Don’t Let Your Best Product Managers All Become People Managers Or Your Company Will Suffer

Why Ken Norton’s Dual Product Management Career Path Can Also Encourage Innovation At Scale

Rising to your level of misery” is how Arthur Brooks frames the trap of being good enough at your job that you continue to climb a corporate ladder until arriving at a rung which leaves you in a role that makes you miserable. And oh my does this concept speak to my own experiences as a BigCo product lead. I don’t blame my previous employer but rather my own inability to reconcile happiness vs striving and ego, but after reading Ken Norton’s essay advocating for dual Product Management career paths, I’m think it’s also an org chart issue, not just a personal one!

Ken’s argument is that most tech companies treat product management careers in a very different way than they do engineering and design. Namely, there’s typically not a ‘terminal point’ where you can stay a contributing individual contributor (it’s more ‘up or out’) and, more importantly, an advancement track which focuses more on the PRODUCT and less on the MANAGEMENT. Not an IC role per se, but one where you manage the product resources for a project scope, not for a division.

There’s a reason that I support this amended career ladder, and it’s not just about personal preference, but instead it preserves what I believe is a necessary component for innovation in large companies: the effective, but independent, product leader.

Organizations by design as they grow, scale with people who thrive in more complex hierarchical environments. While the traditional org chart structure might one day be replaced by more evolved thinking better suited for technology-driven economies it has dominated capitalism since industrialization. For what it’s worth, I’m not disregarding or criticizing the people who fill these roles or rejecting the notion that large companies can’t innovate or do good work. But I also don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that the amount of process and structure do challenge certain types of individualistic thinking and the challenging of norms.

Now, combine the bias in org structure and people attracted to that environment with an incentive structure dependent upon pleasing your boss. At larger, more mature companies your opportunity for wealth accumulation is tied to advancement. Advancement is very directly linked with making your boss happy so they can make their boss happy, and so on. (Sidenote, this is why I think the best compensation systems don’t let the direct manager control the purse, but instead heavily incorporate their feedback into a 360 degree process, self-evaluation and other more measurable criteria).

So, in my experience, the senior product managers who had also opted out of the standard VP promotion track, were also the truth tellers, the culture carriers and the inglorious but complex work-doers. This is an important distinction: they’re not ‘rest and vest’ — they still want to work hard on actual projects; they’re not ‘bomb throwers’ — they’re just people who understand the company and can ask questions that either wouldn’t occur to newer employees or who don’t rock the boat.

At Google during my period these were mostly folks who had been around pre-IPO or soon after, and just wanted to stay around to work hard but not assume organizational ownership roles. They had reached a comfortable level of wealth from that early compensation, and grew up around the colleagues who were now in senior roles (ie they were trusted and knew how to get stuff done). The smartest product VPs would grant safe haven to one or two of these folks with an implicit quid pro quo: I’ll keep you our of unnecessary meetings and politics, you can work on hard projects with small teams, and I’ll reward you to the best of my abilities but you’ve probably maxed out on salary band levels if you can’t get promoted. I had one of these people on my team for a bit and it was glorious for both of us.

So what does Ken’s framework do? It lets these people continue to advance and get awarded for that advancement, eliminating the need for these folks to only be individuals who carbon date back to the earliest days of the company.

Anyhow, please read Ken’s essay. As hopefully articulated here, I think it’s not just a potential solution to talent retention and personal happiness, but could also help preserve innovation as companies grow. Thanks Ken!