What does it take to be a VP Product?
There’s a lot of content out there telling us how to become better Product Managers. However, there isn’t so much on how to move beyond that and reach the VP of product level.
Luckily, during one of Product League’s Ask Me Anything sessions, I had the opportunity to hear from 3 product leaders their thoughts about the challenge, what it takes to get there, and what to do once you’re there.
There’s a ton of useful information shared in this session, and I wanted to share some of the key takeaways I got from the three product masters who took part in it: Timo Sturm, Ortal Cohen Tevel, and Avishai Shafir.
Titles Are Bulls*%#!
The first takeaway is that titles are meaningless. Really, meaningless. Chief product officer, director of product, or VP, it doesn’t matter. This is not the conventional advice you would expect, but it makes a lot of sense when you think about it.
As a product manager working on the product that is your career development plan (yes, you are the product), your focus should be on the outcomes and roles and responsibilities you’re looking to achieve, instead of vanity metrics such as titles that often have little meaning.
Depending on the company or stage you’ll be at, the VP’s job will be very different. At companies where the CEO or founder is the clear product visionary, the VP’s role will be to drive execution and alignment within the product team, while at other companies, the VP Product will be the ultimate driver for the product vision and strategic thinking.
Furthermore, the position itself will change based on the company’s stage, existing product offering, and type of product. In early-stage companies, you’ll be responsible for the hiring process, company structure, and at other times driving product strategies, etc.
In fact, one of the most critical management skills that were mentioned in this talk, is the ability to change the product leadership style between each company, stage, pain points, and even times of peace or war.
Having this understanding will allow you to move companies and progress in your product management career in a less traditional way but a lot of potential. For you.
What Does it Take to Become One?
First of all. To succeed in the VP Product role, you’ll need a set of sharp leadership skills and hands-on product management experience. But if you’re looking for that one ultimate skill, the opinions differ to one of these:
Vision: Ability to look at the world we’re at and where we want to be and set a clear strategy for getting there.
Communication: Ability to communicate with users, and your team, to establish alignment and transparency within the entire organization, and align everyone on the mission
Extreme Ownership: With the title, comes much responsibility. And you’ll be held accountable for any failure or achievement. This is where extreme ownership will shine in, and the ability to get things done. No excuses.
Those skills alone aren’t what will take you forward, but their combination will drive a recipe to success.
As product managers, we may get too entrenched in the small picture, busy building the perfect feature. This is where the strong VP will shine in, and discern the trees from the forest to create a cohesive picture of where each additional element compounds the value of the previous one.
Setting the product vision entails a strong understanding of the world we’re at and where we want to be. Talking to users to understand their pain points, taking into context the current market, available technology, and financials is a must. It’s a serious process that can’t be done in a 2hr workshop inside the executive boardroom, but a way of life.
The VP Product isn’t a team facilitator settling for compromises, but a skilled captain steering the ship for the right results and leading the product team, designers and developers with clear reasoning to put some ideas aside and make some others, a reality comes true.
Once that’s in place, they build an influential culture of accountability for both success and failures, starting from the top all the way down, where everyone is accountable and not afraid to step in someone else’s toes if necessary. But only then.
Now, How Do I Know I’m Ready?
There’s no certificate to hang on the wall saying, “I’m VP material”.
But if you’re looking for an indicator, think about a time when you were in a meeting with other product managers, and the conversation got stuck. Who’s the one leading the discussion further?
Going back to what we previously mentioned, the difference between a junior PM to a senior one will be the level of accountability. While a junior PM may sometimes get away with excuses, those excuses are not optional when climbing up the ladder.
As a VP, you’ll need to take it a step further with extreme ownership and hold yourself accountable for everything and everyone.
In summary, if people are looking up to you, and you take responsibility for everything, no excuses, you may get there.
What About an MBA?
For smaller to mid-sized companies, an MBA will probably not be necessary, while at corporate companies, it will ultimately depend on their internal policies and requirements. The truth is fancy degrees don’t hurt, but will not always add value. Some CPOs and VP products don’t even have a bachelor’s degree to show off with.
I’m VP Material, How Do I Get The Job?
First, If you can show that you’ve grown through roles in the same company, it’s a clear sign of value creation skills and has much more meaning than moving and upgrading between product organizations.
However, it may not always be possible due to dozens of different reasons, from working at smaller companies with fewer career growth opportunities or the pure desire to switch product domains.
- Find out your target market
Talk with headhunters, search on LinkedIn, Crunchbase, and find out who’s hiring.
- Prepare your sales pitch
Find out the company’s needs and goals, and adapt your CV for the specific position and job description. And as the true data-driven product manager you are, A/B test the hell out of your CV and keep improving it with each new iteration.
- Approach them
Actually… Stop! Before you send out your CV through that shiny big submit button. It’s networking time!
Now is the time to use your network and ask them for a warm introduction. A warm intro is a different ballgame and will set you miles ahead.
The toughest part is getting an intro to the hiring manager or the recruiter at the company. Once you get your foot in the door, you’ll be in a much better position to get the conversation started and show them the great VP Product you can be.
In summary: Nothing changes, and you should manage it as if it was a product: Treat it as a funnel, adapt your CV to each position, and use your network for warm introductions. By ‘your network’, we mean a strong, meaningful network. Shallow mingling with other industry people at meetups won’t take you far, build relationships that make people know why they would like to share an office with them.
I Got Hired; What Do I Do Now?
For starters, what’s different now?
If you want to be VP, you need to love what you do: managing, helping your team and coaching.
Other than that, it doesn’t mean you stop talking to the users or looking at data, especially at startups where there’s always work that can be done and never enough resources. It’s actually your job to take more work.
What Challenges VP Product Face?
Different organizations and stages have their own unique set of challenges. At times it may be to set up the product department, set product alignment within the product team, or drive vision when there’s lack of one.
The challenge doesn’t matter; what matters is your attitude towards them.
How Do They Track the Success of The Product Team?
It depends on the company and the stage. But in general, your goals define the big goals and KPIs, assign clear ownership, and let them do their things, helping when necessary. You know, product roadmaps.
The challenge is not to know everything, but to be on top of the top things. In the end, It all comes down to communication and ownership.
What Tools Are They Using?
The tools don’t matter at all. The same means for the product backlog can be used here as well. Sometimes, even an Excel sheet will do the job.
What Are The Latest Trends at The VP Level?
Trends don’t matter so much; what matters is the situation positioning you’re in on the world. Distinguish what things are essential, have them at the top, and remember what is going down in priority.
The most important is to have a clear strategy and stick to it. As your situation changes, be quick to reassess and adapt.
I hope these takeaways and lessons have helped you better understand what the product manager role is about and how to get there. Now, it only left for you to make it. Go for it!