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John Fontenot on getting promoted as a PM, and applying product principles to write a book
Product State Q&A
EC: Congrats on your book ‘Never Assume.’ What motivated you to start (and finish) writing it?
JF: The idea for ‘Never Assume’ came from a gap I noticed in product management books — and a desire to help early career PMs and aspiring PMs avoid some of the same pitfalls I experienced (and still experience) in my day-to-day as a PM, and now as a Product Leader.
I read close to 20 books a year, and most of them are on topics like Product Management, Leadership, Strategy, and similar, adjacent topics. While frameworks like assumption maps and assumption testing were included in some PM and Entrepreneurial material, there wasn't anything I could find that dove deeper into the topic, the nuances, and which assumptions were more dangerous than others.
So, like any good PM or founder, I tried to fill a gap I saw in the market.
I wasn't always motivated to keep going on the book, and imposter syndrome definitely plays a role in the idea of scrapping the idea altogether. But I told too many people about it and had too many people holding me accountable to finishing.
Another motivator, outside of accountability, was feedback. I heard Marty Cagan share his method for writing a book (on Jason Knight's ‘One Knight in Product’ podcast), and testing and iterating on sub-topics in his blog.
While I didn't use a blog, I treated each chapter — and sometimes sections within the chapter — as individual pieces of content. I had a decent-sized group of PMs and aspiring PMs who graciously offered to provide feedback as I went through the writing process.
So, just like a product with features that you iterate on, I used the feedback from this ‘customer development group’ to iterate on the content until it landed well with them. Much like customers in the process of discovery, this group of peers and friends motivated me to get across the finish line and ‘ship’ the book to the world.
EC: You’ve rapidly moved up from Growth PM to Director of Product at Lendio. What’s the key to getting promoted from within?
JF: There's a lot that goes into getting promoted. If we're being honest, it breaks down into three big categories: Execution, Growth, and Optics.
Most product leaders would tell you that execution is table stakes for early career PMs to move up to Sr. PM. And the expectation of your execution level increases as you move up into more senior IC (individual contributor) roles.
There's a lot that goes into this, but the key here is continued growth. For example,
Are your communication skills improving?
Is your technical competency increasing?
How well do you work with your cross-functional (UX and Dev) counterparts, as well as your cross-departmental partners from discovery to delivery?
How’s your business and finance acumen?
This doesn't all magically take place at once. It's a marathon of continued growth through identification of skill gaps, competency gaps, etc and filling them. Whether you set a growth plan with your leader or set one for yourself that you share with your leader, it's important that your leaders know your desire — and effort — to grow and that you have a tangible way to track it.
On a related note, gaining clarity from your leaders on their expectations of you in your role and what they expect of someone in the next most senior role helps in crafting that plan so you have a reference point for growth and a tangible target to shoot for in your next promotion opportunity.
Lastly, related to the point about your leaders knowing and seeing your desire and effort to grow, is the point of optics.
Simply put, optics is around how you're viewed or perceived by those you work with and how they perceive the quality and impact of your work. And this usually always comes down to communication.
Many ICs assume (there goes those assumptions again) that their leaders are championing their careers. Too often, those in leadership positions get caught up in their own careers or the stresses of their day-to-day, and they don't seize the opportunities they have to champion the careers of those they lead.
It's usually not out of spite or indifference. It's usually unintentional... a byproduct of a busy and stressful schedule. But understanding this should motivate IC PMs to ensure the work they're doing, and the impact of it, is communicated up the chain and across the organization to those whom the work impacts.
If you're fortunate to have a leader who does advocate for your career — like I've been fortunate to have — that's great! Just make sure you give them a reason to advocate for you. Take the opportunity to help your leaders whenever you can. It takes tact to approach this, but offer to help offload things your leader doesn't enjoy and that you might excel at. The more your direct product leader sees you as a capable leader — someone who can help contribute to strategy, coach and mentor other PMs in their downlines, etc. — the more your opportunities for leadership will open up.
EC: You’ve also been a founder, board member, salesperson, marketer, account manager — and a podcast host. How have those diverse experiences helped you in your work today?
JF: Having a diverse work background has been incredibly beneficial for my career in product management, but it's been particularly helpful in my current position at Lendio.
My time as an Account manager was spent focused on building, managing, and growing partnerships with software companies around the world for Intel's Software Group, in Developer Relations. That's actually where I was first exposed to ‘design thinking’ with Intel's Innovation Group within DRD, and Product Management in general. It was fun to be at the intersection of R&D, where new technological capabilities were unlocked and helping bring those technologies to market through use case-based software partnerships and go-to-market initiatives. That's really where I fell in love with Product.
But as many who've tried know, it's not easy to transition into a PM role.
So, I took some advice and tried to get closer by joining an actual software company, but in a Sales role. I hated sales, but I developed a strong empathy for the role and how subpar products negatively impact the effectiveness of the Sales function, as well as the richness of feedback Sales teams receive on a daily basis. The constant customer interaction also helped me transition into a UX research role, where I first got my foot in the door when an internal transfer opportunity came open.
My moonlighting as a marketer and product marketer gave me the opportunity to gain new skills and have new experiences that have enhanced the richness of my collaboration with my PMM partners throughout my product career.
And being a Founder helps me to exercise the vast variety of skills I've developed while providing an outlet of complete control over vision, strategy, etc., that you don't get when you're working as an employee in a company. So, seeing a business from that perspective and the totality of what's needed to make it run well is a great empathy builder, and it makes me appreciate the roles that all my cross-functional and cross-departmental partners perform for the company.
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