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How to Transfer Internally to a Product Manager Role
Transferring internally is the best way to transition to a PM role - and hire new PMs.
The PM role has never been more popular.
Every year, thousands of people apply for entry-level PM roles, enroll in boot camps and read about jumping into product.
On the other hand, hiring a PM is insanely hard right now. My team has several open headcount and we need people to fill them.
In my view, the best way to address this gap is to help internal candidates transition into the PM function.
These people — who often come from customer success, marketing, strategy, engineering or design — have already passed your company’s hiring bar, are looking for new challenges and bring domain expertise to the area.
This is something my team is trying now and I’m lucky to work with some internal candidates who are making the transition. Below, I’ll share the process I recommend to people looking to make the jump internally.
Managers, consider using this same process to help rockstars in other functions join your team as a PM.
Earning Your Stripes
The best way to become a PM is to be a PM first. A great way to do this is to find a PM that you can meaningfully help with their role.
Here’s the process I’d recommend to kickstart that internal move to product:
Find a PM (ideally in your product area)
Scope a workstream that you can drive
🔎 Find a PM
Transitioning starts with a conversation — either with your manager or a PM that you work with.
If you have a good relationship with your manager, share your interests in developing more product management skills and see if they have any connections to a product team.
While it may be counterintuitive to share with your manager that you are looking for a new role, good managers will want to support your career growth and help you hit new goals. Selfishly, they also would prefer to retain you at the company as opposed to losing you.
Alternatively, if you already work with a product manager, you can reach out directly to them.
Either way, reach out and share your intentions with them. Here’s an example:
Hey Jane. I’m Will and I work on payment partnerships for Paypal Cash. I’m looking to transition into a PM role in the next 6-12 months and would like to help a PM with some of their core responsibilities to develop the right skills. Would you be open to chatting and seeing if I can take some workstreams of your plate?
As a PM, I’d be happy to offload some of my workload onto an eager, capable person. This is what makes internal candidates so much better — they are pre-vetted and know how things are done at the company.
🤝 Scope a workstream that you can drive
Once you’ve found the right PM, your next goal is to scope a workstream that you can drive. This should be something that leverages your current skillsets, has measurable success, and is independent enough that you can drive it with minimal involvement from the PM.
Start by meeting with the PM. Arrive with an understanding of the responsibilities of a product manager, eagerness to learn and a narrative on why you’re looking to join a product function. You need to convince this PM that you are reliable and able to take on meaningful parts of her or his scope.
Once you’ve established some credibility, consider what type of workstream you can drive. I’m working with two aspiring PMs and I’ve seen two ways of identifying these workstreams:
Extend your current scope to take on more PM tasks
Regardless of your role, there are connections between your work and the responsibility of a product manager. If you’re in analytics, for example, a natural extension of the research project you’re already doing is to define product requirement documents (PRDs) based off the recommendations you provide the team.
Try to draw a line between your responsibilities and how you can support projects that this PM would care about. Here are some examples for inspiration:
Sales - support B2B go-to-market for a new feature.
Customer Success - translate some customer challenges into product specifications that can be added to the team backlog
Legal/policy - create a one-year roadmap of the legal/privacy changes on the horizon that may affect the product.
Projects like these are great because they allow you to use your current knowledge to learn practical skills. The downside of these is that some of these projects may be “nice-to-haves” for the PM rather than “must-haves”.
If you want to go deeper and create more value for the PM themselves, I’d suggest…
Own meaningful execution
A product manager is responsible for two outcomes: great strategy and great execution. To scale their impact, PMs often look to delegate execution to other leaders on their teams to make sure they have time to define the proper product strategy.
If you want to offer significant value to the PM you’re working with (and learn a lot along the way), look to drive meaningful parts of the execution. Ideally, you want to seek out projects that are important to the team and deliver real impact.
Find a workstream like this by asking, “What is an important project that you’d like to offload to someone?” Give the PM some time to think through the right project for you to drive.
If and when its been identified, work with the PM to make sure the expectations, success criteria and your requirements are clear.
This is a great time to define what you would like to learn, what support you expect and how much time you can commit over a given time period.
Once you’ve successfully scoped a workstream, it’s time to deliver.
Start by ramping up. I’d suggest doing 1-week of shadowing (where you shadow the PM in meetings or sessions that involve your work stream) and 1-week of reverse-shadowing (where the PM shadows you as you drive those same conversations).
After this, aim to drive this workstream solo. Keep a one-on-one with your PM to ask questions and keep in contact asynchronously.
Operating independently can be scary. But this is exactly what a PM is expected to do.
A key tenant of successful product managers is agency — the ability to proactively solve problems independently. Demonstrate this by making progress with minimal supervision and great upward communication.
📬 Seize Openings
At the end of the given workstream, reflect on how much impact you were able to create. Debrief with your PM to see what you did well and what you can improve.
If you’ve successfully delivered an impactful result, it's a good time talk to your PM about joining their team as a PM. If their team isn’t hiring at the moment, ask if there are other teams they would feel comfortable endorsing you for.
In the worst case where there are no openings across the company, you’re now in a much better position to transition into a PM role at another company.
But in this job market, I’m confident that your current employer will want to retain you.
Use the approach above to gain PM experience and transition into product. In this process, you’ll experience what the job is really like by driving independent progress with real results to show at the end of it.
For managers that are hiring PMs, identify some rockstar candidates in other functions and see if they are looking to transition into product.
Help them structure a win-win relationship with PMs on your team that allows all parties to grow their skills. As a bonus, you might get some excellent PMs onto your team.
🦾 Reads and Resources
👥 How I built a paid community to 1,000+ members in 10 months by Dru Riley: As we kick off Product Circle next week, I’m studying how communities grow and what makes them successful.
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Until next time,