Making the Jump from Product Manager to Product Leader

Expert advice on moving from day-to-day management to strategic leadership, in product and beyond!

Kelli Smith
Kelli Smith
Aug 18, 2023
 min read
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Making the Jump from Product Manager to Product Leader

We know lots of you Tech Ladies are working in product and many of you are also looking to move from management to leadership in the field. 

To help you make this transition, we invited product leader Rachel Wynn to share her career journey (and best advice!) in our most recent Tech Ladies Live webinar. Rachel shared tons of great advice for mid-senior product managers who are trying to balance workloads and advance in their career without burning out. 

We’re rounding up her top tips here so you can better navigate your own journey in the product world. 🚀

#1 Know what you want

Before you move to a different role in Product, think about what you really want to achieve with the change. 

Rachel says, “If you’re job searching, it’s important to know what you want, not necessarily the title. Understand what you want, the work you want to do,  the challenges you want to solve, and where you want to grow.”

Rachel recommends you analyze what you’re currently doing to find what you truly enjoy. Identify the challenges that ignite your passion and the goals that fuel your ambition, and then look for those things in job postings for product roles and in conversations with peers, mentors, and especially possible future employers.

Titles in product management mean different things everywhere so you should be less concerned about what the role is called, and more interested in the role’s responsibilities.

And you don’t have to worry about following a linear path. As a job seeker, you might be concerned about being taken seriously for a role. But Rachel says that making a career transition is about the stories that you tell. For example, she was able to show how the skills she used in her past career in clinical care were directly applicable to product management. 

As she puts it, you need to tell your work history from the angle of, “You have this shape of a problem and I have that shape of solution for you.” Try not to worry about the fact that your ability to come up with this solution might come from areas or levels of product management that are different than the role you want to move into.

#2 Multiply your impact

If, after analyzing your interests, you decide that product leadership is for you, Rachel wants you to understand the difference between managing and leading in product. 

She shared that when she was trying to move up from an associate PM role, she did so by working even harder on day-to-day execution. Writing better acceptance criteria and asking engineers all the right questions helped her make good decisions as a product manager, but it wasn’t helping her think and act strategically like a product leader needs to do.

When you stop focusing on making day-to-day decisions and instead focus on sharing information, you become a “multiplier,” aka a person who leads by giving others what they need to execute.

This is the critical shift from building the product yourself to empowering your team to build it with your direction. And this is the change you need to make to amplify your impact and keep your sights on the product, the company, and your strategy as a whole.

#3 Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize

Now that you know you need to move from day-to-day work to big-picture thinking, how do you find the time to do that? 

Rachel has an answer that might surprise you: “I don’t think you necessarily need more time. I don’t think product managers should work more than 40 hours a week. I think that they should have a life outside of work, so you can’t borrow time from there. And you can’t create more time so you need to think about how you’re using your time.”

Rachel went on to say that you should think about what you’re trying to accomplish in your role and make sure what you’re actually doing is leading you in the right direction. She encourages you to prioritize your work based on what matters most, even if it means making some hard decisions to cut back on some work or even cut it completely.

Great prioritization often means saying no to good ideas, after all!

#4 Take ownership

The other roadblock Rachel sees product managers face as they try to become a project leader is ownership. Many PMs feel that they’re not experts yet so they’re uncomfortable with pushing others to make needed decisions. 

In this case, she wants you to remember that, while you might not yet be at the level you’re striving for, you probably know more about the product and product management than most of the people you’re talking with. She adds, “You need to move into an ownership role [by explaining] what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and having direct conversations so you’re getting to the outcomes you’re looking for.”

And don’t worry about taking ownership meaning taking on more work. 

In fact, Caro warns about “licking the cookie”, a metaphor for not being able to hand off work to others because you’ve gotten too involved with it yourself. (She shared a great article from Amanda Schwartz Ramirez about this concept.)

To move up into product leadership, you have to resist the urge to do the day-to-day yourself and instead direct and support others in doing the execution.

#5 Do your research

When it comes to moving internally or applying for a role at a new company as a product leader, Rachel advises to find out as much as possible about the work you’ll be doing

This starts with analyzing the job description. If about 50% of what’s listed there sounds interesting to you, Rachel considers it a role worth looking at. And she also recommends focusing on the parts of the position that you already have strengths in and, for the parts you don’t, think about 1-2 “levers” you can work on to strengthen your skill set.

The key after that, she says, is to make sure you ask lots of questions in interviews to see if the role is right for you. Find out if the problems they want to solve with this role are problems you want to deal with. 

As Rachel says, “I want to know about all the skeletons you have in the closet. Some of them I might want to be friends with!” 😅

And, of course, be sure to research the product you’ll be working on so you can ask great questions in the interview and figure out if it’s a product you want to work on. 

Rachel lists all kinds of places you can find this info:

  • support docs
  • product reviews
  • free trials
  • customer communications (emails, website, etc)
  • press releases
  • funding and investor reports
  • competitor comparisons

#6 Build your network

When you move into a new role, Rachel feels it’s critical to get to know people. Of course, connecting with the people in product, design, and engineering is key in product management. But Rachel encourages you to go beyond those departments and to become acquainted on a professional and a personal level. 

As Rachel puts it, understanding people will really help you understand why product management is done the way it is at that particular company. This will help you combat imposter syndrome or feeling like an outsider when you’re new, in addition to helping you learn more about the product and company so you can more quickly become the leader you’re hoping to be. 

And, last but definitely not least, Rachel stresses the value of community when you’re building your product career. “The best resource you can find is a network, whether that be internally inside your organization …or a peer network outside your company.” 

Next Steps

You can apply so many of these to takeaways to your own career, regardless of whether you work in product or are trying to advance to a leadership role. We hope they help you reach your next career goal!

And, if you’re looking to strategically grow your own network as a woman in tech, join Tech Ladies for free! We’ll keep you in the loop about great events just like that one, as well as open roles at companies that share your values.

We hope to see you at our next event!

Kelli works with our hiring partners, helping them connect with Tech Ladies interested in joining their great teams. She’s an expert in customer success and has worked in tech, including recruiting and hiring, for the past ten years. Kelli lives in southeastern Finland and loves dancing, podcasts, and productivity apps.
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Making the Jump from Product Manager to Product Leader

Kelli Smith
Kelli Smith
Aug 18, 2023
 min read
Making the Jump from Product Manager to Product Leader