Winning Strategic Roles

Giff Constable product management

“Female PMs tend to be promoted to operational roles, not strategic ones. If I want to be strategic, how can I avoid that?”

A bright, experienced PM asked that question last week, and I wanted to offer a few suggestions. Before I do, I want to remind executives (myself included) of our responsibility to be aware of, and take steps against, unintentional bias in our organizations. If we want to retain great talent, we have to deserve to keep them.

That said, here’s a few things that up-and-coming PMs might do. The first batch of advice you can guess. The second might surprise some of you.

Part I: Just Do It

There’s a saying that a good leader always starts with “why”. If you want to be seen as strategic, you have to both do it and show it. And remember: you don’t need to ask for permission to do good work.

First, connect your team’s goals to the company strategy. Remember this part of your job:

You’re connecting an entire chain of hypothesized causality. Example: [vision/mission] < [strategy] < [business goal] < [product metrics (behavior change)] < [feature changes] < [user stories] < atomic code/design tasks. (original Tweet)

Make sure it truly does connect. That seems like such an obvious statement, but I’ve had teams try to back-fit what they want to build into the company strategy rather than working the other way around. Part of strategy is saying no to good ideas. If you want to be seen as strategic, know what the company is trying to say no to.

You also need to pair “doing the work” with “showing the work”. Take every opportunity to re-ground everyone in the “why” of your team before you get to the “what.” That means if you’re giving an update in an all-hands, or at a demo, or in an email, you concisely start with your context.

Example: “Just to remind everyone, our team’s mission for Q2 and Q3 is to improve our first month activation rate by 15%, as part of our company-level goal to expand market share this year. We believe that the best way to do this is to partner with marketing to match targeted onboarding experiences to targeted promotions and customer segments. Here’s where we are…

If it feels repetitive, then good. You just learned the first lesson every senior executive and CEO learns: if you don’t repeat something enough to numb your own mind, you’re not repeating it enough. However, don’t just paste the exact same words every time or people will skip over your words. It’s on you, not the reader, to make your communication interesting.

What if we don’t have a clear strategy to connect to?

Quite often, companies have clear business goals but an unclear strategy, which makes doing the above a bit trickier. This was exactly the case when I joined my last two companies as head of product, and it’s the situation both CPOs Georgie Smallwood and Oji Udezue separately described walking into as they joined new companies (you can hear their stories on Melissa Perri’s podcast Product Thinking). So yeah, sub-optimal but not uncommon…

It’s natural for a head of product to tackle this, but you don’t have to wait to be that senior to dig in and help. Leaders don’t wait until they have the title to lead. However, the more junior you are, the more you have to approach this with humility and political savvy, otherwise it can smack of hubris.

Even for the most senior product person in the company, strategy can be a hot button topic. I did a mini-tweetstream on this the other day:

1/ If you are a head of product and you realize your company is missing a coherent strategy, say you need to redo the roadmap. If you say you want to work on “strategy” that can make other execs threatened – “wait you don’t get to own that!”

2/ But a roadmap, of course that is yours. And then since you need a strategy to do a roadmap, it is natural for you to need to foster that conversation.

3/ It opens the door, it gets you to the outcome you need, with less swirl. The word “strategy” can be really loaded in my experience.

Again, let’s return to our causal chain. As a PM on a team, you need a team-level roadmap and clear team-level goals. For this, you need a company-level roadmap and product strategy. For this, you need a clear company strategy as well as company-level goals.

Your attitude should be: “I need to clarify our strategy so my team can make better decisions,” and not: “I should help set the company strategy.” The former gets a “how can I help?” reaction from others. The latter gets a “who do you think you are?” reaction.

If you are going to tackle this, remember that the lack of an explicit strategy doesn’t mean there is no strategy. Your first step is to synthesize and document that unspoken strategy in such a way that you create a conversation. If you ask people why they are doing what they are doing, they will have answers. If you synthesize those answers, plus the company’s vision/mission/goals, plus customer and competitive research, you can often tease out the key strategic principles underpinning the company’s actions. You can then put those strategic principles on paper as a conversation starter.

I’m hammering this point to death, I know, but how you approach this really, really matters. First, don’t neglect your obligations to your team while you try to tease this stuff out. Second, be really generous with the ball, and include others in a collaborative way. Don’t be surprised or angry if an exec (or the CEO) takes the ball away and runs with it. You want these conversations and decisions happening at the executive level. However, if you truly kicked off a wave of work at the executive level, it’s perfectly okay to ask how you can stay involved and helpful in some way.

Part II: Finance, the secret weapon

When it comes to promotions, senior executives are often thinking, “who has both strong execution skills and makes really good decisions.” But the more unspoken question is, “who has the sophistication to realize that businesses are about the numbers.”

If you want to be seen as strategic, executives have to believe that you really understand how strategy connects to financial performance and ultimately the value of the business.

You need to:

  1. practice modeling out the possible impact of your team’s work in spreadsheets, including exposing critical assumptions and examining best/worst case scenarios. You then want to use these models are conversation pieces with the execs and the team.
  2. make sure you understand how income statements work, how product metrics connect to financial metrics, and which metrics are most important for your business (which ties into the next point)
  3. understand how your business is valued. This is a bigger topic, but not all ROI (return on investment) is made equal. If you want to read more about this, check out my post Financial Fluency: Understanding Valuation

Make yourself the CFO’s favorite person in the product management department by building financial fluency, caring about the numbers, and talking about the numbers — not in the abstract, but in ways specific to the company’s context. If you want to learn, ask your head of product to help you level up, and spend time asking questions to leaders in the finance department.

In summary

  1. just do it, don’t ask for permission to be strategic but be savvy with how your approach it
  2. show it, always grounding your work in the “why” and the connection to company strategy/goals
  3. get financially savvy and bring this into how you think about, and explain, your work

Final note

If you are senior in product, design, or engineering and are interested in practicing your strategic thinking and decision making, consider applying to Product Case Camp (at the time of this posting, I’m just kicking this off). We will meet in small groups for an hour a week to role-play realistic scenarios. You can learn more at

Top image from Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash