Off the Rails: Impact vs. Seniority

Balancing product impact and seniority in a PM career

By Ken Norton

3 min read • Aug 9, 2016

Ken Norton

Executive Coaching for Product Leaders with Ken Norton

Get a product-minded executive coach in your corner to unlock your full capacities as a leader

Learn more »

Railroad track

I enjoyed this interview with Hunter Walk about product management career paths. Hunter describes his journey toward an increasing recognition that “seniority and title—or who you managed—doesn’t necessarily translate into immediate impact on the product.”

I too recognized some years ago that I was happiest when I had the most direct impact on the product. In more senior roles (such as director and up in big companies), your product impact—counterintuitively—might be reduced. Sure, you have considerably more leverage across the organization, a more direct connection to senior executives, and more power when it comes to wielding resources. But day-to-day, the PMs who work for you are making the decisions that will determine the success or failure of the products. Your job is mostly about helping them, not the product.

This matters because at most companies the product management career path is on rails: toward expanding managerial responsibilities, general management, and eventually to becoming a CEO. Unlike in engineering where there is often a dual path that rewards individual contribution, the default assumption is that product managers want to become CEOs and should keep advancing. Some years ago I recognized that I wasn’t so interested in being a CEO, and that I wanted to stay as close to the metal as possible when it came to building products. I enjoyed mentoring other PMs, but not managing managers, nor the interdepartmental politics and endless meetings that result. It took me some years to find my perfect balance—for me it was having only 3-5 direct reports at the group product manager level at Google.

Ask yourself where you want to be in five years, and then in ten years. Will you be a CEO? A director? A founder? A general manager? Or still a product manager but with elevated scope and impact? You’re always free to change your mind, of course, but how you answer should shape how you approach the next several years of your career. You’ll be pushed toward general management unless you take steps to aim in a different direction.

CEOs and founders should also broaden the career opportunities they provide for their PMs. My hope is that as product management matures, companies will embrace a dual-ladder career track for PMs much as they do for engineers. This would give strong contributors an alternative to reluctantly moving into management. Letting people go where they’ll be happiest and contribute the most serves everyone.

As Hunter says, “Ultimately, if Google had created a product track that gave me a chance to influence the product’s future direction, without necessarily having to be responsible for three dozen people and the politics associated, maybe I would have moved into that role as opposed to leaving.”

Good Reads

“I think ultimately most companies will adopt more and more machine learning over time because it is going to be powerful and transformative for their business.” Check out this interview with the legendary Jeff Dean about ML at Google, TensorFlow, and the future of machine learning.

“The more powerful you are, the less you should assume you’re right.” That’s the advice from Stanford GSB professor Brian Lowery. “Think of [power] as fire. It’s useful, but it’s also dangerous.”

A day without meetings. How my GV partner John Zeratsky wiped, cleaned, and defragged his calendar.

If you want to know how the smartphone has affected the PC and tablet industry, you need only glance at the chart in this article.

Originally Published: August 9, 2016

Ken Norton is an executive coach who works with product leaders. He spent more than 14 years at Google where he built products used by more than 3 billion people.

  • How to Hire a Product Manager: the Classic Essay

    The classic essay that defined the product manager role

    What is product management? What makes a great product manager, and how do you become one? This is Ken Norton's classic essay on the role of product management that launched thousands of PM careers.

  • 10x Not 10%: Bold Product Strategy and Vision

    Product management by orders of magnitude

    In this ambitious essay, Ken Norton looks at the history of innovation and challenges product managers and product leaders to think bigger, to aim for 10x, not 10%.

  • Please Make Yourself Uncomfortable: Jazz and PMs

    What product managers can learn from jazz musicians

    What can product managers and product leaders learn from jazz, an art form that is all about improvisation, collaboration, and being willing to take risks?

  • Best Books for Product Managers [2024]

    Essential product management reading

    Ken Norton shares his recommended books for product managers. The best books on product leadership, innovation, management, shipping winning products, and design thinking.

  • Building Products at Stripe

    Go deep, move fast, and build multi-decade abstractions

    What is Stripe's product culture like? Interview with a Stripe product leader demonstrate an embrace of going deep, moving fast, and maintaining a multi-decade perspective.

  • It’s Time to Fight for a Dual Product Management Career Path

    Companies should embrace multitrack job ladders for product managers who prefer product leadership to people management

    Companies should embrace multitrack job ladders for product managers who prefer product leadership to people management. A concrete proposal with sample career track is included.

  • Ants & Aliens: Long-Term Product Vision & Strategy

    Why you need a thirty-year product vision (yes, thirty)

    How do you plan for the future and deliver an innovative and compelling product vision that will inspire your team to deliver winning products?

  • Building Products at Airbnb

    Snow White, storytelling, and a relentless focus on experiences

    What is Airbnb's product culture like? Interviews with Airbnb PMs demonstrate an embrace of Snow White, storytelling, and a relentless focus on experiences.