From Product Manager to Product Leader

By Carolina Castanheira

Maybe you became a product manager by accident, like me, or maybe this has

been your dream job for some time. If you are excelling in your career, you know everything about the specific product you are managing, the plan you have created, and the customers’ needs to which you are attending. Your focus has been on driving the activities that allow the team to achieve outcomes, you are heavily involved in supporting the definition of the solution, and you are attentive to details and to shipping schedules. Congratulations! You have fulfilled your early career expectations, to drive execution and prioritize, and you navigate its key challenges, to lead without the expertise, and to define the success metrics, with ease.

At this stage, your desire to create impact is driving you towards more senior product positions. You may have been presented with an opportunity in your company or you may decide to look for an opportunity elsewhere. Once you start applying to the senior positions or when you get an opportunity, you will learn that the skills you developed to excel in your early product management career are not sufficient and sometimes may get in the way of excelling the expectations and navigating the challenges of more senior positions.

As product leader you are expected to drive the product vision and goals to fulfill both customers’ needs and the organization’s strategy and to lead other product managers. At the same time, the complexity of getting buy-in from multiple stakeholders and collaborating effectively with or managing difficult people is higher than you previously imagined.

You expect to learn on the job and to adjust to the demands of the new position organically as you did in the past. You keep doing what you have been doing and add longer hours to cope with the workload. As there are fewer people from whom you can learn or emulate behaviors in this new position, you then draw into your previous references of management and leadership. If you learned from the best, you will reproduce practices and behaviors that will yield great results. The majority of product leaders, unfortunately, will only achieve mediocre results.

If you are a high-achiever like me, at this point you will probably be feeling overworked, overwhelmed, or underperforming. You have realized you cannot adapt organically to the demands of the new position. You may have limited support from your company and managers, as a few of them attend competently and consistently to the development needs of employees transitioning to leadership positions. Just before you lose hope, you remind yourself that others have been through the same challenge and succeeded.

If you are a product manager willing to transition to a product leadership position, or you are a new product leader you can prepare for a healthier and smoother transition into product leadership by developing skills and by refocusing your efforts and attention to the added value activities of leadership. I encourage you to explore ways to excel as a product leader when prioritizing multiple products, when managing higher stakes, when communicating to sharper audiences, and when transitioning from individual contribution to line management.

My name is Carolina Castanheira and I have 20+ years of experience in building products and leading teams. I transitioned into product leadership when I became a senior product manager at the same team I used to be a product owner. I overcame most of the challenges described above with my passion for learning and the support from others. I thrive in building new products and in managing complexity. I am currently Director of Portfolio Management at HelloFresh, Founder and Leadership Coach at PATH.

Carolina has mentored and coached team members and colleagues on achieving their career goals and mastering their leadership skills. To support other purpose-driven professionals she created PATH ( Carolina is passionate about learning and is currently pursuing a Coaching Certificate from the Henley Business School and working on her own Clustered program for product leaders.