If you take a look at the list of open product positions at the end of my recent newsletter, you’ll notice a record number of VP/Director of Product positions.  In part this reflects the growth we are experiencing in our industry.  However, it also represents an increased recognition of the importance of strong product leadership.

I work with quite a few different product companies, and I am often asked to recommend and evaluate potential candidates.  I have done so much of this lately that it inspired me to write up my views on this product leadership role.

I’ve written this for three audiences:

  • If you are a CEO or exec recruiter and you are looking for a head of product, this should give you a deeper understanding of what you should be seeking
  • If you are currently leading a product organization I’d like to offer this up as your keys to success
  • If you have aspirations of one day leading a product organization, this is a frank discussion of the skills you’ll need to acquire

In this article I use the title “VP Product” to refer to this position, but you’ll also find titles ranging from Director of Product Management to Chief Product Officer.   By whatever title, I am referring here to your most senior product role in your company or business unit.

Organizationally, this role typically manages the product owners/product managers and the user experience designers, and generally reports to the CEO.  With some exceptions, it it is important that this role be a peer to the CTO and the VP Marketing.

I’ll say right up front that this is a difficult role to fill and to perform well.   Those that do succeed make a dramatic difference for their companies.  Great product leaders are highly valued and often go on to found their own companies.  In fact, some of the best VC’s only invest in founders that have already proven themselves as great product leaders.

Competencies

Specifically, you are looking for someone that is proven strong in four key competencies: Team Development, Product Vision, Execution, and Product Culture.

– Team Development

The single most important responsibility of any VP Product is to develop a strong team of product owners and designers.  This means making recruiting, training and ongoing coaching the top priority.  Realize that developing great people requires a different set of skills than developing great products, which is why many otherwise excellent product owners and designers never progress to leading teams.

And one of the worst things you can do is take one of your poor performing people and promote them to this leadership position.  I know that may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many execs reason that, “well, this guy is not very strong, but he works well with people and the stakeholders seem to like him, so maybe I’ll make him the head of product and hire a strong individual contributor person to backfill him.”  But how do you expect this poor performer to help develop his team into strong performers?  And what message does this send to the organization?

For this position, you need to ensure you are hiring someone that has proven the ability to develop others.  They should have a track record of identifying and recruiting potential talent, and then working actively and continuously with those people to address their weaknesses and exploit their strengths.

– Product Vision

Product vision refers to defining and driving the product strategy.  The vision is what drives and inspires the company, and sustains the company through the ups and downs.  This may sound straightforward but it gets tricky.  That’s because there are two very different types of product leaders needed for two very different situations:

  • where there is a CEO or founder that is the clear product visionary
  • where there is no clear product visionary, usually in situations where the founder has moved on

There are two very bad situations:

The first is when you have a CEO that is very strong at product and vision, but he feels that he wants to hire a VP Product (or more often his board pushes him to hire a VP Product), and he thinks he should be hiring someone in his own image, or at least like him in that he’s also very visionary.  The result here is typically an immediate clash and usually a short tenure for the VP Product.  If this position looks like a revolving door, it’s very possible that’s what’s going on.

The second bad situation is when the CEO is not strong at vision, but he also hires someone in his own image.  This doesn’t result in the clash (they often get along great), but it does leave a serious void in terms of vision and this causes frustration among the product team, poor morale across the company, and usually a lack of innovation.

The key here is that the VP Product needs to complement the CEO.  If you have a strong visionary CEO, there may be some very strong VP Product candidates that won’t want the position because they know that in this company, their job is primarily to execute the vision of the CEO.

One situation that unfortunately happens is when you have a visionary CEO and he has a solid partner running product that is very strong at execution, but the founder eventually leaves and now the company has a problem because nobody is there to provide the vision for the future.  It’s generally not something a VP Product can easily turn on and off, and even if they can, the rest of the company may not be willing to consider the product leader in this new light.  This is why I generally prefer when the founders stay on at the company, even if they decide they want to bring in someone else as the CEO.

If you’re wondering what to do when you have a CEO that thinks he’s a strong visionary leader, but the rest of the company knows he’s not, you need a very special head of product, one that is a strong visionary, but also has the ability and willingness to convince the CEO the vision was all his idea.

– Execution

No matter where the vision comes from, all the great vision in the world doesn’t mean much if you can’t get the product idea from concept to live to site.  You need a product leader that knows how to get things done and has absolutely proven his ability to do so.

There are many aspects that contribute to a team’s ability to execute consistently, rapidly, and effectively.  The person certainly should be expert on modern forms of product planning, customer discovery, product discovery, and product development process, but execution also means that they know how to work effectively as part of your size organization.

The bigger the organization, the more critical that the person has proven strong skills especially in stakeholder management and internal evangelism.  The product leader must be able to inspire and motivate the company and get everyone moving in the same direction.

– Product Culture

Good product organizations have a strong team, a solid vision and can consistently execute.  A great product organization adds the dimension of a strong product culture.

A strong product culture means that the team understands the importance of continuous and rapid testing and learning.  They understand that they need to make mistakes in order to learn, but they need to make them quickly and mitigate the risks.  They understand the need for continuous innovation.  They know that great products are the result of true collaboration.  They respect and value their designers and engineers.  They understand the power of a motivated product team.

A strong VP Product will understand the importance of a strong product culture, and will be able to give real examples of his own experiences with product culture and have concrete plans for instilling this culture in your company.

Experience

The amount of relevant experience, such as domain experience, will depend on your particular company and industry, but at a minimum, you are looking for someone with the combination of a strong technology background with an understanding of the economics and dynamics of your business and your market.

There is a debate going on right now in our industry about the value of an MBA for product leaders.  All of us inside the industry can’t help but be biased because we either do or don’t have one (I don’t).  I think I know as many product leaders as just about anyone in this industry, and I know many very strong leaders both with and without.  I absolutely do not consider an MBA a requirement, but I personally would not avoid hiring someone just because they had an MBA, as long as they convinced me that they had the right mindset per the above.

Chemistry

Last but certainly not least, everything discussed above is still not enough.  There is one more thing.  Your product leader must be able to work well on a personal level with the other key execs, especially the CEO and CTO.  It will not be fun for any of you if there isn’t that personal connection.  Make sure the interview process includes a long dinner with at least the CEO and CTO.  Be open and make it personal.

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