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Your Toolkit to Stand Out as a Product Manager: Advice from Experts

Many people are considering a career change to product management. Why? It’s a role that people are highly satisfied in, it pays well, and, maybe best of all, anyone can access it.

“There are many pathways in, and there are many ways to be a product manager.”

Simon Elder, Principal Group Product Lead

We recently hosted a webinar with product management leaders from across the UK to discuss what the current hiring market looks like and what you can do to stand out to potential employers. 

During the 60-minute session, our panel of experts shared valuable tips and insights, such as:

  • The difference between product and project management
  • The technical skills you need as a product manager
  • How to shift careers and what transferable skills matter most

You can watch the full recording here:

Below, we’ve listed a few of the event’s top takeaways. We also reached out to our panel to get their answers to the questions we didn’t have time to cover, and asked them to share their go-to product management resource right now.

Product managers are not project managers

“It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all [role]. The voices in the industry that I think are unhelpful are the ones that try and pigeonhole product management as just a tweak on project management. Being a product manager does not mean owning a backlog. It does not mean writing JIRA tickets. You’re a facilitator or a dock connector. You’re an enabler. We need to move away from a PM simply owning a backlog going towards a PM bringing a cohesive team of experts together to solve meaningful problems..” – Nick Jemetta, PM Advisor and Coach at Stories Matter

Your previous experience is your superpower

“There are people from all different avenues going into product, which I think creates a very rich source of different types of background around product management, and it’s only something that I see growing.” – Emma van Dijkum, previous Vice President of Product at Multiverse

“I think most Heads of Product are looking to build a cognitive diversity – they don’t want cookie cutter people. When you build a team, you’re going to automatically look for different profiles – you don’t want the same, and so, as a candidate, I think you should never be afraid of accentuating your angle. It’s certainly a plus to be different. So, you know, it doesn’t matter where you come from.” – Charles Roels, Chief Product Officer at SO-SURE

Take Malavika for example. She’s not a traditional product manager, but the King’s Career Accelerator still gave her new frameworks to apply to her work – and career.

You don’t need to be technical to work as a product manager

“I would describe myself as a technology geek. But I’m not sure I’m technical. I have an interest, I have a passion. I love what technology can do in terms of creating customer experiences. But I’m not a technical person. I think we need to debunk the myth that to be a great PM, you’ve got to be technical. For me, the more important skill is having an interest in it and just being curious. You can meet technical people in the middle without having to be overly technical.” – Nick Jemetta

“It’s much more about the EQ of bringing [people] together. The ability to [manage] that synthesis is the core skill [of product management], not technological understanding, because you’ve got a brilliant architect, and you’ve hopefully got a brilliant delivery team behind them as well. You can lean into them – that’s what they’re there for. You’re synthesising their expertise into the overall product experience.” – Simon Elder

Employability is at the core of Career Accelerators. We partner with tech and employer partners, such as Atlassian and Dropbox, to ensure you gain the skills and practical experience to get you hired as a product manager.

Watch the King’s Product Management Career Accelerator video to find out more about the programme.

Audience questions answered by product experts

How easy is the transition from project manager to product manager? Are there transferable skills in both?

Emma: As someone who made this transition myself, there are definitely transferable skills that apply to both:

  • Influencing without authority
  • Stakeholder management
  • Prioritisation
  • Making stuff happen
  • Making sense of complexity

What you might then need to learn is adapting to agile methodologies and defining and leading strategy.

If a product manager is not a one-size-fits-all, how can you move within different industries?

Nick: Build the core product management skill set – uncovering problems and opportunities that have digital solutions to create customer value and business impact. You do this by being curious, focusing on difficult problems, learning how to get the best from your engineering and design partners, and collaborating with stakeholders. These skills transfer across every industry.

For those who have social science backgrounds, which path or focus makes the most sense if I’m keen to move into PM?

Simon: I’d flip this and ask: What is it about product management that appeals to you? Is it more the user research and experience, or are you interested in developing your skills elsewhere? This should help you refine what type of product role and/or organisation you’re interested in working in.

With only one year of experience as a product owner, is a transition into a PM role feasible, given that you require X amount of years in product to be considered?

Emma: You can be a product manager off the bat (with any working experience to draw from). Great companies don’t distinguish between product owner and product manager roles. Ideally, there is no difference.

I’m currently a PM and have been sceptical about the movements in this area, mainly after Airbnb spoke about ending the PM position (some companies are already following) and merging into marketing. What is the main focus after that?

Simon: In the Airbnb scenario, the functions of product management don’t fall away; they’re re-named or taken on elsewhere in the organisation. It’s the skillset that remains vital to an organisation. Product management within a marketing function is still product management. In my own career, I was filling what would now be PM functions when in an editorial role. Likewise, my role now requires me to have solid operational and editorial knowledge to ensure that the product features I’m leading on ‘work’ within the business.

I have a tech background with an MBA. What kind of roles can I target in PM?

Nick: Whatever you’re interested in! With your MBA, you don’t need to pigeonhole yourself into deep tech roles.

Product management is a fairly broad field of activity. Could you explain what hard skills are needed if you want to become a product manager from the side of product analytics and digital marketing?

Emma: It depends on the role, but you should know the basics behind agile software development, know your way around a spreadsheet so you can analyse data, and ideally wrap your head around using behavioural analytics tools. A lot of this you can learn on the job.

How do I network with people and actually get a response from people ready to help and guide me/ mentor to switch to a PM role?

Emma: Don’t see networking as transactional but as a way to meet interesting people and build connections. Try and stand out by offering something different to others, like a free promotion or a coffee. Think of what you can give before expecting something in return.

Do you have advice for someone in a product role but in a non-product-orientated business?

Simon: This can be very specific to an organisation, but I’d start by thinking about how you articulate business value: what is it that your understanding of and engagement with the customer as a product manager delivers for the business in terms of insight and potential for customer growth/retention/value? Within the King’s Product Management Career Accelerator, there is a focus on engaging with and managing internal stakeholders that really helps with this. I’d also consider who within the business is a strong communicator who could help you with your messaging (even if they’re not in a product role).

Bonus: What’s your go-to product management resource right now?

Emma: Marty Cagan, Productplan, The Economist articles, LinkedIn, Product Leadership networks.

Nick: There are so many! I love Nacho Bassino’s book, Product Direction, and Teresa Torres’s book, Continuous Discovery Habits. My top web tip is a curation of the best product content by Simon Waldman, Product Director at RAC.

Charles: The weekly Matt Lerner email is always interesting. Something new: Hustle Badger, an ed-tech startup that wants to provide people in the tech industry with the skills they need to succeed. Otherwise, I’m very much into behavioural economics and decision-making.

Simon: People. And the people I work with in particular. We have some great experience and diversity of thought in the organisation.

Feel inspired by this advice? The King’s Product Management Career Accelerator is designed to kickstart your career as a product manager. Download the brochure.

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