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Written by Jane Stacey,
November 23rd, 2020 | Category Management

If you’re a Category Manager are you the next CEO or stuck for life?


“Let’s be realistic, if you stay in Category then the best you can hope for is heading up the Category Team. After that if you want to go up, you’ll have to get out.”

You might not have been told this as I once was, but you may already have the impression. As you move up the career ladder, you may start getting the advice to move out of Category, get more ‘breadth’. Breadth is good, especially if you want to move into General Management one day. But I put it to you that if you want breadth in your career, come to Category Management.

Every team within a business will put their department at the centre of the organisational Venn diagram that shows just how important they are. However as someone who has spent 20 years in category management I believe, of course, that it’s Category Management who hold this honour; siting firmly at the intersection of commercial and brand growth. I accept that I am biased, but that doesn’t mean I’m not right!

The greatness of Category Management is that it requires you to have all of the commercial understanding of the Sales function along with a deep and thorough knowledge of what’s important to your retailer and the business of being a Grocer. You also need to understand what’s important to your own business, understanding how you make a profit and how your ranging and pricing recommendations impact the bottom line. Not only that, you need to know all of the triggers that grow a product or a market, understanding the consumption occasion and consumer of your category. These are the pillars of knowledge of someone who is both Sales and Marketing.


What does it take to be a Category Manager?

As custodians of the entire category we need to grow the whole market not just our little piece of it, therefore we need, and have, many skills. Persuasion. Negotiation. Building relationships. Developing long term Strategies. Identifying the Drivers of growth. Prioritising. Creating and delivering compelling selling stories.

All this while managing multiple stakeholders, being a producer of awe inspiring presentations, understanding lots of numbers and being a spreadsheet formula Ninja.

You are often the only point of representation of what’s happening at the crucial ‘Moment of Truth’. Not just sharing what the Retail landscape needs, but being the voice of the Shopper. The often-forgotten step between the Customer (Retailer) and the Consumer (the person enjoying your product). Winning at the Moment of Truth, the point when someone literally votes for your product, is so fundamental and this is what you as Category Manager will do for your business.


A key problem for Category Management is the perception that it is a support act to Sales.

Baring such a responsibility and with such a breadth of business skills, why is it that sometimes a Category Management career can feel like that’s our only option. That if we want to succeed, develop and grow within an organisation then our only option is to move into one of the more classically understood functions of Marketing or Sales.

My own experience across several businesses is that if I want to progress my career with a GM role in mind, then I’m going to have to move into a different department. As a Category Manager that’s really frustrating.

I chose a career in Category Management because of the breadth and variety it offered. The fact that I could learn the skills that cover all of the 7 Ps and give me access to experience everything I would need to know about the business of doing business. So when called into my GMs office and told “You’ve built a fantastic relationship with X, you should be in Sales” Yes, there was an eye roll.


We need a hero!

Something that could really help is more high profile role models. Category Management is over 30 years old and one would hope in that time there would have been many people who had risen through the ranks to lead more businesses. With the great breadth of capabilities of those in Category Management we need more people in General Management and CEO roles that have come from a Category background.

What can you do?


Know the value you deliver. Ensure you have strong, measurable Category plans in place that allow you to demonstrate the growth you have driven through sales, shopper metrics and behaviour change.
Leverage the strong relationships you build with your Retailer so that if the trading relationship becomes difficult you can retain a seat at the table and continue to build the right plans for the shopper together. The recognition you gain internally for having potentially the only working relationship with a Retailer will increase your reputation immensely.

Really get to understand how your Retailers work and what’s important to them. Most importantly understand what matters to their shoppers and help your buyer to become a hero for their shopper. This will make them a hero in their business and you a hero in yours.
Look at your role as being more than just placing product on a shelf. You are so much more than that. Recognising your own contribution to your business means you can do some Category Management PR and some personal brand building. Dare I say it, Category Manage yourself! Know who your customer is and the problem you solve for them.
Get a very clear understanding of the commercial elements of your job. These are critical to your own success and set you up to know how to grow your business. A General Manager that can grow a whole Category not just their own business is going to be an invaluable partner in a future where sustainable growth models will have greater focus.


What can businesses do to help?

This is a call to HR managers and Senior Leaders to recognise the contribution and the ability of the Category Managers working at the coalface of your business. Understand the huge breadth of skills this team has and remove the ‘last click attribution’ of the work your category managers do that often ends up attributed to the other (Sales) teams.

Understand the skills of a Category Manager and clearly document these capabilities so that you can measure your team on their appropriate skills and promote accordingly. Businesses that don’t understand the true and full capabilities of Category Managers are missing out on a valuable resource and a big skill gap for future Talent in their leadership pipeline

Your Category Managers are already mini GMs.