Recently, I was asked a relatively benign question: “How long should I stay in a Product Management role?” While the person asking it was relatively new in a position and another, more attractive offer is in the works, it caused me to pause and reflect.
Not to make light of the young lady’s concern that leaving too soon (and so early in her Product Management journey) would be a blemish on her record, it does bring to light a serious subject. Just what is an acceptable tenure for a product manager? As Rich Mironov is wont to say, many, if not most product managers use that position as a springboard into a higher career path, be it a senior product management leadership role (Director, VP, et cetera) or into a senior manager or executive position (VP/GM is a pretty good end state for a successful product manager.)
There is no “optimal” time in a product management role, but some guidelines can help your decision process
But for those of us who seem to be comfortable in the product manager role, our careers have been a patchwork quilt of roles, companies and technologies. In my 20 years, I have had 7 stops along the way, including one longer stretch. The reasons I have left positions are varied, but there are some patterns that emerge when looking at it holistically.
- The average time I have spent in a position is about 3 years. Only once did I leave before the 3-year mark, and only once did I stay much longer. There seems to be something about three years, I suspect that it is when I start a position, there is usually some chaos. Either the role has been empty for a while, or the predecessor was a bumbler who made a hash of things. Regardless of the cause of that chaos, it seems that to “right the ship” and get processes and relationships into a smooth sailing course takes … you guessed it … about three years. So, 3 years is about when the job becomes routine, I have been either promoted into a “lead” role, or am the de facto lead of the Product Management team.
- If a place is truly awful, as in you were sold a bill of goods when you joined, that might be a good reason for a quick exit. This is tough to gauge though. Most jobs that I have taken, I have gone into with my eyes open, knowing the warts, and the flaws. If that hasn’t come out in the interview process, you need to learn more about how to get to that during the pre-offer dance. This post will help you in the search to uncover some of the pitfalls. That said, sometimes, it becomes apparent that you have made a horrible mistake. Perhaps the politics are too toxic (and there are always politics at play), or earlier strategy decisions have hamstrung the business, or there is a personality who you really don’t mesh with. Regardless, you will need to make a quicker exit.In this case, my advice is to cut and run. The sooner the better. Ironically, a quick exit is much easier to explain in future interview processes than sticking it out in a bad situation. Having been on the hiring side, I am sympathetic when an applicant tells a tale of dysfunction and no-win scenarios.
- Staying too long. This one is a tough one to see from the inside. You have gotten to the end of the third year, and you are comfortable. Either you have created a well-oiled machine, or you have slayed the political beast, and are at the top of your game. In a good place, this will get you promoted, either to the Director level, or into another comparable role where you have a chance to spread your wings. Cool. But alas, this is a false comfort zone. If you are not finding the next rung on the ladder, or if your boss (and boss’ boss) aren’t talking to you about a level-up, you have become pigeon holed. Not just that you have found a comfort zone, but the organization has found stability, and is perfectly content with keeping the status quo. This is a very bad place to be. It isn’t immediately obvious, but it is hurting your résumé, as future employers will wonder why you didn’t advance your career during your tenure. Very difficult to shake that perception.
In my case, the magic time is 3 years, and while I can make cases for shorter easily, that feels correct to me. Of course, as with all guru guidance, your mileage may vary.
The one piece of advice I will dole out (and did to the young lady who asked) is that if you took a job that was a mistake, bail out as quickly as you can. Nobody will fault you for it, and you will have tales for bench racing sessions later in your career, for when someone new to the field taps you on the shoulder and asks for advice about career guidance.