✍️ Letters to an Aspiring PM

"Who made you the expert?"

November 09, 2022

Dear reader,

One of the biggest struggles I faced in starting this project was self-confidence. I’m here to share my lived experience in product management, but first I had to believe in the validity of my own experience. Using the leaders in our field as a yardstick, I felt like I didn’t belong.

Did I have any right to write about this stuff? How did I know I was any good at this? What made me an expert?

I considered my track record, but this is where I tripped up first. I hadn’t held a traditional ‘product’ job title before, and working functionally as a PM is different from being the named PM for a product launch. If you’ve tried to break into PM from another discipline, you may have experienced this disconnect, too - I felt I had a lot of transferable skills, but not all my peers saw it that way.

It reminded me of a time that really shook my confidence. I had joined a working group of senior product leaders at my company, off the back of a supportive colleague’s invitation. I’m not sure the rest of the group ever accepted me though, and after she left, another group member took the opportunity to kick me out without warning.

That really stung, coming from someone I trusted. You know how we talk about impostor syndrome, a feeling we typically bottle up inside? In this case, I felt like I’d actually been called out as an impostor. Banished from the tribe.

I suddenly felt unwanted, and that I’d lost the right to talk to the product experts within my own organization.

So where did I go from there?

In time, I came to see that episode for what it was - just a story I told myself. Like impostor syndrome, it’s a limiting belief I held onto, to give myself permission not to dust myself off and try again, and not to trust in the skills I’d developed over the years.

I am so glad I managed to identify that limiting belief and did away with it.

What took its place? A different set of beliefs about where expertise comes from. It took me a long time to realize that expertise is a behavior, not a state of being. And that ultimately, expertise comes from having the confidence to act - not your pedigree or from external validation.

You don’t get seen as an expert until your expertise can be recognized by others, right? Expertise is the thing you have to develop first. The good news is that you already know how to do this: you put in the time and effort, you make the mistakes, and you study and learn.

But there’s a difference between understanding (a state of being) and demonstrating expertise in your domain. From the outside, people can’t ‘see’ your understanding. They can only see your actions.

It’s like Robin Sharma says - knowledge is not power, it’s potential power - acting decisively is what manifests that power.

When I felt judged by other product ‘experts’ as being not good enough, I let the fear of disapproval stop me in my tracks. And that fear effectively robbed me of my expertise, because it held me back from taking action.

I wish I’d figured out sooner that I could choose to act anyway, and believe in what I’d already learned, rather than rely on the passing judgment of others.

Turns out, the first person who needs to recognize your expertise is you!

More and more, I’m leery of the idea that expertise in product management is a binary, have-or-have-not concept. Our field is evolving too quickly - the shelf life of product expertise is really short when you think about how fast the market shifts around us.

Things I learned at the beginning of my career, like how to produce a long-form functional spec, are now obsolete. Such “expertise” no longer matters. Best practice evolves.

I’m starting to see that expertise has little to do with titles, glossy profiles, industry accolades, or that stage you’re on in your cover photo. Those are outcomes (and if we’re being honest, status symbols that feel good for the ego). But I was confusing those signals with expertise.

Branding yourself an expert is exactly that: an exercise in creating a public image.

Consider a different model of expertise, one that’s about actions and behavior instead:

  • Experts write. (Or they teach, speak publicly, or otherwise pay it forward.) It brings clarity to your thinking to share it with someone else. And we often forget that experts were once beginners, learning with the help of someone who took the time to share what they know.
  • Experts predict. Putting in the reps means you start to spot patterns a mile away. You know when you don’t know enough. Judgment improves, and you tend to make good decisions quickly as a result.
  • Experts care. This one sustains you taking action over time, even when you misstep, because you’re endlessly fascinated by the why. You can’t stay passive when you give a damn about something.

Take another look at the supposed ‘experts’ in the room. What positive change are they making with their expertise? Are they smug and self-serving about it, or are they humble and acting generously?

Real experts don’t hide behind their static achievements. They know the product world will leave them behind if they do. So they keep learning, sharing, and dusting themselves off when they get it wrong. They stay curious, and they don’t disparage. They simply make themselves better.

They’re the ones we want to look out for.

When it comes to us, dear reader, I think we should aspire to learn a little something from everyone. Whether or not they’ve been signposted by the establishment. We’re better off when we diversify our thinking and find our own experts.

Look closer at those behaviors, and you start to realize that product experts are everywhere. Which is why I’m glad that you’re here - now that we’ve found one another, I’m sure you’ve got expertise to share.

Don’t let the critics tell you otherwise. (That includes your inner critic.) I’d love to know where you’ve been putting in the reps as a PM, and what you’ve learned.

Write me back - I’m all ears.



Sean K. Gabriel
Thanks for the read 👋
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