A product executive — the Chief Product Officer, Senior Vice President of Product Management, etc. — occupies an interesting role in her company.
On one hand, she is her organization’s chief product advocate. The product team’s responsibility, after all, is to continually push against all of the internal hurdles and obstacles to deliver the best possible products in the shortest possible timeframes. And as the head of this department, the product executive leads the team in this ongoing effort, meaning she sometimes has to help them advocate against competing agendas within the organization.
But on the other hand, the product executive is obviously part of the executive team. That means she has other responsibilities — such as keeping a watchful eye on the company’s budgets and resource levels, keeping the investors happy, and at times, maybe even turning down a product team request to try something innovative but either too risky or too costly.
So the question is, how can a product executive find the right balance between these two roles?
Our answer — and feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section — is that a product executive can enjoy the most success by prioritizing the following strategic aspects of her role.
4 Success Strategies for Product Executives
1. Hire outstanding product managers.
Any executive-level role means your primary function is going to be management, leadership, and creating the right environment for your team to carry out its strategic mission for the company.
This means that, as much as you might still think of yourself as a product manager at heart, and as much as you might want to dig into the day-to-day details of ushering products through the development process, you need to remember that as a product executive, you are now first and foremost the manager of a team.
Coaches of sports teams often stalk back and forth anxiously along the sidelines for the entire game — and you can just tell how much they want to jump in and grab the ball. But these coaches know their real job is to develop outstanding players and build a winning team.
The same is true for the product executive: Your most important role will be to hire the best possible team of product managers, because it will largely be them — not you — shepherding your company’s products from concept to market.
One final thought here: Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can find great product managers only by looking in the traditional places or scanning for the traditional items on a candidate’s resume. As we found when we interviewed some leading product executives, you can find outstanding product managers by looking for a wide range of traits.
2. Get your team whatever it needs (within reason) to do its best work.
Once you have your team of winning product managers in place, your next responsibility should be to create an environment that empowers them to do their best work.
“As a product executive, it’s your responsibility to create an environment that empowers PMs to do their best work.”
This means ensuring your team has the time, space, and freedom from distractions it needs to focus on product strategy.
It means looking out for roadblocks and obstacles within the company — and whenever possible, clearing them out of the way before they slow your team’s work.
It means encouraging your team to come to you when they do have problems, and solving them as quickly as you can so your PMs can get back to work.
It also means making sure your team has all of the tools they need to do their best work. (Some of the most important product management tools will be obvious, but some equally important tools won’t be.)
3. Give your product team realistic goals and show them the boundaries.
So you’ve hired a group of outstanding product managers, given them the tools they need to succeed, and you are now keeping a constant eye out to make sure they have room to act on their product’s strategic goals and plans.
But before you send them off to set the world on fire with their new product plans, you first need to check those plans against your other agenda — your responsibility as an executive. In other words, you need to see how your product team’s plans line up with the company’s big-picture needs and objectives.
Ideally, your product team’s strategic goals will align well with your organizational goals and resources. But your role as a product executive is also to set boundaries for the product department. This means working with them to develop strategic goals and plans for their products that are realistic given your company’s constraints and the competing demands for its finite resources.
The last thing you want to do as the head of your product team is to encourage your product managers to plan major initiatives that the rest of your executive team will shoot down because they demand too many resources or otherwise pose too great a risk to the company.
So part of your job here will be to encourage as much great thinking and planning as possible from your product team — but at the same time to show them where the boundaries are in terms of what the company can actually support them in doing.
And speaking of putting your product team in front of your executive staff….
4. Training your product managers to communicate effectively with the executive team.
Yet another priority for you as a product executive is to groom your product managers and the other members of your team to communicate with the executive stakeholders.
You are a part of that executive team, after all, so you’re in a strong position to train your PMs on how best to articulate their strategic vision and plans to the executives.
When you show your PMs how to do this effectively — keeping their roadmaps strategic and high-level, discussing the real problems the product will solve as opposed to talking about features, always having data at hand to support a claim or to answer an executive’s challenge, etc. — you are setting up your product team for success.
In fact, training your product managers to be effective communicators, particularly when it comes to presenting to the executive stakeholder team, can create all sorts of benefits for your product department. It can boost your team’s confidence, result in more product “green lights” from the executive team, and help you create an all-around more effective product organization.
A Product Executive is an Executive First, a Product Person Second
The job’s title, we believe, gets it backward. A product executive is an executive in charge of the product department — not a product professional with executive authority.
“A product executive is an executive first, a product person second.”
Does this distinction matter? We think so, because as a product executive you have moved up in your organization to a role in which you share responsibility for the company’s overall health and well-being: its budget, its reputation, its compliance with regulations and industry guidelines, and of course the success of its products.
What this means is that if you are a product manager at heart — if what you love is working closely with designers and technical teams, and crunching data about your products — then you might not actually want to become your company’s Chief Product Officer. That role, although it still allows plenty of interaction with the product team and the products themselves, is largely about managing the people who will work closely with designers and technical teams, and crunch data about the company’s products.
The product executive is an extremely important role — the leader and chief advocate for the team that drives the company’s products from mere ideas, all the way out into the world and delighting customers.
But here’s the question: Can you be happy being that coach stalking along the sidelines? Or will you need to jump in and grab the ball?