Finding the Mission-Driven Product Management Role That You Want
Senior Product Director at Panorama Education
Looking for the “Perfect Job”
I’ve always been looking for mission-driven companies. Specifically, ones who take on a fundamental problem that impacts high-need communities. But I’ve learned over time to filter by other criteria, including product culture, the specific role, and the stage of the company. When you add these other factors, it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
When you can’t find that role, rather than standing still, I’ve learned to take on experiences that call for the kinds of skills needed in those target roles, to better prepare myself for what I really want in the end. I think about my career strategy now as balancing between gaining relevant experience while looking for truly great mission-driven roles that fit my career trajectory.
Although it may be challenging to find companies that both align with your values and the right role for where you are in your career, this should not stop you from preparing for your target situation. Here’s a look into how you can evaluate mission-driven product roles and leverage relevant experiences to move closer toward that dream job.
How to Determine if a Role Is Right for You
Look at the Company’s Mission
When drilling down into whether a company really operates to fulfill its mission, there are two key factors I look at. First, how do they prioritize that mission when it isn’t easy: do they go after problems that are more easily solved? Or do they chase their stated mission?
Second, why are the leaders of the company there—is this their life’s work or just something they fell into? Many of the biggest, most profit-maximizing companies in the world all started off with noble mission statements talking about the underserved, but look at how most of them navigated those trade-offs above.
The flip side of this is you should expect those rare companies that actually are living their mission to evaluate you similarly: how have you prioritized solving for impact in your career, and is impact your life’s work or just a flashy new sector you think will be lucrative for you?
Evaluate the Leaders
Here’s a trick for telling whether the leaders are competent: follow the money. This might sound paradoxical after all the talk above about finding mission-driven companies, but if the founders haven’t convinced anyone to pay for their product, they’re probably not close to solving the problem.
Second, and an inferior indicator but still useful, look at their backers. Because if they haven’t done the first (convinced people to pay to solve their problem), the second can give them the runway to do so. Difficult problem spaces can take much longer to chip away at, so if the founders have a path to profitability that is credible and they’ve convinced others (investors) of that, they may be worth taking a chance on even in the absence of those early signs of product-market fit.
Test Drive the Role
The most challenging part of product in my experience is formalizing a process to make the core product decisions (what problem to solve, how to address it, what to build as a result, and how to judge what you’ve built and iterate). Everyone repeats the clichés like ‘build-test-learn’ but it’s a painfully small minority that actually follows it. The reality is that most founders expect product people to make the right bets as quickly as possible with as few resources as possible.
But if that was easy, then they wouldn’t need you. So, ideally, you are an expert in that problem space and have the unique insights that help you know what to build and how to evaluate it. But chances are you’re not. In that case, you need to see upfront if the founders will have the discipline to follow “build-test-learn” or whatever iteration of that to find a product-market fit.
Especially where the marketplace is littered with companies that tried and failed to do what you aim in favor of easier problems, the path to product-market fit can be harrowing and take years. Not all founders know what they’re in for, and those that have done something, anything before in the early stage will usually be better positioned to handle this ambiguity.
One arrangement I’ve done over time is contract-to-hire, and in those first three months establish that process: once a founder is using their precious few dollars on following your advice, you’ll see how they actually operate and if you’re a fit for their decision-making style.
What to Do If You Can’t Find the Right Place
Find the Next Best Thing
Choose a role that is most similar to your target role. For example, if your domain of choice is fintech lending to underrepresented communities, work backwards from what it would be like to hold that role. What problems will you have to solve? With what resources? These two criteria can cut against each other because often larger companies have tried to solve those impactful problems but ultimately deprioritized them—but they have a lot to teach and potentially reams of data on why they failed, especially in domains where no one has adequately solved the problem. Conversely, being in a large company goes against the ‘with what resources’ criteria because at the early stages you have very few resources and intense time pressure.
You may not get both criteria satisfied with one role, but try to get both over the course of your career. The earlier in your career you are, the more you may have to take one or the other, but as you get more leverage in the marketplace thanks to your experience try to find both.
Pick Your Battles
One of the trickiest areas is to pick what problems you want to solve. This can be an endless loop because there’s always something else that can suddenly become more important. My approach is this:
Continue to build out the core PM skills that you’ll need in any position: communication, influence, and strategy.
Pick a problem space you feel the most emotionally invested in. Then talk to people doing product work to see if you’d be excited about the actual problems they find themselves dealing with.
Have a long-term focus. Think about your career in the decades it’ll actually last and define your problem space potentially more broadly than you initially might.
Finding Leaders Who Will Help You Grow Into Your Target Role
If you want to be a leader in your target area, you have to optimize for learning and growth. One key ingredient in continuing to build the core PM skills and the domain expertise in an area you care about is having a great boss. Many people point to other mentors as alternatives for a boss, but I view that as a workaround and I’d rather solve the core problem (work for someone that will effectively develop you in the areas you want). Your development is your responsibility, but having a boss that knows how to develop you in your key areas certainly helps.
There are a few things to look for:
They have a framework for what makes a good PM, and apply it continuously. I’ve learned that a lot of bosses have no framework or only use it when you get evaluated, which is once or twice a year. The bosses I think are most valuable are the ones who will check in with you on how you’re thinking about the product process and decision-making frameworks, and help you improve them.
They give specific and actionable feedback. Don’t be afraid to ask for the feedback you need in order to grow. The best companies have a high-performance culture and do this for you, but most don’t have any support if you’re falling short.
To both get better and make sure you’re evaluated fairly, set the tone in your 1:1s by coming up with proposed goals for skills and results, and check in on them both each time. There are several frameworks for good feedback, and good bosses can tell the difference between good and bad feedback so you’re continuing to improve.
They are great PMs themselves. If they’ve never achieved the results you hope to, what makes you think they can help you? Many people take great sounding roles for well-meaning managers that haven’t ever delivered a great product themselves, and the term ‘square peg, round hole’ is fitting.
Evaluate them before taking a position because not only can they make or break your development, the worst case is that they can get rid of you if you don’t align with how they want things done. Unless you are at a company where you’re extremely cozy with a founder or upper management that can veto your boss’ decision, remember that they are as close to God as it gets for deciding if you’re doing a good job. Get this alignment on what success looks like up front, and make sure you agree with what they define as a great PM.
Searching for That Mission-Driven Role
- You may not find a job or company that doesn't align with your vision right away. Don't let that stop you. Work toward building up your resume and skills to get to your target.
- Think of your ideal role and work backward from what that scenario would look like. What will you be trying to solve? What resources will you work with? Use that insight to evaluate your prospective jobs.
- Focus on the long-term. Pick an area where you're emotionally invested in, and leaders who will aid you in your development.
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Senior Product Director at Panorama Education
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