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5 Rules That Will Drive a Long, Healthy Career
A compelling story, a superpower (or two), some luck – and betting on yourself – can help take you where you want to go.
I want to use this article to organize much of the career advice I’ve given in the past, plus shed light on future topics. Here you’ll find five primary rules that I believe will unlock your career. And though this has been written with product managers in mind, these suggestions can guide anyone determined to forge a long and healthy career. Think of this set of rules, or deep insights, as a type of decoder ring that you can turn to as you press forward in your professional life.
So let’s dig in.
Rule #1: Product manage your career like it’s a product.
Like it or not, your career becomes a huge part of your identity, but most people fail to take a step back. Careers span decades, right? And just like a product takes dozens to hundreds of iterations to succeed, career growth requires thoughtfulness. It shouldn’t be about short-term optimizations, like narrowly focused on a promotion, negotiating for more money, or even taking a job offer better than your current position.
If you are a product manager, you develop a skill set around guiding a product from start to finish: You understand what it means to create a vision, develop a strategy, and formulate tactics. After a product is released, you make improvements before releasing the next version, then make tweaks and improve it, then wash and repeat. You might ship a feature based on today’s customer, but you have your eye on the overall market and whether the next customer will find it valuable as well. I don’t think you should treat your career much differently. If you are presented with an opportunity, consider how it will service your goals over the long term – the skills you will gain, how it will impact the breadth of your playbook, and how it can create more opportunity through roles down the line.
I’ve discussed how companies go through phases, from product-market fit to (hyper)growth to market leader. The products themselves have very different needs in each phase. And therefore the discipline of product management shifts as a product moves from early stage to mid-stage to late stage. Similarly, I argue that careers go through “acts.” Act I is the learning phase, in which you’re experimenting and trying to find strength areas. In Act II you’re leading and doubling down on those areas of strength. This is your power stretch of perhaps 10 to 15 years in which your impact and earning power are the greatest of your career. And in Act III, if you have been fortunate to reach this point, you’re ready to give back or give more to yourself, either through mentoring, taking a non-traditional role, or finding a second career, starting the cycle over.
It’s also worth noting that high-quality data is another really vital ingredient in any product’s success. No product is born or stands to survive without data on customer usage and user research. And the equivalent of customer data in career growth is high-quality feedback. Whether it’s through a boss or peers, or some form of outside coaching, feedback builds self-awareness, which in turn drives your growth. Just like you’d want to understand how a product might land, you’ll want to know how your work is landing with those around you. Obtaining quality feedback and absorbing that feedback are both skills – essential ones to carry you from good to great.
Rule #2: Ensure each transition is career additive.
As I noted above, you have to avoid short term-thinking. Concretely, consider viewing your career through the lens of your next employer. Ask yourself, Is what I’m doing today going to make sense for the future? Is it going to set me up?
As an example, one of the biggest mistakes I see people make is becoming hyper-focused on promotion. They are very tightly held to the ladder and climbing it. But a promotion in and of itself isn’t a magical portal into the next phase of a career. It can help, but that’s not a given. In fact, even if you have a title of “senior” or “director,” it’s often simply a starting point when you’re exploring future opportunities. In contrast, I think your “story” has the potential to reveal more, by giving any potential future boss a real sense of what you’re capable of. For example, explaining in an interview what you’ve built in current or past roles, and detailing what adversities you faced along the way, creates dimensions to your character. As a job candidate you become even more compelling when you describe how you overcame those adversities and brought your team together.
“Missing out” on a promotion might feel disappointing in the moment, but that seeming failure doesn’t negate the skills and grit you’ve likely gained along the way. I believe that no matter where they’ve stemmed from, stories can also say a lot about your potential. It’s telling if you’ve proactively taken on responsibilities and expanded your capabilities quickly, year after year – from learning a skill and developing it, to practicing that skill and ultimately mastering it. And if you’ve been able to translate a skill into an environment or build an actual expertise, it highlights your adaptability.
I’ll end this section with one caveat. I find that many people are determined to work for a company that makes a product they care about, or would personally use or feel good about pitching to their friends. Just because you like the product and what the company stands for doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy working there. The culture could be terrible, or your manager might have zero interest in what you have to say. That’s not to say you won’t enjoy the work itself. But the product and mission can carry you only so far. So avoid dismissing opportunities just because you think the product is “boring.” Having some detachment might even make you better at analyzing the product to drive value in it. That boring will be over before you know it, and you’ll have made headway in your career.
Rule #3: Whom you know will matter as much as what you know.
In the first phase of a career, you’re seeking out all of the concrete things that you can know and do, from developing core skills and exchanging opinions to working with a team. But then, in the next phases of a career, there’s a more abstract influence: luck. It’s true that you really can be in the right place at the right time. And, yes, “whom you know” really can matter. It’s possible to be tapped for an opportunity that you weren’t even in the market for. Or, on the flip side, to seek out someone from the past and pull them forward when you have an opportunity that you think would fit them well. If it’s authentic, this type of connecting can be integral to career growth, and to boosting luck.
I hear from folks that they regret not getting to know more people in previous jobs. You might already feel this way about college. You will encounter a lot of wonderful people, from your peers to cross-functional teammates to leaders to customers, in each of your jobs. So many of these colleagues can teach you something, support you when times are tough, praise you when you most need it, take some coaching from you, or even serve as a mentor.
So how do you go about building meaningful relationships? Consider finding 30 minutes a week to connect with the people in your orbit. You’ll find chemistry with some, maybe not with others. Ask specific questions about their project, past experiences, what’s working, what is not. This is harder for introverts, which is common in the tech world, but it will have a positive impact on your career, so I say push yourself outside of that comfort zone. Maybe you learn a bit about what they’re working on, find a commonality, and share insight. Or perhaps they’re just starting out, and because you’ve been there (and done that), you can give them advice or just peace of mind. If you are 100 percent authentic (I’m not talking tacky networking!), folks will likewise want to connect with you. It becomes this enriching cycle of generating luck, creating opportunities, and giving back.
Rule #4: Find a strength area and try to build a superpower in it.
This rule boils down to: Don’t spread yourself too thin. As you start a career, there will be a hundred things you don’t know, and there will be skills you want to acquire. All of this is going to pull you in many directions. Realistically, however, very few people are good at everything. With that knowledge, when you see yourself doing well in an area, lean into it. The earlier you can recognize it and build it, the better. As you progress in your career, people will hire you because you can impact their company with your area of specialty, or superpower. So being great or even world class is dramatically more valuable than being just good enough at many things.
Rule #5: Bet on yourself.
I find too often that people put too much stock in their company or manager to pull them forward. The thinking goes, If I do well, then my manager will promote me – and more wins at my company will be valuable to my next employer. So it’s fine to outsource my career. But think about it – your manager’s and your company’s motivations and needs aren’t the same as yours. And your manager is working under different constraints. On top of this, your manager may have had a different experience to get to their leadership position from what you will experience. In addition, your company will favor what is best for its product, or its culture or mission. So while a successful run at the company won’t hurt your career, it might not be optimal.
Just like you would advocate for a customer or a product decision, you need to advocate for yourself every step of the way. On occasion, that might mean you go against what the company asks you to do. It might mean leaving the manager you really enjoy working with for a riskier but faster growing project – or even leaving the company, perhaps in a lurch.
It's clear that getting ahead in your career takes thought and intention, and I believe that having a few essential guidelines can both give you focus and limit any sense of feeling overwhelmed as decisions pop up. Replace your focus on promotions and ladders with the superpowers you can develop and harness. Listen to and accept feedback to grow your superpowers and minimize their “shadows” – those darker sides of any strengths that can hold you back. Part of this listening will also build your soft skills, like empathy and self-awareness, which are going to make you a stronger leader into the future. And I can’t stress enough the value of mentors. These folks are going to be able to travel with you from role to role and company to company. They will have your best interests at heart and can help in specific development areas. This perspective will allow you to separate career from company. And – bonus – once you can create these contours of your career, you’ll be less impacted by a good day or a bad day, or a promotion or project that does or doesn’t come your way. Ultimately, I’m hoping this decoder ring will guide you in investing in your career over the long haul. A lasting, healthy career just may be the most important product you’ll oversee in your professional life.