Career Paths in Product Management – Building Products vs. Building People

Product Management Career Paths

At one point in time, every PM will arrive at the point at which she has finally gained enough professional experience at her current or past job to climb the corporate ladder. Promotions become a thing and product management career paths need to be discussed.
And thereby it’s not about leveling from which level, but about the act of leveling itself.

While this may seem natural at first sight and was the de facto only way to gain recognition of a good performance, things have changed a bit in the past.
Growth trajectories of people are no longer only focussed on the vertical direction but the horizontal axis.

In the context of product management, this means that you have to choose between continuing to build products yourself compared to instead focus on building people who then build great products.

When you arrive at the point in time mentioned above in time, I strongly advise you to take a moment to check your real inner motivators instead of immediately jumping on having a new business card entitling you as Team Lead Product/VP Product, etc.

This also the very first thing I check with applicants. By focussing on motivators of someone in the first place you can avoid a couple of uncomfortable situations to find yourself in 6 months down the line:

A great product manager joins your small team with already clear leadership ambitions, which you didn’t check in the first place and only discover a couple of months in. One of 3 things will happen:

  1. You’ll have to put him off again and again when he’s asking for a leadership opportunity. His excellence in building products will decrease, and he’ll eventually leave.
  2. You give him the title he wants, without a team though. The title will delay the disappointment, but he’ll eventually leave.
  3. You give him the title and start unplanned hiring to create an artificial team for him. He may be happy, but you created unhealthy growth (and thereby financial burden) for your company and put way too much on the line. Only to satisfy the needs of one employee. On whom you didn’t do your hr homework.


You promote a great product manager to a leadership position who accepts out of politeness but has no leadership ambitions at all and is more than happy in an executive role. Here’s what’ll happen:

  • She’s leading people based on the corporate hr playbook but remains at the same time way too involved in operational details of daily product building because that’s way more interesting (and challenging) for her.
  • Her team grows frustrated and eventually starts to quit.
  • She discovers her true motivation based on building products instead of building people and quits as well.
  • You have to re-hire a product leadership position and the individual contributor roles of that team. Just because you didn’t check the real motivators of your initial hire.

So, whether you’re a product leader hiring for a team or a PM who is approaching a ‘critical’ level of experience: Check your true motivators and whether you’re more driven by building products (and want to continue to deepen your knowledge around that) or building people (with all the trade-offs of being involved continuously of the daily product details.