Are You a Rabbit or a Kangaroo?

What dual ladders for product managers could look like in practice

My previous newsletter was a call to normalize dual-track career ladders for product management, allowing people to choose between advancement in product leadership over people management. I was pleased with the response, which was overwhelmingly positive. Scores of readers saw themselves in my words. Clearly, the piece struck a chord.

Hunter Walk wrote a response entitled, Don’t Let Your Best Product Managers All Become People Managers Or Your Company Will Suffer. Please take the time to read the entire post. I want to emphasize a few key points that build on what I wrote:

So, in my experience, the senior product managers who had also opted out of the standard VP promotion track, were also the truth tellers, the culture carriers and the inglorious but complex work-doers. This is an important distinction: they’re not ‘rest and vest’ — they still want to work hard on actual projects; they’re not ‘bomb throwers’ — they’re just people who understand the company and can ask questions that either wouldn’t occur to newer employees or who don’t rock the boat.

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At Google during my period these were mostly folks who had been around pre-IPO or soon after, and just wanted to stay around to work hard but not assume organizational ownership roles. They had reached a comfortable level of wealth from that early compensation, and grew up around the colleagues who were now in senior roles (ie they were trusted and knew how to get stuff done). The smartest product VPs would grant safe haven to one or two of these folks with an implicit quid pro quo: I’ll keep you out of unnecessary meetings and politics, you can work on hard projects with small teams, and I’ll reward you to the best of my abilities but you’ve probably maxed out on salary band levels if you can’t get promoted. I had one of these people on my team for a bit and it was glorious for both of us.

I’m happy that Hunter wrote this. It parries some criticism of dual career paths — namely, that the product managers seeking a separate path must not want to work as hard as those pursuing general management. These critics suggest that we shouldn’t provide more ladders to slackers who aren’t motivated to climb the one they’ve already been given.

The implication, of course, is that only “real managers” deserve promotions, and it somehow minimizes their accomplishments if we allow cheats to advance alongside them and share the wealth. It reeks of elitism and the zero-sum mentality that pervades many cutthroat corporations. It’s also a revolting byproduct of a toxic hustle culture that any plea to let people do work they love is met with accusations of laziness.

As Hunter noted, the early Googlers we knew weren’t looking to coast at the office — they had plenty of money to have long ago retired to a tropical island if that’s what they desired. They still wanted to work hard, just in more fulfilling ways. They didn’t have anything left to prove and no incentive to become people managers purely for financial reasons. That freedom from consequences gave these folks the confidence to ask for what they wanted. Their reputations gave their long-time colleagues in management the courage to give it to them.

All I’m arguing is that everyone else should be able to ask for the same. This shouldn’t be a secret path through the forest known only to a privileged few — it should be a marked trail.

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I also got many questions about the division of responsibility between directors (on the people management ladder) and principals (on the product leadership ladder). Here are some representative comments:

  • “What is your point of view on the difference in responsibility across the tracks? It's been a struggle to advocate for essentially two full-time roles to manage and lead a large team. Does the principal PM lead the PM people managers? Do people managers relinquish leadership responsibilities?”

  • “The hardest part to making this work I think is the director. They would need to acknowledge they don’t own product strategy and would be less involved in many decisions.”

  • “How do you think about how and where lines of responsibility are drawn between the principal and director paths? Given that both have some degree of product vision/leadership and people management, how do you avoid confusion over which peer’s responsibilities end in one area, and another begins?”

I suspect some of this anxiety is coming from people who don’t work in empowered product organizations. If you can’t convince executives to let one product leader do the job, how are you ever going to be able to convince them to let two? I get it.

But many who asked about lines of responsibility seemed to think I was arguing that every product should have both a people manager and a counterpart on the product leadership ladder, joined together like Wonder Twins to share duties. I probably didn’t help matters by mentioning the intentional “overlap” between the two job definitions. By that I meant the two roles have a lot in common; I didn’t mean that two people should each perform half of the same job.

I recognize that I borrowed a lot from the history of dual-track engineering ladders, having worked alongside them for years. So I naturally had a lot of organizational design examples in my mind to draw from. I appreciate that not everyone has that context. In retrospect, I wish I’d given a concrete example of how it might work. I’m going to do that today.

Imagine a growth-stage e-commerce startup; let’s call them “Whistle.” Whistle sells high-quality sporting goods online. They have 200 employees and a twelve-person product management team led by Koala, the VP of product. As the company achieved product-market fit and focused relentlessly on consumers, Koala, a startup veteran, astutely recognized the need for someone to own foundational platform capabilities. Koala hired a PM director, Kangaroo, to lead the newly formed platform team.

Kangaroo’s team is still quite small, with three individual contributors responsible for identity, payments, and inventory/supplier-facing infrastructure, respectively. (The remainder of the product team under Koala, not included in this chart, is focused on the consumer-facing store, the mobile experience, and growth.)

At this time, Kangaroo’s job is predominantly product leadership, and their people management responsibilities are minimal (a small three-person team). When not hiring and recruiting, Kangaroo, at this stage, is pretty hands-on with product strategy, working closely with their team to develop a vision for how these platforms will support Whistle’s rapid growth. Kangaroo joined Whistle because they’re excited to take on broader people management responsibilities as the company scales. Kangaroo knows the job is going to change a lot as the team grows.

Fast-forward three years, and Whistle has been going gangbusters. They’re now the leading online supplier of sporting goods and are starting to capture meaningful market share from incumbents. The Whistle brand has become synonymous with sports and athletics and has developed a cult following. People have started calling them “the Apple of sporting goods.” Both Nike and Amazon have tried to acquire them, but Whistle’s founders and investors are in it for the long term. An IPO is in the cards. They’re up to 1200 employees and exploding in every direction.

Consequently, the Whistle platform organization has grown to twenty people and now looks like this:

Kangaroo has done an incredible job building out the organization and is no longer as focused on product leadership — much of that is now in the hands of their direct reports, especially the more experienced GPMs and senior PM. Instead, Kangaroo spends most of their time on people management: staffing the fast-growing team, setting objectives, making decisions, resolving escalations, coaching, working laterally with their peers in go-to-market, legal, marketing, business development, etc., and managing upwards.

Whistle’s market position, technical capabilities, and brand have presented the executive team with a massive strategic opportunity — to own identity across the entire sports industry. Whistle customers have started customizing and linking to their Whistle profile pages from other social networks. Software companies that provide tools to amateur and professional teams would love to have a “log in with Whistle” button on their site to streamline signup. Professional teams are coming to the table and suggesting that they’d be interested in having Whistle take over their own account and login systems.

At an offsite, the executive team elevates identity from an enabling layer of infrastructure to a strategic pillar of the company’s future. The board of directors enthusiastically signs off. No longer just limited to Whistle’s properties, identity now needs external APIs, developer relations, more functionality, and a compelling value proposition that encourages other partners to adopt it.

The CEO asks Koala to designate someone to lead the product strategy for “Whistle ID,” as it’s now being called. A talented eng manager and product designer move over to join the project. Koala knows the PM lead can’t be Kangaroo — they have too many people management responsibilities to allocate the level of attention and energy required for an initiative like Whistle ID. And most of the individual contributors under Kangaroo aren’t experienced enough to take on a high-profile, complex project at this scale.

Fortunately, there’s a perfect candidate in Rabbit. Since day one, Rabbit has been one of the company’s top performers and has risen to the level of group product manager, responsible for all of profiles and identity at Whistle. Rabbit has started managing other PMs but really cares more about product leadership than people management. In fact, Rabbit has recently expressed concerns to Kangaroo that Rabbit’s team is starting to grow too large. Rabbit is passionate about identity, has gained an industry-wide reputation in the space, and was one of the first Whistlers to see the opportunity that Whistle ID is hoping to capture. Rabbit’s the perfect product leader for Whistle ID.

With the CEO’s strong endorsement, Koala promotes Rabbit to the newly created position of principal product manager — the first in Whistle’s history — reporting directly to Koala. Two of Rabbit’s PMs move over with them to help build out this new product offering. The rest of the identity platform components and initiatives stay under Kangaroo, so Rabbit and their team can focus exclusively on the future of Whistle ID without having to be encumbered by other competing projects and legacy commitments. So now the organization looks like this:

Consider that Rabbit and Kangaroo are not “sharing ownership” of anything. Rabbit is accountable for Whistle ID, and Kangaroo is still responsible for all platform products and initiatives. Obviously, Rabbit and Kangaroo will need to be in close communication as the plan develops, and Kangaroo is an important stakeholder for Whistle ID. Eventually, Kangaroo’s infrastructure teams will need to line up to help support the launch, so they’ll need to collaborate closely. But Kangaroo’s platform teams are already in the business of supporting other team’s product launches, so this is par for the course.

Ultimately, Rabbit will deliver a winning identity platform for the sports industry. The Whistle ID product team will grow in size, and it will need a people manager (perhaps that’s Kangaroo, or maybe a newly created director role). It’s unlikely to be Rabbit – they’re not really interested in taking on more people management responsibilities. By the time Whistle ID has matured, they may be more interested in grabbing hold of a brand new product challenge and starting the process all over again.

What has Whistle gained here? For one thing, a world-class product leader like Rabbit stuck around and built a successful career at the company. Rabbit might have left for a smaller company if the principal role didn’t exist. Kangaroo is also happily building a long-term career at Whistle — they joined the company to grow as a people manager and are now running a large team of PMs. Both found opportunities to do what they love.

It also sets the precedent that there is more than one path for product managers at Whistle. Other PMs ponder whether they want to be a Rabbit or a Kangaroo, knowing whichever they choose, both paths are open to them at Whistle.

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