I have always felt that the trend towards your manager offloading your professional development onto your shoulders has been a pretty big copout. As a manager, one of your goals is to understand your team, each and every member, and to provide guidance on what skills they need to add to their bag of tricks, and where they might aspire to go in their career.
And it used to be this way, not so long ago. As I was coming up through the ranks in product management, the annual discussion about what happened, how I handled the curveballs tossed at me, what I did to show growth over the year, and how that appeared to my leadership chain was ‘de riguer’. Then she would discuss with me what I was interested in, and provide guidance on activities (training, mentoring, etc.) to get there. And, amazingly, there was budget.
If I wanted to learn about pricing, *BOOM* she would have a class she recommended at some off-site location for a week to dive deeply into the topic. Or if strategic marketing was interesting, she had great connections with mentors, and made them happen.
Hell, that is how I learned about strategy, marketing, whole product, and other key concepts that I use about every freakin’ day.
That was then, this is now
Something happened around the time of the GFC1 that shifted the dynamic. Suddenly, the responsibility for growth in your career was shoved2 upon your shoulders. The logic being that you as the individual knows your desires, wants, and needs better than any manager could.
I am not sure about that.
Clearly, some people are able to articulate where they want to go (is it the C-suite? Middle Management?) and that is great. But even in these cases, the manager expects the employee to manage their own progression. Sure, the manager can give tips and hints on how to get to the next rung, and often they do. In reality, these people were going to rise in the organization anyway. They are why large organizations have hi-pot programs
But most people don’t know where they want to end up. Well, besides having enough of a nest egg to retire to The Villages and play pickleball while committing voter fraud in their waning years that is.
And this is where the manager has a responsibility to probe and pry. Some people may want a bigger title (and more money, naturally), or they have dreams of a different role that may be similar to their current job, but something they are better suited for.
Or, maybe they just don’t know what they want. Here is where a great manager can help elicit goals with gentle questioning and some sleuthing.
Lastly, there are the people who are satisfied where they are. They don’t want to be a team lead. They do not want to become a manager. They do not pine for the executive ranks. They are just happy as they are.
For this last rank, that seems to inspire a deep sense of distrust in management. There must be something wrong with someone who doesn’t want to claw their way to the top, climbing over peer’s backs, making friends and enemies at each step of the way.
A personal story
In the way back time, circa 2005, I managed a small team of product managers, and a couple of applications engineers. One of my application engineers was an absolute ace. His ability to make our instrument dance and sing, to wow prospects, to promote our technology and capabilities at tradeshows was par excellence.
He was in his early 50s and he was happy. He made enough money. He loved his job. He never had a bad day (well, mostly). And our entire sales team loved his performance. He wanted nothing more than to keep doing that until he decided to retire.
But my manager at the time was a huge adherent to Jack Welch and the GE Way. Employees needed to level up, or be managed out. There was something wrong with an employee who didn’t want a higher-level role in an organization.
So, I was instructed to manage him out.
Needless to say, I pushed back. Hard. I won, but, it was not an easy victory.
That whole mentality. Stack rank, cut the bottom 5% every year, have only one top performer for each business group, and foster competition for that one “5” ranking each review cycle is just insane.
Back to the present
With this lasagna in front of me, and my boss telling me that I need to pick some reasonable personal development goals for the coming year as a non-negotiable, I have a problem.
Like my ace Application Engineer, I am satisfied in my individual contributor role. Had I wanted to be promoted to leadership in my current organization, there were multiple opportunities presented, and even assumptions that I would be the heir apparent when my former bosses left, I made it abundantly clear that I didn’t want that seat at the table. No, I am perfectly happy doing what I am doing, it is engaging, rewarding, and - dare I say it - fun work.
At this late stage of my career - I am in my late 50’s - I am what I am. I am comfortable in my skin.
So, I will take some of the internal product management training (first up is finance for product management, I expect fully that I will not learn anything new, but perhaps I will get insight into my company’s accounting strategy), and perhaps I will take a real python course with some rigor instead of my on again/off again online tutorials. Perhaps I will augment my SAFe PO/PM cert with their APM cert (we are becoming a Scaled Agile house).
And call it a day.
The Product Management Connection
Product management is an interesting field. Natural leadership is a core competency, and the ability to tell and sell a story is key. It is a growing field (when I started the role existed but was often called something different) and it has matured significantly in the last 25 years.
But for a product manager entering today, what is the career trajectory? Director of product? VP of product? Chief Product Officer?
The reality is that there aren’t that many of those positions with titles, so often product management is a steppingstone in a career, a way station on a career arc to a GM, or Group VP, or even somewhere in the C-Suite (one peer of mine from way back is a managing director now, wow!)
But for those of us who really thrive in the uncertainty and chaos of product management, we are here for the duration. We love it (most of the time) and when we try to escape, we are pulled back in.
About the first paragraph, where managers ought to be really managers, I feel I should add to that thought.
The transition from IC to manager needs to change the focus of the individual. No longer should they be in the trenches, but instead, their primary role should be the team, the team’s engagement, performance, and health.
All too often, top performers are elevated to middle manager roles without really relaying to them what the management role should be, and without extensive training and support to guide their transition. I see many of them trying to hang onto their old role, while also managing the team, and that rarely works out.
Fixing this requires a lot of work from leadership, and rarely do I see more than window dressing on this problem.
Hence why I no longer aspire to lead a team.