While employee development is one of the important tasks of managers, the associated topics of job titles, grading, and career paths are rather disliked. This is likely to remain the case, as complexity and human ego intersect here, and each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. But knowledge always helps, so here’s a structured overview with some tips on the subject.
The job title
The job title describes the area of activity and responsibility. In product management, the most common syntax is
Seniority — Role — Product(group)/Focus
Example: Senior Product Manager BI
The term Product Owner is sometimes used synonymously with the term Product Manager in some companies. This can be misleading or even wrong for various reasons, which is why it is more precise to use the term Product Manager.
The frequently observed hierarchy is usually as follows:
Entry-level roles — training phase, limited responsibility
- Associate Product Manager
- Junior Product Manager
Performance roles — technical management of a product (area)
- Product Manager
- Senior Product Manager
- Lead Product Manager *or* Product Lead
Leadership roles — disciplinary leadership of product managers and product portfolios
- Product Director OR Group Product Manager OR Head of Product
- VP Product (usually in larger companies) OR Head of Product
- Chief Product Officer (board level)
Since the job title has to work externally, it needs some standardization. This is a problem at the same time because the same role can have a completely different responsibility and complexity in a startup versus a large corporation. The depth of responsibility or the hierarchy in the company can also change the value. And last but not least, in many small companies, the roles are awarded a bit more relaxed to score points with the ego of the candidates.
For this reason, grading exists in many, usually larger companies.
Grading ensures that the level of each role, on which e.g. salary and other classifications may depend, is standardized throughout the company. The grading system is specified by the HR department or company management for all positions in the company according to a uniform system. In a second step, the respective grades per role are determined together with the executive. In turn, these are or will be filled with suitable employees. Almost all large tech companies have a grading system.
This has the following advantages:
- The same title can be assigned to different grades depending on responsibility, complexity, and experience.
- Grading ensures more fairness, since, for example, previous salary or promotion by the management is no longer the only relevant factor, instead the salary range of the grade should be respected.
- Employees can transparently and explicitly understand what is expected from them now or in the future after a promotion.
It has the following disadvantages:
- The grading of employees can lead to a lot of discussions during the implementation phase.
- The complexity and bureaucracy of the system creates additional workload
Whether title or grading, career path questions never disappear.
The career paths
As a leader, you should have an answer when a reasonable question about further development opportunities comes up. The following principles can help provide good answers:
- Create transparency (with or without grading) about which roles in the own division entail which specific requirements or prerequisites.
- Talk openly with employees about current performance and possible development. One result can be a concrete development plan, which will be reassessed in the next performance review.
- Create alternatives to a traditional career with disciplinary responsibility. These could include a lead position with a higher grading, which can otherwise only be achieved through a disciplinary role.
- Where possible, set up a career program together with the HR department. Based on this, employees can participate in various programs and further training, depending on their potential and self-motivation, and qualify for further career grades.
- Create alternatives to a career. This can be done by reduced weekly working hours or flexible working models appreciated by many employees. A change of department can also make sense from the company’s point of view to retain employees in the long run.
Besides, my personal experience is that it is worthwhile to talk about the personal reality of life outside the purely professional level. Age, family situation, health, and other important private interests have a strong impact on professional scope and motivation. Responding to these can help to make the right mutual decisions.