Why Ken Norton’s dual career path in product management can also encourage true-to-scale innovations
“Ascending to Your Misery” is how Arthur Brooks traps being good enough at your job to climb a corporate ladder until you get to a rung that leaves you in a role that makes you unhappy. And oh my god, this concept corresponds to my own experience as a BigCo product manager. I don’t blame my previous employer, rather my own inability to balance happiness with pursuit and ego, but after reading Ken Norton’s essay advocating dual career paths in product management, I think there is one too Organizational Chart issue is not just a personal one!
Ken argues that most tech companies treat product management careers very differently than engineering and design. Namely, there is usually no “end point” where you can remain a contributing individual contributor (it’s more “up or out”) and, more importantly, a progression path that focuses more on PRODUCT and less on MANAGEMENT . Not an IC role per se, but one in which you manage the product resources for a project scope, not for a department.
It’s not for nothing that I support this changed career ladder, and it’s not just about personal preferences, but about what I believe is necessary for innovation in large companies: the effective but independent product leader.
Organizations that grow are designed to scale with people who thrive in more complex hierarchical environments. While the traditional organizational chart structure might one day be replaced by more advanced thinking better suited to technology-driven economies, it has dominated capitalism since industrialization. For what it’s worth, I don’t ignore or criticize the people who fill these roles, or reject the idea that big companies can’t innovate or do a good job. But neither do I think it is controversial to claim that the amount of processes and structures calls into question certain types of individualistic thinking and the questioning of norms.
Now combine the bias in the organizational structure and the people who are attracted to that environment with an incentive structure that depends on pleasing your boss. With larger, more mature companies, your opportunity to build wealth is tied to promotion. Promotion is very directly related to making your boss happy, so he can make his boss happy, and so on. (As a side note, that’s why I think that the best compensation systems do not leave direct managers in control of the wallet, but rather allow their feedback to flow heavily into a 360-degree process, self-assessment and other more measurable criteria).
In my experience, the senior product managers who had also opted out of the standard vice president promotion path were the fortune tellers, the culture bearers, and the inglorious but complex workers. This is an important difference: you are not “calm and wet” – you 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 newer employees either wouldn’t think of or who wouldn’t rock the boat.
At Google, during my time, these were mostly people who were before or shortly after the IPO and just wanted to stay to work hard but not take on organizational owner roles. They had achieved a comfortable level of affluence from this early pay and grew up with colleagues who were now in managerial positions (that is, they were trusted and they knew how to get things done). The smartest Product VPs would give one or two of these people a safe haven 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 ability, but you’ve probably maxed the pay grades if you can’t be promoted. I had one of these guys on my team for a while and it was lovely for both of us.
What does Ken’s Framework do? It allows these people to grow and be recognized for that advancement, eliminating the need for these people to just be people who go back to the early days of the company.
Anyway, please read Ken’s essay. As hopefully pointed out here, I think this is not only a potential solution to talent retention and personal happiness, but it could also help sustain innovation as businesses grow. Thanks Ken!