Product School

Navigating the Chasm: Product Manager to Product Leader

Michelle Parson

Author: Michelle Parsons

June 5, 2023 - 5 min read

Updated: January 24, 2024 - 5 min read

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One of the questions that I often get from people is: ‘How did I navigate my career and break into the roles and companies that I have worked in?’ When answering this question, I start with mid-career advice I once received from a mentor: “what got you here won’t get you there.” These words struck a chord and prompted me to make several key changes at that juncture, changes that have stayed with me since. The changes I made impacted my daily approach to work, how I developed my cross-functional relationships, and how I set and managed my goals.


Breaking into Product Management is challenging, and navigating the necessary skills, relationships, and conversations for career growth can be even harder. Many Product Managers find themselves in No Person’s Land when trying to get to The Promised Land. What made you successful as a Product Manager won’t necessarily make you successful as a Product Leader. No one tells you that these transitions create a need for thoughtful navigation, with a number of required jumps that you need to make and a series of traps that you need to avoid.

What is No Person's Land?

No Person’s Land has many features:

  • Struggling to achieve alignment and buy-in

  • Facing challenges in managing complex stakeholder relationships

  • Being stretched too thin

  • Repeating the same tasks without progress

  • Working long hours

  • Feeling stuck and without a clear path 

  • Regularly shipping features that don’t drive significant business impact

Nobody wants to get stuck when trying to make the leap from Product Manager to Product Leader. This transformative journey is similar to navigating a chasm; it requires a shift in mindset, skillset, and approach. When focusing on career growth and managing this shift, you must select from one of the two Product Management career tracks available: the Individual Contributor (IC) path (becoming a Subject Matter Expert) and the Manager path (managing a portfolio of products and people). Think critically about the type of work you love to do in order to determine which path to take. 

Both tracks are pathways to becoming a Product Leader and there are key areas you will need to master as you ascend the ladder. Let’s explore the five key challenges and strategies for successfully developing through opportunities in your Product journey. 

1. Embracing a Strategic Mindset:

As a Product Manager, the focus is primarily on executing and delivering products. However, as you climb the Product career ladder, the focus expands to encompass strategic thinking and vision. This transition involves developing a broader understanding of the market, customers, and business objectives. It requires aligning the product roadmap with the company's strategic goals and ensuring that the team's efforts are in line with the long-term vision.

2. Mastering Strategic Product Planning:

Product Leaders are responsible for shaping the overall product strategy and roadmap. They must demonstrate a deep understanding of market trends, customer needs, and competitive landscape to make informed decisions. This involves conducting thorough market research, leveraging data and analytics, and continuously monitoring and adapting to changes. Product Leaders must possess the ability to prioritize initiatives, balance competing demands, and allocate resources effectively to deliver products that align with the company's goals and delight customers.

3. Influencing and Aligning Stakeholders:

While Product Managers primarily focus on internal stakeholders, Product Leaders must navigate a broader web of relationships. They need to engage with various stakeholders, including executives, customers, sales, marketing, and engineering teams. Building strong relationships, cultivating trust, and effectively communicating the product vision and strategy are vital to gaining alignment and support from these stakeholders. Skillful negotiation and influencing techniques play a pivotal role in successfully managing these relationships.

4. Embracing Continuous Learning and Personal Growth:

Transitioning from a Product Manager to a Product Leader is not a one-time event but an ongoing journey of personal growth. Actively seeking out learning opportunities, staying updated with industry trends, and expanding one's knowledge base are critical. Engaging in networking, attending conferences, and participating in leadership programs can help accelerate this growth. Embracing feedback, learning from failures, and developing resilience are essential traits for navigating the challenges that come with the role of a Product Leader.

If you choose the people manager track you’ll also need to:

5. Build and Empower High-Performing Teams:

Product Managers work closely with cross-functional teams, but Product Leaders must go a step further and cultivate an environment of collaboration, trust, and empowerment. Developing leadership skills to inspire and motivate teams becomes crucial. Effective delegation, coaching, and mentoring are essential in nurturing talent and driving the team towards excellence. A Product Leader must create a culture that encourages innovation, experimentation, and continuous learning.

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Bridging the chasm from being a Product Manager to a Product Leader requires a comprehensive shift in mindset, skillset, and approach. It demands a strategic outlook, the ability to inspire and empower teams, adept stakeholder management, mastery of product planning, and a commitment to continuous learning. By embracing these challenges head-on and investing in personal growth, Product Managers can successfully navigate the chasm and emerge as effective Product Leaders who drive innovation, shape strategic direction, and deliver exceptional products that meet customer needs.

When I reflect on my own career journey it is full of successes and failures that I largely had to navigate by being extremely proactive. I charted my own course and crafted my own guide - looking for resources online and asking mentors and Product Leaders for direction, insight and advice. I am thankful for my journey but I wish I would have had a blueprint at times. I believe career growth does not need to be a black box; a desire to grow and learn can be charted and supported with stories and exercises, much like physical training. This is why we developed the new Product Leadership Certification: to help you level up in your career and master the art and science of Product Leadership so that you have a concrete plan on your path to a promotion. Learn more here today!

Updated: January 24, 2024

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