The PM Career Ladder: Your Unofficial Guide
Navigating career ladders is a top-of-mind topic for PMs across companies of all sizes. Aakash Gupta (aka Product Growth Guy) and I (aka @ibscribe) spent some time talking about the skill shifts required for level jumps, and co-wrote the post below…
Product managers tend to be an ambitious bunch. It’s rare to find a PM who doesn’t want to grow in their career as fast as possible.
So, a question that’s always top of mind is, “how can I move ahead in my career?”
The PM Career Ladder
There are about 5 or 9 steps depending on the track.
Lenny Rachitsky provided a great resource to the product community by collecting PM career ladders at 10s of companies last year. It can be distilled into two major tracks:
There’s an IC track and a Managerial track. Not every company has the IC track, but more than half of the bigger one’s do.
What exactly is needed at each stage?
As you move up this ladder, you need to master totally new skills. While there’s tons of variation, it generally looks something like this:
There are two things we want to highlight here.
The first is that as you go up in the ladder, your ability to do the items below doesn’t really decrease.
It’s difficult to effectively lead in product management if you don’t have that base of being able to ship features, contextualize them versus past features, consider features versus other types of bets, etc.
The second takeaway is that the big axis shift for you as you progress is from execution to vision. If you’re early in your PM career, as much as strategy and vision do matter, the value you are uniquely positioned to provide relative to others in the company is execution.
So, being able to ship features on time, with attention to detail, great design, and reach the goals they set out to is crucial. There’s a reason that ‘ship feature’ sticky has big text. It’s important at each and every level, and is the rock foundation upon which everything rests.
How might we further sharpen our pencils on this?
The Three Key Phases
A few years back, Fareed Mosavat (former Director of Product at Slack) and Casey Winters (former CPO at Eventbrite) identified that one stage is particularly tough - the jump from senior PM to product leader.
They called it the Product Leader Canyon:
We couldn’t agree more. Inspired by that, we think there might be one more jump to add - moving from a product leader to product executive. Because again, at this step, your aperture changes dramatically.
So we might say, really, there are three stages:
The Product Leader Canyon
Manager to Executive
The progressions looks like this:
As you move into the executive line, you are managing a whole product or multiple products. This makes your skill sets required far broader than just PM.
We’ll walk through the “earned secret” tips we have gained from working through these three phases of the PM career.
Consider this the unofficial companion to the career ladder your company gave you. This is the advice for accelerating through your career ladder that you used to get at in the cafeteria before everyone went hybrid/ remote. We’ll walk through:
What are the key “jumps” from a PM role perspective?
How does your approach need to evolve as you climb?
How do you learn these skills before you need them?
As always, I’d also love to hear from readers about their PM career journeys and lessons navigating career ladders - please chime in via comments👇 or join the chat via the Substack app.
And if you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing.
further reading / references
if you’re looking for a jargon-free PM career ladder, check out the PM Mindset Ladder, which is more oriented towards operating modes vs competencies
also check out my Promo Playbook for a repeatable storytelling formula
check out 14 real-world examples of PM career ladders
childish drawing / interpretation