A Guide On How To Navigate Your Product Management Career

In conversation with Lisa Zane, the Founder of Conscious Product Development, we learn the many expectations of a Product Manager and how aspiring Product Managers can figure out a problem to solve and navigate the job of Product Management

Tiwatayo Kunle
December 14, 2022

Q: What role is a combination of being a detective (because they’re curious and good at discovering things about people); a quarterback (because they’re able to look around and recognise opportunities others don’t see); a stitcher (because they’re good at connecting the dots between disciplines, teams, global trends and personal expertise); an optimiser (because they can understand all the pieces of the puzzle, notice gaps and how to fill them); and an empath (because they’re human-centered and they relate deeply with people & their experiences)?

A: The role of a Product Manager!

Evidently, Lisa understands that Product Managers wear multiple hats and play a dynamic role within a company. That’s one of three reasons she came up with The Product Manager’s Career Guide to help Product Managers navigate their career.

The second reason she came up with the guide is because she had observed that the resources available catered to a specific aspect of your journey as a Product Manager. For example, you’ll find a guide to assist you in setting up a LinkedIn profile or you might find tips and tricks and guidelines to help prepare you for a job interview.

Her guide however offers a more holistic take on instructions. “It’s an A-Z guide that carries you through the entire process of becoming a Product Manager because they’re all interconnected.” It takes into account the question “how do I prepare the right foundation and create a career that I actually want?” says Lisa.

And the third reason she decided to create the guide is that she believes that there shouldn’t be a cookie cutter approach to problems people are facing in the product space. So it was important to her to help them connect the why to the how to the what. Consequently the guide features, for example, screenshots of how you can change your LinkedIn profile with real-life examples from other product managers so you can immediately jump to the how.

Having gone through an extensive career as a Product Manager and worn a couple of the hats mentioned above, Lisa’s focus currently, is on “finding the right problems to solve”. Working in niche areas made her realize that a good enough job had been done in coming up with innovative, inventive solutions to issues, but there’s room for improvement when it comes to finding the right problems to solve.

Finding the Right Problem to Solve

To find the right problem, it helps if you’re in an environment where you feel comfortable enough to think and express yourself and come up with ideas. One way to make sure that you always find yourself in this type of environment is to define your personal values and ethics.

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Both inside and outside of the career space, defining one’s personal values and ethics leads to more quality decisions. You can discover your values and ethics by asking yourself: What problem space do I want to help in? What type of work do I want to do? What are the problems I really care about in the world and why do I care? What do I want my day to day to look like? How can I make my career tick these boxes?

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Of course, it’s idealistic to expect that all the boxes will be ticked but it’s nice to know what boxes you’d even like to be ticked. Yet, even after you’re aware of your ethics and values, you might find that the demands of life require that you do the things you have to do before you get to the things you truly want. The secret is to find the soft spot between maniacally planning all your next steps and totally winging it all the time.

Perhaps your desire is to join a Startup but you don’t think you have the requisite experience or you need more money than they are prepared to offer. You might choose to join a larger company with a larger salary or wider learning opportunities.You might not love it but it ties in to your “why” making it the best possible option for you.

Whatever the situation, remain conscious of exactly what you want to learn at various stages in your career, so you don’t lose track of the goal. Plus, you can look to things outside your job to help you feel more aligned.

Above all, remember that you are allowed to change your mind. Once again, let’s say you want to work at a Startup but decided instead, to work at a larger company because that’s what you needed at the time, then you find that you actually enjoyed certain aspects of it. Don’t guilt yourself for feeling this way. You can have a check in with yourself and make adaptations to your plans based on the new information available to you.

Common Misunderstandings about Product Management

In fact, that’s a common misunderstanding about Product Management-- thinking that you have to know everything, which means that yielding to new information and accepting that the way you had in mind was not the only or even the best way, comes with great difficulty.

In a lot of other specialties, things are done by the book and result in a specific outcome and as most people are pivoting to product, they bring this mindset with them from their previous role. However, with Product, the types of skills you need are a bit more freeform and even as a Director of Product, you still won’t know everything because things are constantly changing.

Irrespective of the fact that you don’t know everything, you still need to come up with the answers that you require to perform your role as a Product Manager. This is why the Catch-22 situation around Product Management is never-ending and why Co.Lab works at reducing its effects by giving aspiring Product Managers some much needed experience.

Whatever the case, whether as an aspiring Product Manager, or a junior Product Manager, you’re new at the job. Trust your gut, take a second to get your bearings and don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know, as long as you’re open to learning. When you’re positioning yourself for the job market, try putting yourself in the position of the hiring manager and think: what questions will they have? What about me/my profile will be unclear? Then turn to yourself and figure out a way to pre-emptively mitigate risk, instill confidence and position yourself so they don’t have to do too much work to find you.

Positioning Yourself For Employment as a Product Manager

These days, positioning yourself looks like using clear, specific tags to label yourself because job roles themselves have become quite specific. For example, it is not uncommon to come across an advert for a ‘Hardware Product Manager’ and not just a ‘Product Manager’. Prepare questions to ask the company too, figure out how to tangibly show your experiences so they understand immediately the value you’re adding even when you’re coming from a different industry. Record yourself to understand how you come across in an interview, hop on mock interviews and ask questions so you’re better prepared

And if you ever feel imposter syndrome, our good ol’ friend, remember that you’re you and that’s your superpower. What is your unique perspective? Are you a person who discovers content and shares it? Or you an observer, who observes trends and comments on that. Perhaps you are a leader, who needs to be on a podium. Whatever it is, it’s important to figure out your niche and what you care about and tell that story through the lens of your own experience. Everyone has a story they can tell in their own way that’ll help others.

Keep iterating, keep sharing and keep moving. You belong in tech!

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