The skills product managers need to become a Director, VP, or CPO
If you work in product management (PM) for a tech company, you may be asking yourself, “I am manager today–how do I advance to a director, a VP, or a chief product officer (CPO)?” For most of you, your first ten years are fairly programmed: you learn product management; you start shipping products; you likely begin to manage people. But then what? Will the skills that have successfully landed you in management suffice for an executive role? For that matter, is an executive career even in your future?
Making the shift to executive is more like charting a course on the open ocean than driving down a paved highway. This is precisely the reason you need to intentionally answer the career-progression question. The path is neither formulaic nor consistent. Though product management roles start similarly, executive roles change based on the size of company and the challenges it faces. Some companies are too small for executives, while others require many layers. To better understand the skills used by your boss but also their bosses, take a look at this chart.
As you can see, skills and requirements change dramatically as you advance. You might find you make a darn good VP but struggle as CPO — that is, until you cultivate new chops. The change in job style isn’t a matter of amplification; that is, it’s not like the difference between a pond, a lake, and a sea, but the difference between the Arctic, the Alps, and the Amazon. Some of you have what it takes; others need to forge ahead and learn new skills. Perhaps you’ll eventually have the skills to lead a large team of product managers across a product line, or you might be best suited to stick with a smaller team or single product or project. After learning about the different responsibilities and skills required, you’ll have a much better idea how best to advance.
In case you are wondering how I know this stuff, after serving as cofounder and CEO for two startups, my career took an adventurous direction — a direction which puts me in the position of knowing what it is like to be a PM executive for three different companies: director at Google, CPO at Credit Karma, and now VP at Facebook. I have met hundreds of up-and-coming product managers and have the pleasure of coaching and mentoring several dozen. From these conversations, it’s increasingly clear that most PMs struggle to navigate an executive career.
An Important Note on Titles
Titles mean different things to different companies. A director at a startup is obviously very different than one at a giant tech company like Google. For the sake of consistency and simplicity, I’m focusing this article on companies that have dozens of PMs, hundreds to thousands of employees, are growing quickly, and have successful products or product lines. Product management is inherently complex in these companies and requires executives. So when I refer to director or VP in this article, let’s assume I’m referring to companies at the scale of Google and Facebook. Companies that are in hypergrowth (like I experienced at Credit Karma) have hundreds of employees, not tens of thousands, and one or two product lines, not multiple product lines. So the titles they give to their employees are usually one level greater — meaning a VP at Credit Karma is closer to a director at Facebook.
As we dive into each executive skill, remember Marshall Goldsmith’s words: What got you here won’t get you there. We’ll now unpack how product scope, trust and collaboration, team, and strategy vary across the positions.
Scope, or product responsibilities, is the simplest to understand. Your scope increases the more you advance, that is, you own more of the company’s products. As director, you are thinking about an overall product and have a well-defined area. For example, at Google, where I was director, I product-led two specific products: Hangouts and Photos.
Compare that to CPO, where your scope entails a company’s full suite of products, possibly unrelated. As VP, you’ll fall somewhere in between, owning a single suite of products or a product line. The challenge is that as your scope multiplies, your depth of knowledge must decrease to allow your breadth of knowledge to increase.
Think of ascending a mountain. At the foot of the mountain are those team members closest to the day-to-day on a given product. The details are crystal clear for the team working on the project — just as clear as when the ground is viewed from the bottom of the mountain. But as you climb higher up, these details fade into the background, replaced by more landscape. Ascending the corporate ladder is a lot like climbing this mountain. Though you have a more expansive view of the landscape, the details are never as clear as they once were. To compensate, you can’t just spend more hours running up and down the mountain. You have to scale yourself. To take on more, you’ll need to build trust and rely on your team and peers, as described in the upcoming sections.
Trust and Collaboration
Learning to trust is so important because the farther you climb up the mountain (director → VP → CPO), the more decisions you’ll make based on less information — information you were accustomed to receiving when your days were spent on the mountain’s base. As an executive, your time is divvied up across several products and dozens of people (or more), so you can’t afford to be bogged down in the details; you must be quick to assess and trust the people who own the details. If you can lead only when you have mastery of the data and details, you’ll be stuck in your career until you can learn to trust.
You have to start with the right mindset: it’s okay (and even desirable) not to know everything. Absorb less information by learning to ask the right questions and discovering the 20% that matters most. Then hire people who can bring the right information to you and to whom you can successfully delegate.
To scale, you need to trust not only your team but your peers. This is important as director but critical as VP, where your responsibility is to ensure your product fits into your peers’ products. Sometimes your peers are similarly trained, meaning they have worked in product management and share similar values and experiences. But their teams might have different subcultures (as an example, the Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook apps all have a very different staff size, process for delivering products, goals, and history). So though you might share the same job title, you must take the time to learn your peers’ product culture, what matters to their team, and how they prioritize and make decisions.
The challenge of collaboration is most difficult once you get to the top. As CPO, you are likely reporting to the CEO, and your peers are leaders of entirely different functions (like engineering, marketing, sales, or human resources). Success in this role requires you to collaborate with people who have very different training, likely different values, and have followed a different career path to success.
This can be a rude awakening for many new executive leaders who join a company and expect to be surrounded by people who are similarly trained. To succeed, you must have skills like an ambassador, representing your function to the other executives. As a CPO, you must patiently persuade, educate, and understand those who may seem to speak a different language. It’ll be your job to focus these disparate functions in one direction so everyone is on the same page.
And you’ll have to be especially clear on signaling intentions and aligning expectations with your boss, the CEO. He or she has likely never been a formal product manager, but almost certainly has a strong opinion on product. I believe this collaborative challenge alone makes the CPO role dramatically different than a director or VP. It may not be for everyone. As CPO, you’ll require enormous patience and skill to explain your discipline to senior leaders who have a product point of view. And everyone at the company has a product opinion, but little experience building it at scale.
To be a great executive, you must be a great manager. This means you must learn to master soft skills, since the additional scope and collaboration required to succeed necessitates self-awareness, ability to listen and take feedback, and partner with people of different backgrounds.
When you become a director, you have to expand your soft skills and learn to manage managers. Managing a manager requires you to learn how to pull back and trust your team. But it also requires that you learn to teach your managers how to manage. It’s not good enough to help the individual contributors in your team. Your managers have to grow as well and they require different tools.
As VP, you influence a broad and large team with multiple layers of management. You are required to unify the team, establish a culture that fosters growth and success, hone in on what’s working and drive it forward, and eliminate what’s not working.
VPs manage directors, so you need to be that much better at teaching management and working indirectly with team members. But you must also perform another critical function: recruit executives. To succeed as a VP you must be exquisitely skilled at finding, attracting, and retaining high-quality talent that will comprise your team. Furthermore, attracting a diverse team — think skill, gender, experience, style — will equip you to solve a broader range of problems and to scale beyond each challenge. These directors who work for you — executives who own a set of products — will run big parts of the organization. You may have stellar judgment, be a tech wizard, or work as hard as a Clydesdale, but if you can’t hire effective leaders, you can’t scale and will stall out.
Most often, CPOs inherit an existing team. You have to rebuild the team and its culture, not because the previous team has failed but because the challenge that faces the company is not purely to continue what’s working, but scale to brand new heights while expanding into new directions. Not only do you have to attract new talent, you also have to find new hires who have skills and experiences that were missing from the team. Doing so is subtle work — you can’t just reset the team — it’s important to maintain continuity and coach up the team when possible.
As CPO, your soft-skill ability to powerfully coax and affect an organization steeped in routine procedures is paramount — employees might resist change because the process and values have worked up until now and they don’t see where gaps may arise. So this is far more complex than simply scaling a culture (the VP’s role) which is already dialed into a set direction.
Executives aren’t just accountable for delivery; they also need to set direction. If you are a director, this is a tough transition since until now direction has likely come from your leadership team. Now it’s not just how to build it and how it works — it’s why choose this feature instead of another? Which projects get light resources, heavy resources, or none at all? And why is a product feature sequenced with one set of milestones vs. another?
As VP, you have to ensure all the product areas blend together in a meaningful way. You need to scale what’s working but also add new projects that innovate and expand the product area. You might work independently as director, but as VP you need to make certain the product functions seamlessly and doesn’t end up disjointed and clumsy. You have to focus on a clean, simple product experience–not one that resembles the company’s org chart. So it’s essential you work closely together with the other VPs and tackle impactful yet messy projects that might span multiple teams.
As CPO, you must become the storyteller for the vision of the company’s product. You must connect the CEO’s vision for the company with the products built by your VPs and directors into a multi-year product roadmap.
In addition, as CPO you must have a strategy for shaping the product team, based on the needs of the organization. For example, many CPOs are asked to add new products for the company. This requires expanding the team, as mentioned above, but also championing a new process which gives time and space for teams to develop new ideas. This process might require deep partnerships with analytics for new goal metrics, marketing for understanding customer needs, engineering to enable a scalable infrastructure, and the board and management team to set accurate expectations on resources, timeline, and tradeoffs.
The goal of this article has been to describe the skills at each executive level for a product manager. As you can see, the skills change by level but have common traits. Whether you are looking up at the mountain or already ascending it, proactively start to invest in these skills. Seek out existing executives to mentor you, get as much feedback as you can, and take on projects where you learn and test these skills. The greater the height you climb, the more impact you can have — so be patient and kind to yourself. And best of luck!