Product managers often progress in their career by stepping into leadership, going from ‘doer’ to a manager.
Many PM’s assume that’s the only way to advance. After all, many companies build the career path that way; You have to start managing other PM’s if you want a raise.
But moving into management requires learning new skills and sacrificing hands-on tasks that are done by individual contributors.
The nature of the role changes, the priorities shift, and the necessary skillsets are different. We spoke with Tushar Kirtane, VP of Product at Kevel, about his experience in the startup space as he transitioned from product manager to leadership. He brings a unique perspective since his career has encompassed early-stage startups, mid-sized startups, and acquisitions by larger companies.
In this article we cover:
- The differences between a ‘doer’ and a manager
- What it takes to succeed in these different roles
- The tradeoff of stepping into a management position
- How the size and stage of the startup can impact the nature of these roles
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What are the major differences between a ‘doer’ and a manager? How would you define those different roles?
I think the biggest difference between being an individual contributor, or ‘doer’, and being a leader of product managers is the importance of having a process and systems. When you start managing a group of product managers, it’s more critical that you have good processes in place to ensure good outcomes across your team.
It becomes even more critical to make sure you’re standardizing things like customer discovery, creating templates to communicate, determining business objectives, and defining the problems you’re trying to solve. As I’ve transitioned into this role and started to manage the product team at Kevel, those types of standardizations have become critical.
As a doer, it’s a lot easier to go deep into the problem at hand. You’re able to spend more time digging into customer issues, talking with customer support teams, conducting user interviews, and things like that. You have a little more freedom and flexibility to go super deep on a particular use case when you’re involved in the day-to-day.
Someone who leads product managers has to leverage the team to extract those kinds of insights without being involved in all of those conversations. It’s about getting leverage and being able to communicate the most important assumptions.
What is the sacrifice of stepping into the role of a manager, as opposed to staying in the position of an individual contributor?
As a manager, one of your primary objectives is to enable your team. That involves designing job plans, coaching team members, working with other teams, resolving conflict around prioritization, and much more. The people management aspect is how you spend most of your day when you become a manager.
When you’re more of a ‘doer’ you don’t have to worry about those complexities as much. In many ways, a company’s management should empower the individual contributors to stay focused on their job responsibilities.
That’s the biggest sacrifice. It’s a tradeoff that people don’t really consider. They just assume that it’s natural to move into a management role because of the increase in compensation and things like that.
I’ve worked in startup environments that encourage IC’s to stay in those roles if they want to. That means you don’t have to go into management to get merit increases or increased scope of responsibility. They realize that management is a skill that needs to be developed, just like coding or product management or design. They understand it’s something you should get trained in to develop expertise. Retention will be better if those team members are going into the role for the right reason.
How do you think the Product Manager role changes based on the stage of the startup?
In an early-stage company, you end up getting a wide breadth of experience but also have a lot more responsibility across the various functions. When you are a PM at an early-stage company, you’re agreeing to be a generalist. You might not have a full-time marketer who can come up with copy. You might have to pull your own data to understand the impact of AB tests. Or you might work directly with the engineering team on different use cases, prototyping, and QA. You may end up experiencing the whole spectrum of what it takes to get a feature validated all the way through implementation.
Once you’ve found product market fit and seen the company grow to 50-100 employees, you find that it’s about optimization. You have to think more about coordination and sharing the strategy and vision behind what you’re doing. The complexities and communication challenges across teams can impact the projects you’re working on or the speed at which you can make informed decisions.