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How do you prepare yourself to become a Product Marketing Director and manage a team, without any experience managing anyone previously?

I'm on my 5th year of product marketing in my career, with another 5 years before that in general demand gen at very small companies. I've had management experience in the past, but not in a Product Marketing role. Often times in smaller companies, there will be 1 or 2 PMMs, usually in a very flat hierarchy, or a single boss, with no room to really move up a proverbial ladder and into management experience. So what are ways that I can prepare myself now, so that if the time comes to apply for a Director position (either internally or at another company) that I can be considered even without recent people management experience? Are there any courses for this that are highly regarded in the management arena?
8 Answers
Alexa Scordato
Alexa Scordato
TikTok PMOAugust 13

My first piece of advice: Talk to your direct manager about this and make it known that a) you're interested in becoming a manager b) you'd appreciate any professional development they can provide in this area. The reason I call this out to start is because it's not always clear or obvious to managers that a team member wants this for him or herself (I've managed PMMs who want to stay individual contributors or move laterally into product management roles). I also know that there are a ton of managers who aren't proactive about having career developement conversations with their direct reports so in the absence of them not talking to you about this, start the conversation. That's part 1.  

Part 2: Understand if there's a path for growth within your current company

If there's a precedent for people moving up in your organization or the company is scaling in such a way where there's a need to grow teams, that's great. There's also the possibility that you may never move up in your current company in which case the only way to move up maybe actually be to move out. 

If you think you can grow within your current company: 

  • make sure your work product is exceptional. be the type of individual contributor who is setting a higher bar 
  • demonstrate that you're thinking beyond your own individual swim lane. showcase a commitment to operational excellence and process. be the person who is documenting their work, teaching others, and leaving a clear paper trail of artifacts that can be referenced as playbooks. 
  • practice servant leadership. in the absence of having a formal title, are you the type of person who is sharing knowledge generously within your org and also showing a genuine concern for others 
  • to the extent that you can work on complex and cross-functional projects and be seen as an A+ collaborator and communicator, the better 

As a people manager, if someone had a track record of the above and there was a management or lead position open on my team, I'd be more inclined to give someone in-house a shot than hire an outsider above them. 

If you think you can't grow within your current company and you want to be a director: 

  • seek out roles at startups where its understood at the onset that an experienced product marketer can and will grow into a manager
  • seek out companies where there's a clear growth path for product marketers and demonstrated mobility within the existing team 

I've always been a believer in learning by doing, but I also have had many managers and mentors along the way who gave me a shot in the absence of experience. Maximize your options by doing exceptional work, learning by doing (side hustles, extracurriculars, etc.), and growing your network. And to the extent that you have a good relationship with your manager, get them involved in this process. Great managers want you to succeed whether it's at your current company or not. 

1165 Views
Dana Barrett
Dana Barrett
Tremendous VP of MarketingOctober 15

You do not have to have direct reports to develop some of the skills you will need to be a good manager and demonstrate that you are ready to take on the challenge of managing a team.

Many PMMs have to mobilize large cross functional teams to get work done. To do this well, you need to set a clear vision, set expectations for what will be done by when, provide feedback and coaching when the work is not on track, etc. All of these skills are critical to being an effective manager. In addition, you can coach or mentor others on your team. If you are a more seasoned PMM, you can help other newer PMMs to learn the role and develop their skills. I personally appreciate and reward seasoned PMMs who step up and help their peers.

If you are interested in becoming a manager, talk to your manager about your interest. Ask them what you can do to develop the skills you need to manage. Make sure you come to that conversation armed with some ideas for how you can build and demonstrate those skills. Ideally, come to that conversation with examples of how you have already demonstrated your ability to manage and lead. Feel free to draw upon my suggestions above for inspiration.

10071 Views
Jo Ann Sanders
Jo Ann Sanders
Honeycomb.io VP MarketingDecember 22

Great question. There are 3 ways to get demonstrable management experience outside of having FTEs report to you.

#1: Manage interns and contractors. Volunteer to run a message testing project through a research vendor. Volunteer to produce an explainer video series using an animation production company. Volunteer to hire an intern and complete a data analysis project that is valuable to the business. Outside of these project-based examples, identify an area where having an ongoing freelancer on the team (under you) would be valuable - a designer, a writer/copy editor, an extra resource just to focus on case studies, an analyst, etc.

#2: Get “matrix” management experience by stepping up to lead large cross-functional projects (beyond product launches). Drive the success of a new pricing initiative through all of GTM. Take on a major overhaul of the website. Lead an initiative to document, measure, and improve the customer journey from landing on the website through closed/won. The key here is that you are running a cross-functional team that is matrixed into you as a leader.

#3: Volunteer to take on an experimental and/or skunkworks project. Clearly define the phases, what needs to be validated, the resources needed, and make sure you are sharing learnings often and broadly. These types of projects show your initiative and ability to operate in highly ambiguous circumstances, which are critical management skills. They also often lead to exec-level visibility.

By successfully taking on one or more of the above, you prove that you have the experience to manage a team - tenacity, ability to delegate and get the most out of others, time/deliverable management, prioritization, stakeholder management, and good decision-making.

524 Views
Adam Kerin
Adam Kerin
Truework SVP of MarketingJanuary 18

As an individual contributor today, you can demonstrate your ability to manage projects and influence and lead people who do not directly report to you. This could be collaborating and convincing the product team of a new feature to win a new segment, or in effectively managing the many pieces and stakeholders behind a good product launch.

Also ensure you’re actively managing your career with those mentors or managers who will shape it. Share your goals with your boss. Ask what they would need to see from you to be considered for such a promotion.

Unfortunately, there is no single course or even degree like an MBA, that signals someone is ready and capable of effective people management.

The more your scope and sphere of influence can grow as an individual contributor, the more likely I think it is you’ll be tapped for that management role when the team growth supports it.

365 Views
Melinda Chung
Melinda Chung
Adobe ex-VP Marketing at VSCO; ex-Dir at PMM Adobe; Founder at Product Marketing BootcampJanuary 13

Yes, this is a tough one. I would suggest doing the following to gain some more recent “management” experience:

  1. Hire an intern - either summer or part-time
  2. Manage agencies or contractors
  3. If side projects are possible at your company, see if anyone wants to work on a PMM side project with you

While you do need to acquire management experience somehow, you’re more likely to get the opportunity to do it (with less experience) if you go to a small company. And don’t completely discount your cross-functional leadership experience - if you manage large groups of cross-functional team members, that management experience also helps in terms of communicating your strategy or vision, getting people committed and excited towards executing against the plan, etc.

879 Views
Josh Bean
Josh Bean
Zendesk Senior Director Product MarketingJanuary 27

In my experience, being a people manager doesn't change much across disciplines. The priorities should always be to help your team grow and develop their career (the output is great work and team success). If you've demonstrated you're a strong people leader that should be enough.

I know formal people mangement opportunities can be hard to come by in a small company. Try to informally mentor some of the less experienced PMMs on the team. Also recognize that management skills is just one part of becoming a Director. You also need to work on exec presence, story telling, strategy, leveraging data, etc.

881 Views
Angus Maclaurin
Angus Maclaurin
BILL Director of Product MarketingFebruary 2

I’ve been a one person PMM-team several times in the last decade and encountered the same challenges. More of my management experience comes from my analytics and innovation roles in the past. I'd recommend that you find ways to onboard people or be a mentor or teacher to others. A chunk of these management skills are transferable, but I would consider three points as you grow:

What do you need to be a better manager?

Many general management (and people) skills can be transferable. Your experience in the past will definitely help and you can continue to hone your skills. We’ve also leveraged personality assessments such as DiSC profiles and Enneagram to help better understand ourselves and how we work with others. In addition, cross-functional work is a great training ground. Often it can be harder to manage cross-functional teams when goals are not the same. Leverage those moments.

What skills are specific to Product Marketing?

Learn and master Product Marketing frameworks. Your process for launching a product may work in that scenario, but may not be scalable across a whole team of PMMs with different personalities and styles. What tools do you need to create personas? How do you structure product launches? What are all of the key outputs for PMM and how do they work together? If you are managing a team, you need to create more structure across each of those.

What is your long-term goal?

Finally, ask yourselve where you see yourself in 10 or 20 years. Typically there is not a Chief Product Marketer at a company, so you should plan for your longer-term area of expertise. I’ve seen PMM report to the CMO, CPO, or even the CRO. What part of the organization do you want to grow into? You might even decide that you would prefer to develop cross-functional expertise in another area of marketing instead of pushing towards PMM leadership.

407 Views
Daniel J. Murphy
Daniel J. Murphy
Marketing Strategy ConsultantJune 8

I don't think courses or books will substitute real world management experience, ever. Courses and books are helpful, but in terms of interviewing for a Director role with people management responsibility, they are not a substitute. 

I've hired first time managers a few times. Nothing against someone trying to get their first at bat managing or running a team. All depends on the situation, who they will be managing (and how many). Probably the best advice I can give here is just what I'd look for if I were hiring a Director of PMM to run a small team (which I happened to be doing last year). First, they need to show command for product marketing - how it would fit in the org, how to scale it as the company grows, the tactics, etc. And that's totally within your control, sounds like you have plenty of it. Second, I'd want to know how they'd approach managing an employee or a small team. How would they delegate, would they take partial IC ownership, what roles would they prioritize hiring when its time to scale. Third, would want them and the employee they'd manage to spend time in the interview process together, make sure it's a mutual fit. Is the employee excited about the idea of this person coming on to lead the team? (the #1 question always) and care they still excited about their career growth prospects with this new manager? (also should be a yes)

Hope that helps :) 

342 Views
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