The product management vocational identity deficit
Product Managers come from a wide variety of backgrounds. This diversity is part of what makes it a great line of work, but it comes at a cost.
I have met, hired and managed product managers from a very wide range of backgrounds: People with no formal training who worked their way up from a customer care job, people from a design background, from general business education, from technical backgrounds and much more.
Since there is no degree to be had in product management and no obvious formal training, everyone in the field grew into the role at some point. Someone gave them the chance based on the attitude and personality and they then learned on the job what it means to be a product manager.
Coming from a background of Political Science and public sector work, I certainly wasn’t destined to become a product manager, but I fell into it almost by accident and have loved it ever since.
Most product teams include a wide variety of profiles and backgrounds. Making sure that you make the most of this requires the team to acknowledge the strengths and weakness that each member brings and constantly leverage the diversity of views. I truly believe a diverse product team is a better product team.
Another upside is that you can fish in many pools when looking for new talent. I have succesfully moved marketeers, project managers, commercial managers, strategy consultants, business analysts, designers and even a former accountant into product teams and built them up from there. If you are willing to train for skill and have an eye for talent, you can find potential future product managers pretty much anywhere. Having a big surface area to scour is a great bonus and one that should be actively utilised.
The upsides do come at a cost. Unlike doctors or software engineers, we don’t have a formal qualification that defines us and provides identity even when between jobs. Going from “I work as a product manager” to “I am a product manager” doesn’t happen overnight as people fall into the role. This is compounded by the outside world often struggling to make sense of it all.
There is no shorthand to describe the job that instantly makes sense. We don’t wear uniforms or do easily recognizable work. Like a soldier with an important, but hard to explain, role but no formal rank or title, we have no easy designation.
This lack of vocational identity is hard. While accepting that your family will never truly grasp your job is annoying by itself, the self doubt that can creep in as you yet again try to articulate your value can be poisonous. This goes double at the office, as colleagues from other parts of the organisation struggle to understand it.
Inside the product team it makes it harder to build team cohesion and alignment, as we are unsure about our shared skillset. The confidence and clarity we as product people often need to project is sorely lacking in our vocational identity and shared understanding of the job.
The community and the formalisation of the discipline is incredibly important. As we converge on the skillsets and frameworks that product management entails, we are also building the vocational identity. Through conferences, events and networks, we realise that there is a shared identity and that many of our challenges are pretty similar. Meeting and being surrounded by others like you helps build an identity.
As people fall into the field, it is important that we, both as managers and as a wider community, help them realise that it IS a field. Shortening the time it takes for someone to go from working as a product manager to identifying as one is crucial.
Building and retaining the confidence required to be a succesful product manager can be done without it, but a strong vocational identity is the fastest and most efficient way to do it. That’s great for the individual, their company and the community in general.