Personal Growth – the Essence of Your Product Career by Kristina Walcker-Mayer

In this talk from #MTP Engage Hamburg, I look at how you can embrace and accept your strengths and weaknesses and at what kind of people should you partner up with to create true value and drive success for your customers, your company, and yourself.

Product careers are very complex because they require a very broad and deep understanding of business, different functions, people, trends, and technology. No matter where you are in your product career, you need to act as a leader, and provide guidance and vision. In order to succeed at this, it helps to understand and master yourself first: what are your natural strengths and weaknesses? How can you embrace and accept them?

Where do you see Yourself in Five Years?

When I was at an earlier stage in my career, my lead asked me: “Where do you want to be in five years from now?” I answered: “Well, maybe leading a product team? Having direct reports? Maybe something like a head of product? Director? Team lead?” I heard similar answers when I ran my weekly check-ins with my own team years later.

But then I asked: “Why?” The answers I got were mostly something like: “Well, this is how it goes: you start as a junior, then the next step is to get rid of your junior title and then at some point you become a senior, then head, then director and so on” The list of job titles and hierarchical steps goes on. Interestingly, we focus mostly on job titles and it seems like we’re playing a jump-and-run game, like Super Mario Brothers, running and jumping from level to level. We’re caught in the so-called “career trap”.

Do we Approach our Careers Differently?

In a lot of companies, development plans are seen as a To Do list, like the coins you collect in video games in order to reach the next level. In a perfect world, our leads create them for us, so we don’t need to think ourselves or invest time and effort in creating our career.

But wait: we are product managers. Normally we hate it if someone provides us with a top-down roadmap. Don’t we usually want to define the initiatives we work on ourselves? Based on our own research? Why do we approach our career differently? Why do we think it’s comfortable to get a checklist of things we need to tick off in order to reach the next level? It’s an approach that makes us completely dependent on companies, their job descriptions and the evaluation of certain people. Such requirements often have nothing to do with us, our individual passions, talents, and dreams. They are generic summaries of skills or requirements.

Find Your own way

But how do you find out what your own individual way is? Treat this topic as your own product initiative and start with a broad and extensive discovery – call it “self-reflection”. Get to know yourself better. When you start doing this, it’s important to document all your thoughts and answers, as this will help you to structure the process, in order for your brain to truly focus on the reflection. Grab a notebook, a pen, and get started. The process can take up to several days or even weeks so don’t worry about getting everything done today.

An understanding of your personality traits can help you to identify your preferences at work. I personally like the Gallup StrengthsFinder approach to this. As a next step, you could think about which areas of product management feel easier and come more naturally to you and find out what your sweet spot is. Do you prefer to dig deep and understand customers and problems? Or do you prefer to work closely with designers and tech to find solutions? Are you very process-oriented and the developers are your best friends? In order to progress with your career, it’s always good to be aware of your product USP, but also your weaker spots, so you know who you should partner up with or who you should hire for your team.

Have you fully understood the company and the industry you’re operating in? Have you ever considered spending a day in marketing or other expert functions to understand their processes better? Once you have spent some time reflecting on your working environment, get back to yourself and look at your life. What did you love doing as a child? What activities cause you to lose track of time? What do you Google when you’re on vacation? How do you work the best: in an open-plan office or at home? Do you prefer to collaborate with people or think for yourself?

Personal Growth – the Essence of Your Product Career by Kristina Walcker-Mayer 1

Create Your Future

Once you’ve reflected on all these different areas and written all your answers in your notebook, put it aside and give yourself time to process all the information. In order to create your future, it can be beneficial to move out of your head and towards your heart. My talk gives concrete examples of how to do this and how you can move forward to create your vision, breaking it down into concrete tangible steps. Once you have created your future in your head, it gets much easier to define a strategy. There’s no need to stress yourself out on a long To Do list. Once you’ve done the vision work, and set some focus and direction, the next steps will become obvious and come naturally, so you can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

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