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What it takes to become a great product manager

Product Team
Personal Growth
Leadership
Strategy

19 November, 2021

James Engelbert
James Engelbert

Head of Product at BT

James Engelbert, Head of Product at BT, shares his deep understanding of the traits of a successful product manager and how to get aligned with the organization’s path to success.

Problem

Product teams have various levels of experience, tenure at a company are some factors which can impact an individual's success in a product role. Switching the way of working can be a pretty uncertain feeling for many people.

Within a product management career, there are different levels of ownership 一 junior product managers, product owners, product executives, CPO, product directors, etc. When people embark or fall into a product career, they might think it’s a linear trajectory to the ‘top’, but as we evolved our product team, there was some unrest around the ability to progress in their careers. The bad part: it was mainly driven by the titles. It started becoming frustrating for product managers as the ‘path to the top’ wasn't as clearly mapped out as it was before because we standardised titles, gave them an opportunity for a wider remit as well as more autonomy.

Actions taken

At BT we broke overall product management into 4 buckets- strategy, leadership, delivery, and performance and for you to be a well-rounded product person you should be exceptional in all areas. It's not very common for someone to excel in all these areas, so how we structured the product team so that you could move ‘assignments’ with the intent of gaining more experience in an area in which you might not have experience. For example, you might be working on a product which is undefined, needs lots of strategy, discovery, validation and delivery but less on day to day performance. In that case, you might want to spend some time in a more established product where you can drive regular performance improvements.

The breadth of experience within a product role helps you grow as a product manager and eventually prepares you for the next step, which could be a bigger product, management of a product team, or starting your own business.

By working this way I think it helped people get an idea of what they enjoyed and were good at but also highlighted the areas they didn't enjoy or were able to pick up so quickly. I think this is important as you shape your product career because it helps you figure out what your next step might be.

Some people love working with a team, understanding all the customer problems, delivering and running strategies. On the other hand, others don’t enjoy managing people, which is also okay. It’s essential to be honest with ourselves and realize what we like doing and what we are good at and not feel like ‘management’ is the only path to a successful career.

Lessons learned

  • As a product manager or a leader, it’s crucial not to think of your career as a destination.
  • The breadth of experience can open up so many cool and interesting opportunities
  • Managing a team isn't the ultimate ‘level’ in product management.

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