What are differences between PM and Sr. PM? What are clear indicators that someone is ready to take on Sr. PM role and responsibilities that come with it? And, when in the Sr. PM role, what are key stages that distinguish different levels of Sr. PMs?
At Asana, we don't use leveled job titles to indicate seniority (e.g. Product Manager III or Senior Director of Marketing), but that doesn't mean that we don't have management structures in place. Instead, we use Success Guides for every team that help employees understand what success looks like for each role level at Asana. Another way we demonstrate ownership and growth in role is Areas of Responsibility, key areas of the business that have one designated owner who is responsible. AoRs act as a directory so employees easily can understand who does what, and they offer employees additional ways to stretch and grow outside of a traditional role structure.
- As a more junior PM you are working on a well-defined initiative driving the backlog of a single program team or large workstream within a program team. You contribute to the strategy for a program, while the high level elements are largely defined already. You drive work with end-to-end responsibility around execution in a problem space that is fairly well defined. At this stage you are open and curious - your growth mindset is a career accelerant.
- As a more senior PM you have a lot of autonomy in running a program team or large workstream within a program team, and are thinking boundarylessly outside your program to drive a seamless customer experience. You may be contributing to multiple backlogs and your work likely touches experiences that are owned by others. You are expected to set the strategy for your program or workstream based on the broader pillar strategy. This strategy must help Asana win. The work that you tackle is difficult, ambitious, ambiguous, and does not have a clear solution from the outset. You coach other PMs informally, and may seek out a more formal mentorship opportunity.
Once someone is demonstrating all the competencies at their current level, we then start giving them extra responsibilities. It is only after demonstrating those new competencies consistently do we decide they are ready to be promoted.
This varies so much from company to company but my general lens while moving from PM to SPM:
- SPMs have had at least one meaningful product launch in their career.
- SPMs are able to cut across product lines, reach out to multiple PMs to identify dependencies, get buy-ins, and manage timelines for complex launches that touch various parts of a product ecosystem (vs. focusing on one siloed area).
- SPMs establish a relationship with various stakeholders (including non-R&D folks).
- SPMs can outline a broader business strategy and define a long-term vision for their areas (vs. PMs focus more on execution or on what's next in the near term).
It is hard for me to define the stages of different SPM levels. Generally speaking, you can either start going deep into one specific product area (to get set up for an IC/Principle PM path) or continue working across various PMs to solve problems (to get set up for a manager/GPM path). In my opinion, as closely as companies can tie this to impact and the craft of execution, the more objective this becomes for promotions.
As you progress from PM to senior PM, competencies in these 3 areas should grow: Autonomy💪🏽, Scope 🌫️ and Leadership 🙋 . There are a few clear indications that someone is ready for the senior level, like increased scope, being a reliable partner and being results driven. Here are some less obvious ones:
#1 You recommend initiatives based on your strategic evaluation, instead of waiting for them to be handed to you. You are influential in your field and feel confident putting forward these initiatives.
#2 You leverage relationships across the org. You can drive results from partners outside of your immediate team. You are fully entrusted to tackle complex, multi-team problems with little necessary supervision.
#3 You are seen as an available and trustworthy mentor and actively seek out opportunities to help others be their best. This is my favorite by far.
What are the key stages that distinguish the different levels of PMs? I think a little bit of this depends on the problem space and company. In my mind, PMs are professional collaborators, strategic assassins and bring out the best in their peers. If you can look yourself in the mirror and say you’re doing these things at scale, well, I’d say you're on the right track.
In general, the progression from any level to the next is a matter of demonstrating increasing levels of skill in product definition, technical or domain expertise, ability to navigate and project manage increasing levels of complexity, communication, and ability to influence amonst others. Another way to think about this is that you are increasingly moving from "learning the ropes" to "knowing the ropes" to eventually "having invented the ropes". Much depends also on how formally the company defines the boundaries between roles, how flat the org is or conversely, how much title inflation there is. Most large companies have formal definitions of what the expectations are for each level because that ensures a common set of criteria for promotion. The criteria may not be well- publicized but they are not meant to be secret, so you should ask for them either way.
In a traditional PM hierarchy the PM and the Sr PM levels are typically early career levels. A PM typically receives a lot more prescriptive direction on tasks, they may cover one or more projects, and the scope is narrower. For example, running one experiment at a time, defining one feature as a subset of a much bigger system. While decisions are often made by more senior PMs and engineering partners, the PM is documenting the requirements, filing the tickets, and helping project manage.
A Sr PM has shown good judgement and is both able and trusted to operate more autonomously. This holds true for a progression to Principle, Director etc. The Sr PM is still focused on a specific area but takes on more complex functionality, is more actively defining the features and driving the full product lifecycle. They know the processes and support systems, they are able to navigate the org and increasingly more complex converations. They are increasingly self-aware and aware of context. They know when to ask for help or to check-in that they are on the right track. Both roles are focused on execution. In some orgs there are additional gradations within a level: Sr PM I, Sr PM II etc. Unless defined somewhere, a good proxy for any level progression is as mentioned above: growth in scope, increasing ability to influence and drive projects of increasing complexity, ability to communicate effectively, which means both the ability to drive alignment but also to diffuse conflict.
Check out my other answer in the AMA outlining the difference in skills between different PM levels. As for how do I know that someone is ready to take on a Sr. PM role, the answer is I can see them operating with a mastery of skills that I expect from a senior product manager, while their title may still not have a Sr. in it. Best folks always uplevel themselves a little faster than the title, because if you are a growth mindset person who always likes to learn, you will most likely outpace your title at some point. My recommendation is also to work with your manager as well and establish what are their expectations for a Sr. PM - they may have a different idea in mind. But getting to a clear list of what you'd need to do to get to a Sr. PM title in your org, and then checking in with your manager consistently on your progress is a path to get there.