Show me the Money! Four Career Path Alternatives to Chief Product Officer

BY Duncan Malcolm ON NOVEMBER 8, 2018

It’s Monday, you’re a little scared, very excited and you’re walking into the product job you’ve always dreamed about.

A venn diagram showing your dream job at the intersection of what you're good at, what you love to do, and what someone will pay you to doWhat is that dream job?

A lot of product managers, if you asked them, might be tempted to say that they want the lead product role in the organisation. Whatever that role may be called – whether it’s CPO/VP Product/Head of Product…

But I have to ask…Why?!

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the allure. Speaking gigs at conferences, status in the organisation, salary… they’re all good reasons. But they might not be the right reasons. There is enormous value in being a master of your art and not jumping into management.

Here are my possible theories for your answer:

  1. You actually want that role: Are you really sure?
  2. You want to be paid more: There are many other options available.
  3. You’re bored with building products: Are you sure you’re in the right career?

For the purposes of this post I’m going to assume that what you really want to do is earn more.


The chances are that you were already working for five or six years before you became a product manager. After a few more years of product jobs, and perhaps two or three product roles, you now feel you want to move up to the next level.

You want to buy a house, maybe you’re about to get married, and the reality is that the £40-60k you’re taking home as a fairly experienced product manager won’t cut it if you want to buy that nice flat/house you and your partner have your eyes on.

What are the Options?

OK, so for all of the roles below there are plenty of product managers earning six figures, some up to £150k+, without the need to push into the pains of management.

  • Lead product manager/ principal product manager
  • Contract product manager
  • Consultant product manager
  • Specialist product manager

Lead Product Manager/ Principal Product Manager

If you really want to become a CPO this is probably the best place to start. Principal product manager jobs typically exist in larger organisations where there are multiple cross-functional product teams.

In these situations the organisation might choose to have a hybrid product manager/ lead product manager. Typically you’ll still be part of a team but you’ll also be coaching one or two other more junior product managers typically in the same area.

This will give you a good taste of what some of the CPO role entails, but without the risk of being on a management team.

It’s quite a difficult role because you have your own team’s objectives as well as those of the other product managers under your wing. But if you need a new challenge and like the stability of a big company, then it could be for you.

Contract Product Manager

This is probably one of the hardest roles you can go for, and there are some good reasons for this. It’s rare for a company to bring in contractors, because it will have a well-established product function.

Here are some typical contract projects:

  • A digital transformation project: Nobody gets product, expect a lot of resistance and/or education around the most basic ideas.
  • A rescue project: Something’s wrong inside culturally, the last team all resigned.
  • High growth: This is the best, everything is functioning and they just need great well-established people.

You’ll need to bring your A-game for the stakeholder management. Ideally you will want to have worked in an agency/consultancy as well as in in-house teams to thrive.

Consultant Product Manager

Of all the roles I’d say that this is probably one of the most rewarding. You often get to work with engaged senior stakeholders and help them to shape the vision for how an organisation should approach product.

There’s a catch however. While you should easily be able to command £1,000 a day or more, getting enough gigs to keep you busy is the tough bit. There are many routes to getting gigs: networking, being a CSPO/AgilePM trainer, partnering with someone who you trust and vice-versa.

Specialist Senior Product Manager

Whether it’s ecommerce, HR, mobile, AI, or transactional trading systems for banks, this is a great route. Typically people who go down this path find an area that they’re passionate or interested about and build up a significant amount of experience.

It’s usually a permanent role, however, some of the highest paying interim/contract roles are for specialists.

You can build out your network with other specialists in your market/vertical/area and be the person who is all-knowing for your niche.

What Next?

Head down to some product events and meet some other product managers. Find people who are in these career paths and have a chat with them. If you can’t make it to an event reach out to people with a friendly message on LinkedIn.



Duncan Malcolm

Duncan Malcolm has been involved in product development and management in UK for over 10 years including co-founding EveryCity, working with startups as well as brands like Santander, MediaCom and Unbiased.