, Kevin Gu was the Senior Product Manager at Etsy, and Product Manager for LinkedIn and Microsoft.

With a degree in Computer Engineering from the University of Waterloo, Kevin Gu has a balanced skill set that helps establish him as a thought leader in Product. He has also published his work on Medium, ProductCoalition, and more.

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