Moving On Up: Transitioning from Individual Contributor to Manager

As a Product Management recruiter, I often have conversations with individuals who are currently working as a Senior Product Manager, and are hoping that they will be able to jump into management in their next role. They are only open to hearing about roles with a Director or VP title. 

And I get it! I really want to be a part of helping candidates advance their careers and achieve their dreams. Unfortunately, I often have to deliver bad news. 

In most cases, making the leap into leadership is incredibly difficult to do through a recruiter. It’s also pretty tricky to pull off when moving from one organization to another. I advise candidates who are aspiring to leadership positions to do everything they can to advance within their current organization, instead of looking elsewhere. 

Why is it so difficult? 

Well most employers, rightly or wrongly, will assume that if you’re ready for a promotion, your current employer would move you up. Your current organization is in the best position to know you and your work—so if they aren’t promoting you, there must be a reason for it. 

It’s also difficult for a recruiter to justify submitting your candidacy for a leadership position if you don’t already have leadership experience. Clients pay us to find them the very top talent in the marketplace—which means finding candidates who are already doing the job they need done

To compound the issue, the unfortunate state of the Toronto technology scene right now is that there simply aren’t enough leadership roles for all of the great candidates who are in the market and ready to make a move. These leaders are moving for a number of reasons: their product has matured, is moving into maintenance mode, was recently acquired, etc. and those folks are actively looking to make their next move. That's the community who you are competing with—leaders who are currently doing the job are much lower risk hires than an unknown entity. 

So what can you do? How can you move up into that next level? 

This is the advice that I give to candidates in your situation. 

Number one: book a meeting with your boss. Does your employer know what your aspiration is? Do they know it’s your desire to be a Director or Head of Product? The very first step is making sure they are aware of your ambitions. If they’re thinking about succession planning, or expanding the leadership team, they need to know you’re interested.  

The most important outcome for this meeting is to get their feedback. Don’t go into it with a list of demands, or expecting to be handed a promotion on the spot. Instead, you want to approach the meeting as a fact finding mission:

  • Would they consider you for the role if it were available? Why or why not? 
  • What are the growth areas that you should focus on this month, this quarter, and this year, in order to become a stronger candidate? 
  • What could you be doing in your current role that would help to prepare you for leadership? 
  • What will you need to accomplish for them to see you as ready for that next level of responsibility? 

Once you have your boss’s feedback, the hard work begins. Show them that you take their feedback seriously, and are committed to improving. Be the best employee that you can be in your role, and work on the growth areas your boss has identified. 

I won’t sugar coat—it’s going to be hard, and you’re going to be stretched. 

However, it won’t be nearly as difficult as it is to move into a new organization where you need to learn the product and processes, while you’re also trying to be a first time people manager. 

In your current role, you likely have allies—people who are rooting for you, who know and trust you, and who have already seen the value you bring to the organization. Proving yourself in a new role, with a new product, and a new team is a much steeper uphill battle. 

What do you do if your organization is too small for a layer of management between the C-Suite and the individual contributing Product Manager? Or if you know that leadership positions are so rarely available that you’re confident you don’t have a shot? 

My advice is pretty much the same. Talk to your boss! Good leaders are aware that their teams have ambitions, and actively work to help their employees realize their goals. If the role you want isn’t available (or won’t be in the foreseeable future), you can still benefit from an honest conversation about your strengths and weaknesses, and seek out opportunities to get some leadership experience. Can you take point on a big project? Offer more insight to the leadership team? Make more strategic contributions in your current role? 

If it becomes clear that there’s nothing more you can be doing—if you’re crushing it on every level but the opportunity just isn’t there—then it’s time to conduct a targeted search. Polish up your resume (you can find my advice for that here), and take a good long look at your network. Do you know any Founders/CEOs/Leaders at companies in a similar industry/vertical? Think about places where you could add immediate value—organizations in your partner network, companies solving similar problems, places where former colleagues have landed. Reach out to those organizations directly. Take a look at the LinkedIN profiles of people who are doing the jobs you want to be doing in 5 years—what path did they take to get there? 

This will likely be a long road to walk, but worth it if it gets you your dream job. Expect to invest some time in networking events and coffee meetings. Take your time doing research, and figure out the business model of the organization you’re interested in. 

It’s very difficult to make the jump from individual contributor to manager through a recruiter—it’s been done, but those examples are few and far between. But even though it’s tough for me to help you get there, I want to see you live your dream! So go get it!


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