Navigating Your Product Management Career

Product managers and new product development (NPD) practitioners have unique and original career paths. Most of us find work in innovation exciting and rewarding but the pathway to a career as a product development professional is not the same for any two people. Many product managers come to their position from a technology background while others have experience in sales and marketing.

Regardless of your career path, once you find yourself in a position as a product manager, you must navigate the job. In this article, I share three tips that have helped my clients become more effective innovation leaders. First, we will summarize the tips here and then go into detail for each later.

1. Speak the language

2. Build a strategic network

3. Balance your time

Speak the Language

One of the greatest joys of working as a new product development professional (NPDP) or as a product manager is the interaction with different people. We have the privilege and opportunity to meet customers, suppliers, vendors, creatives, R&D teams, and all sorts of other stakeholders. It’s a lot of fun to build relationships with diverse groups.

On the other hand, building relationships with diverse people means learning to speak a new language ‑ for each group! Customers, end-users, and potential consumers are interested in very different product characteristics than are the R&D team. A product manager bridges these gaps artfully by merging the technical with market needs and benefits.

For example, customers really only want to know how a product or service will benefit them. Does buying a new product make life easier and more convenient? Does the price paid for a service balance their personal cost of instead doing the task themselves? What is the advantage of using your product over that of a competitor?

The R&D or DevOps team must know exact design specifications and requirements. This group will ask questions like what constraints or deviations exist, what is the manufacturing standard, what are the budget and schedule. Designers and developers are seeking inputs from the product manager on how to do a task while customers are looking for why a product matters.

Product managers also must speak a different language with internal management stakeholders. Senior managers and executives are interested in the triple constraint variables of scope, schedule, and cost. However, they also want to understand how a specific new product or family of new products will deliver growth to the bottom line. New product innovations are expected to meet strategic goals for the year and over the long term.

In my opinion, one of the most important “languages” to learn is finance. Learning and understanding terms like fixed cost, ROI, market share, and margin will accelerate the career of any innovation leader. Senior executives must meet their own financial goals and report favorably to Wall Street.

Product managers also spent a good bit of time negotiating with suppliers and vendors. While much of these negotiations is focused on product quality and deliverables, financial terms and conditions are part of any negotiation.

One mistake I’ve made in my career and I’ve observed others make is to try to communicate in our “native language”. For example, I am a chemical engineer by degree. I love to talk about data quality, and I can get deeply involved in the details of a test or analysis. If you want to talk about heterogeneous catalysis or kinetics, I will gab with you for hours!

Yet customers and senior executives don’t care about these nitty gritty details. They want to know what the product will do for them. Customers are seeking benefits while senior executives are seeking growth and profit. Being multilingual from a functional perspective is a huge career advantage for a product manager!

Join my webinar on 23 March at noon CDT to learn more how an innovation leader builds cross functional teams and can learn how to speak the language necessary in each situation. Register here for Technical Leadership @ Warp Speed. The 60-minute webinar is free, and all attendees will receive a complimentary DiSC® work style assessment.

Build a Strategic Network

Networking is an outgrowth of speaking a new language. Research shows that people who interact with diverse groups are more creative, flexible, and adaptable. These are the exact traits that successful innovation leaders need to accelerate their careers!

Of course, some people view networking as a dirty word. We have all seen and been victims of what I call the “used car salesman approach” to networking. You go to a trade association event and someone who smiles too broadly and speaks too loudly, canvases the rooms shaking hands, introducing himself, and shoving his business cards at you. Yes, some people have given networking a bad name!

Yet strategic networking is more about building relationships than amassing the largest collection of business cards. Exchanging business cards and contact information is something you do at the end of a successful conversation rather than at the beginning of a meeting.

Recently, Margaret Johnson and I had the pleasure to present a short workshop on strategic networking for the Houston ATD chapter. You can see some pictures below and listen to podcasts from Margaret here and me here. Our theme for the event was connect.

· C — What do you have in common?

· O — Busting opinions and assumptions

· N — What is your networking niche?

· N — What is your intention for networking?

· E — Networking externally and internally

· C Communicating with questions

· T — Networking with technology

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What do you have in common?

Often when networking we assume that all we have in common with others is the event we are attending. Yet we usually have a lot more in common with people than it appears on the surface. For example, I was recently facilitating an innovation course in Fairfax, VA, and casually mentioned I grew up in Idaho. One of the attendees immediately was animated as she had gone to College in the same town as I had. Small world, as they say. As we chatted further, we discovered that we both loved fresh roasted coffee, too. Though we had an age difference and work in very different industries, we actually had a lot in common.

Do your opinions and assumptions hold you back?

In the starting paragraphs of this section, I discussed a common assumption many people have in believing that networking is a bit sleazy. Of course, it’s not and we are held back by our opinions and assumptions that prevent us from seeing alternate viewpoints.

Beyond networking, product managers must seek various perspectives to successfully design and develop new products. Forcing our own opinions on others can lead to artificially high demand forecasts or a complete misunderstanding of the market. Creative applications, like innovation, require honest and open perspectives to hear the views of others without being filtered by internal opinions and assumptions. Strategic networking demands that you reserve judgement until you’ve heard all the information.

What is your networking niche?

Of course, we can’t always be networking. Instead, we can always be on the lookout to make new friends and build new relationships. Strategic networking, especially to gain consumer insights, mandates that you target specific industries, trade associations, and groups of like-minded people.

For example, chemical engineers will attend networking events with their local AIChE section. Learning and development professionals attend ATD events, and product managers seek out other NPDP certified professionals. (Incidentally, if you’re in Houston, join me at the local AIChE section meeting on 5 March 2020.)

Even though we may most frequently attend events associated with our professions, it is important to also find events outside of your primary trade. I have found a niche of supportive colleagues and opportunities for learning with the Houston Organizational Development Network. Engineering can be a strange language for many in HODN, yet we share common interests in developing teams and leaders to be productive and efficient.

Another way to build a networking niche is through master mind groups. In the Life Design Master Mind, we are collectively applying design thinking tools to determine the next steps in our life journeys, including career and personal goals. In the Innovation Master Mind, CIOs (chief innovation officers) and new product development practitioners share knowledge and address common challenges. Master mind group members connect to other people who immediately broaden your network.

What is your intention through networking?

People network for a lot of different reasons. You should be clear on your intention for strategic networking, in general, and for each event you attend. For example, if you are looking for a new job, you will want to meet employers seeking candidates. But you will also want to meet people who know people who are hiring. You’ll also want to network and volunteer to show off your skills. As an innovation professional, serving as a volunteer marketing or communication director for a local professional association allows you to demonstrate your innovation skills while you give back to your trade.

Whatever your intention for networking, remember that your primary aim is to just simply build relationships. Try to meet just one new person at each event and connect with common interests.

Networking is both external and internal

Product development professionals and innovation designers recognize the value of connecting with people both external to and internal to the organization. Customers, vendors, and partners external to the company provide ideas to improve products and services. We need to build strong relationships with external parties to improve existing offerings and to monitor future market trends.

While concentrating on customer needs, it is, however, easy to miss the value of internal networking. Effective innovation leaders act as a linchpin to bring together senior executive objectives and business execution plans. Internal networking informs innovation and project leaders of strategic goals, organizational changes, and builds important relationships across functional boundaries. Instead of working through endless hierarchy and bureaucracy to schedule a new product pilot test in the factory, a networked innovation professional can build from direct contacts and relationships.

What questions do you use to communicate?

Connections are the outcome of strategic networking. And connecting with others is our goal. Yet, many people often feel awkward at a networking event and fail to communicate with others. You will want to talk with other people rather than stare at your phone.

Some recommended questions for communicating with others include the following:

· Shat brought you to this event?

· Do you know the speaker?

· How long have you lived in this city?

· What is a typical day in your job

The aim of communicating with questions is to go deeper in the relationship so you can help the other person. Of course, it’s okay to start the conversation with where you work and the wind or losses (or scandals) of the local sports teams. But you really want to use networking opportunities to find mutual connections. How you can help the other person is as important as how they can help you.

Use technology to supplement face-to-face networking

Technology has given us a huge opportunity to broaden our networks globally. In the podcast for ATD Houston, I discuss several steps for using LinkedIn as a strategic networking tool. You can listen to the podcast here and check out resources on strategic networking from the event here.

The key to using technology for building a network is to demonstrate that the potential relationship is beneficial to both of you. Too often, I get “spam: requests from people I don’t even know. Make sure you have (at least) a distant connection to anyone to whom you send a LinkedIn connection request.

For instance, I recently did a podcast interview for Ton Dobbe of Value Inspiration in Spain. In preparation, I listened to several previous episodes and I really enjoyed a podcast on radical innovation. I sent a LinkedIn connection request to Radhika Dutt since we had a shared connection and a shared interest in growing awareness in the field of innovation.

Building a strategic network is vital for success in your career, especially as a product manager or innovation professional. Strategic networking connects you with diverse people who offer product and service insights and who offer interesting and valuable business relationships.

Balance Your Time

You might be wondering how you can find time to enjoy life if you are busy learning new languages and networking. Of course, you have to balance work, leisure, and home life to have a successful career as an innovation leader. Without balance, you will not be fulfilled. Keep in mind that balance does not mean an equal distribution of time. Everyone will define “balance” differently depending on his or her priorities, values, and goals.

To achieve work balance, first you need to model good meeting etiquette. Ensure that everyone you invite to your meetings is absolutely required to attend. Keep meetings small enough to hold a collaborative discussion and to make a decision. It should go without saying to start and end meetings on time. Serve lunch if the meeting is anytime between 11:00 AM and 1:00 PM. And, include a short introduction that allows team-building and an opportunity for participants to clarify the agenda.

Since you are modeling good meeting etiquette as a host, you should always inquire regarding your own attendance when requested at other meetings. Ask for a copy of the agenda in advance. If the meeting organizer does not have an agenda, the lack of planning raises a red flag. Your time is precious and to be a successful product manager, you must guard your time relentlessly.

As you start to gain control of your meeting schedule, you can begin time blocking. Cluster meetings as close together as possible so you can maintain free time to do strategic planning, market analysis, and design work in another block of time. Timebox administrative tasks for an hour when your brain is least sharp. Include email in this time. Most people check their email first thing in the morning. But most people experience peak neuro-performance in the morning, too. You don’t want to waste your highest brain power on email! I personally check email only a few times per day and preserve my early morning hours for higher degree activities, like writing, planning, and other creative tasks.

Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, offers great tips to balance time and be productive. You can read a review of my favorite ideas from Deep Work here. Employing just a few of the tools and techniques Newport discusses, you will accomplish more of your strategic objectives. Product managers and innovation professionals need “heads-down” time to focus on product development, customer needs, market expectations, and technology growth. I highly recommend reading Deep Work — it impacted my own productivity a lot!

Another way to achieve balance is to manage your health and fitness levels. One of the clearest connections for the most successful people and long-running careers is exercise. It is no small matter to skip exercise (sorry for the bad analogy but exercise can make you smaller). Yet many people (unfortunately, me included) will push and push to do more work rather than taking a break. The physical detriments of skipping sleep, eating poorly, and sitting at a computer too long are well documented. You must have good blood flow throughout your body to force the neurons in your brain to fire.

So, schedule time at the gym and have an accountability workout partner so you will not skip a day of exercise. Hold walking meetings. Equip your entire NPD team with Fitbits and challenge everyone to get 10,000 steps every day.

And get in the field. Innovation work is not done behind a computer. We must actively pursue customers and test products and services in dynamic environments. Travel to where your customers buy and use your product so you can learn more about their habits. In doing so, you benefit both your body and your brain. Model good physical fitness to your team just as you model good meeting etiquette.

Finally, to balance your time you must occasionally “turn off”. Newport recommends an electronic sabbatical once a week. I often use Saturdays as days to recharge. My husband and I start the day by having breakfast at a local coffee shop where we discuss news, current events, and catch up from hectic weekly schedules. Throughout the rest of the day, we might run errands, do yard work, or go for a walk or bike ride. While I am with him (anyone whose relationship I value), I concentrate on that conversation alone, that activity, and that connection. My phone is off (or on silent) and I will check email rarely on a Saturday unless I am expecting something urgent or important. I usually attend a Saturday night church service, so I don’t need any electronic stimulation from the internet or television. I use Saturdays to connect with non-work friends, make casual phone calls with family, and use the day for personal time.

What works for me might not work for you. Yet we all know — and fear — the effects of burnout. Balance your time to be effective at work by relentlessly protecting your meeting schedule. Timebox to do boring or repetitive tasks when your brain is at a low point. Do strategic planning and customer interactions when your brain is sharp. You can build in physical activity at the same time as deep thinking. Finally, taking an electronic sabbatical once a week to recharge and reconnect with your family and friends.

Navigating your Career

Product management and innovation leadership yield rewarding careers. Without an established or traditional career pathway, you can become a successful new product development manager for many different directions. You need wisdom, experience, and openness to be successful. Your starting point to navigating your career are three tips that will accelerate your growth and advancement in any job.

1. Speak the language of your internal and external stakeholders.

2. Build a strategic network to learn customer insights and grow professionally

3. Balance your time to include effective meetings, physical fitness, and personal activities.

Next Steps

If you’re in Houston, join me to learn more about Navigating a Leadership Career at the South Texas Section of AIChE on 5 March 2020. If you’re not in Houston, join me for a free Q&A webinar on 23 March at noon CDT, where will discuss these tips and more. Each unique attendee at the webinar will receive a complimentary workstyle assessment. Register here for Technical Leadership @ Warp Speed. We’re also holding a summary of our popular 20 Days of Innovation in 2020 program on 28 February. All attendees receive a complimentary copy of the corresponding e-book with all 20 tips, techniques, and tools included! Register here.

This was first published on the blog at

Follow me on Twitter @globalnpd.



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Teresa Kowal

Teresa Kowal


I tackle life with an infusion of rigor, zeal, and faith. My passion is innovation and helping others improve their new product development ecosystems.