A product manager’s specific role will vary from one company to the next. Still, all product managers must balance many aspects of their job, including customers’ needs, a vision for new products, and the project team. So what tools and strategies are needed to create a successful career as a product manager? What are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A Product Manager”? In this interview series, we are talking to Product Managers, founders, and authors who can answer these questions with stories and insights from their experiences. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing B. Pagels-Minor.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers find it fascinating to trace the evolution of a person’s career trajectory. Can you give me a brief rundown of your career history, from your very first job to the position you hold now?
My first job was as a cashier at Chick-Fil-A at 14, and then my first corporate job was at Target as a store manager while attending grad school. I am an accidental product manager. I went to college and received a history degree in anticipation of being an attorney. However, I dropped out of law school when I received an incredible opportunity to overhaul a company’s automated reporting systems. I then went on from that role into increasingly more complex and larger corporations, ultimately ending up at Netflix. Since 2021, I have been consulting and coaching startups to Product-Market Fit, investing, and launching a podcast.
Most of the product leaders I’ve talked to sort of “fell into” product management and have become passionate about the job. What was the main event in your life that led you to this path?
I have a similar story. I was working at a small startup in Chicago as a business analyst and learned about the product management role. Upon learning more, I decided that it was what I wanted to do. Since then, I’ve worked in product and tech for 15 years, managing product development and consulting for 10 years and at companies like Cars.com, Publicis Groupe, Apple, and Netflix.
I’ve often heard from people who work in the product manager capacity that it’s hard to explain what they do to family and friends. What do you say when someone asks, “so, what do you do for a living?”
I help companies make decisions to delight their customers. For example, a product manager could be the person who decides on new features for the iPhone. As a product manager, I’m guiding the team/org to the ideal state for the product. (something like this)
Let’s pretend money and social status don’t exist—what is most important to you about your work? What is the North Star in your career?
My north star comes down to solving problems. My goal for everything I do is to solve real problems for customers and users. That guides my work day to day and long term.
Can you tell me a story from your professional experience that makes you a little emotional—a moment when you knew you were in the right line of work?
I was responsible for App Store Connect Quality when I worked for the App Store team. One feature I worked on was a somewhat annoying glitch that made it difficult to upload apps. My team fixed that problem and received an immediate flood of thank yous from users. It may not have been the world's biggest or most well-known feature, but it was satisfying to put the customer first and make their life simpler.
What are the qualities that you think make someone a great fit for product management? And conversely, what are some traits that would make you hesitate to recommend this profession?
I have an acronym for that:
Curious: Loves to dive deep and ask questions that most people wouldn’t ask.
Lead with authority: The ability to walk into any room and be the voice that people listen to.
Analytical: Nerds out on data and how to assess situations.
Self Starter: Never needs to be prompted to get shit done.
Self Aware: Always up for feedback and how they can improve.
Terrible traits include having too much ego, not going deeper than the surface level, and being a bad communicator. So much of product management includes humbling yourself to take in inputs from all sources to make the right decision, so having too much ego is detrimental. It also does not work to be a surface-level thinker. It is incredibly important to dive deep to find just the right insight. Communication is important to ensure the team knows what to build and why to build it. Being an excellent communicator is fundamental to accomplishing that.
When you think of the strongest team you’ve ever worked with, why do you think the team worked so well together, and can you recall an anecdote that illustrates the dynamic?
My team at Apple was amazing. Not only were these some of the smartest and most talented people in the world, but they were also the most humble. You could be in the room with the person who created iTunes, and he would be just as interested in you even if you were a barely out-of-college program manager. The fact that there was such a deep level of engagement and trust amongst everyone, regardless of stature, made Apple truly unique.
A lot of theory around project management focuses on frameworks and methodologies. Can you recall a situation you’ve dealt with where you’ve had to toss these things by the wayside and come up with a unique solution to a problem?
Only every day. The reality is that when push comes to shove, a framework or methodology cannot beat your gut. For instance, I was at a martech company where we were trying to decide to invest in more standard reporting or predictive analytics. The predictive path was unclear, but we had a hunch that it could be more useful long term. In the end, we were correct, and a few months after we launched the product, that was what all of our clients were looking for in their products.
What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A Product Manager” and why?
1. Learn Fast
When I was hired at Sprout Social, I only had four months to ideate and launch Sprout Listening. I realized then that the single difference between good and great PMs is the ability to learn fast. I essentially packed in years of learning about the space into a month.
2. Ability to wrangle lots of personalities.
Every company has tons of different personalities, especially in tech. You’re often working with smart people who have been incredibly successful, so the egos can be tough to manage. For this reason, you have to be able to navigate all of those complexities and still have a great attitude.
3. Amazing Insight
Ultimately, product managers are trying to glean the best insight to supercharge their business. So, you have to get good at developing those insights. For example, my team at Cars.com led the implementation of the shopping cart on the platform, and the impetus came from user research when we saw users using numerous tabs to compare cars.
4. Ability to listen for what customers need vs. what they ask for.
This goes back to the quote from Henry Ford, where he said that if he had asked, people would have asked for a faster horse. The reality is that the words people tell you are their pain points but not necessarily the solution they need. It’s much better to listen closely and ask probing questions to understand the why behind the ask. I especially like using the 5 whys method to get to what’s most important.
5. Navigating politics
As PMs grow in their career, they will inevitably run into politics, so it’s important to learn how to handle these situations and navigate them without hurting your ability to get things done. Ultimately, various teams and leaders have their motivations, and it’s important to understand those to be able to maneuver and get what your team needs to win.
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