Climb the Product Career Ladder Part 3: Head of Product, VP Product, and CPO Roles "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs December 12 2021 True interpersonal skills, Premium Content, Product leader, Product Vision, Series, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 2359 career ladder Product Management 9.436

Climb the Product Career Ladder Part 3: Head of Product, VP Product, and CPO Roles


This third and final part of our career series looks at the top tier of roles in Martin Eriksson’s foundational post on product management job titles and hierarchy, at the Head of Product, VP Product, and CPO roles.

With such leadership roles typically there comes a change in emphasis. As James Gadsby Peet, ProductTank London organiser and Director of Digital at William Joseph, reported from Mind the Product’s 2019 Product Leadership Forum: “Product teams often attract people who are used to being the smartest people in the room. Product leaders often find themselves in their position because they were the best of a bunch of product managers. However, to be an effective leader, it’s no longer your role to be the smartest person in the room. It’s to help build the overall capability of the people, system, and portfolio you have responsibility for.”

If you feel ready to move into one of these roles you’re likely to already be a confident product manager with some serious skills under your belt. The next rung on the ladder requires you to use those skills and your knowledge in a new and challenging way.

Table of Contents

Have a Vision

If you can imagine a product’s direction in the long-term and manage people well, you’re on your way to being a good leader

In his keynote talk at #mtpcon Digital 2020, Marty Cagan lays out how hard product leadership can be to get right. It means setting the strategic context for teams to operate, something that includes the product vision, so that customers are kept front and centre, and which guides the product organisation. It’s hard to get this right, as Marty explains in his keynote, because it’s not analytical or data-driven and it needs to trigger an emotional response so that your teams unite behind it. If they feel like they own something meaningful, your team will be inspired to do their best work.

While this visionary aspect of the role is important, Merissa Silk, Head of Product at renewable energy financing business Fundingport, comments that, in her experience, a head of product role can be as much about successfully managing product people as anything else. “For me, I want to be a head of product because I want to work on the strategic aspects of building products and get to do research and spot opportunities, and work with other product people in order to realise that vision.”

being a confident leader at work
As a leader, much of your role is about uniting your team (Image: Shutterstock)

Merissa comments that the aim of the job is to think much further into the future for your products, while also finding a way to coach and mentor your product managers, so “being able to juggle both of these things is essential”. Merissa, who has done a lot of coaching and mentoring, says even the very senior product people she works with often need support with “the people side of the role”. “The people side of things rarely gets easier,” she says.

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It’s not for Everyone

Being a product leader requires you to do things on a bigger scale and leave behind the day-to-day product work you’re used to

As a product leader the way you spend your time is fundamentally different from your time as a senior product person, Merissa says. Take a senior product person who’s done leadership training, taken steps to level up their career and feels they’re ready to become a product manager who manages other product managers: “You get the job and think great, I have these products, people working for me,” she says. “But it is so hard to take a step back and take your hands off the machine, if you will. You’re not in the team, you’re not doing the day to day, you’re not attending the daily stand up, you’re not making granular decisions for the product any more. Instead of leading from the front and making all the decisions, suddenly you’re this person who’s semi-abstracted from what’s happening at ground level.”

You also need to reposition what success looks like for you when you become a product leader, says Merissa. “As a senior product manager, you’re largely driven by delivering, impact, and customer value. As head of product your success lies in how you align everyone in the company around a vision and a strategy so that they can make empowered decisions.” Your other measure of success, she says, is to look at other product managers in the business: “Are they becoming better at their craft? Or are they leaders in the organisation? Are you supporting them in the right way? Because the truth is that their success is actually your success.”

Merissa says she became a product leader because she wanted to have a greater impact: “I wanted to change what I was doing and I had a lot of expertise that I could share with other people coming up in their careers.”

While product leadership may not be for everyone, Saielle Montgomery, Head of UX at car buying site Cazoo, points out that your career need not have a linear progression. Says Saielle: “It depends on your skill set and what you want to do. Lots of people move into consulting and coaching, but if you consider going up the hierarchy and becoming a director of product or a chief product officer, then you’re required to do things on a bigger scale. You need to be able to cast a vision for not just a team, but a team of teams, or a whole company. I think that’s the difference.”

Hone Your Interpersonal Skills

If you thought interpersonal skills were important as a product manager, get set to take them up yet another notch

As ever with product management, effective interpersonal skills are essential for a successful product leader but for many these can take time to perfect. For Saielle, the process has required work. “They weren’t highly rated at the start of my career and now they’re one of the most fundamental things about the way I work”. To teams, Saielle even explains that “leadership is clarity” because clarity gives people a sense of calm.

Another quality of a product leader is the ability to have hard conversations with your own team and, importantly, with yourself. “You can’t for example just point a finger and say, ‘you’re not cutting it’. You have to look at yourself and scrutinise where you’re not cutting it too,” says Saielle. Some resilience is also needed, as Merissa adds: “It can feel like nearly every conversation is a challenge, depending on the organisation and the way people are communicating with one another. It’s one tough conversation after the next, every day.”

A product leader has to make their team understand what sustained behaviours are expected. Saielle adds: “The biggest thing that helps you develop in your career is focusing on how you align other people to the outcomes you’re working towards. That means caring about those outcomes and caring about those people and doing your best to ensure their mutual success at every stage.”

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In this session, Denise Jacobs shares practical advice and tips to make having difficult conversations easier.

Make the Right Commercial Decisions

Thinking commercial, and making important commercial decisions, comes with the territory

For recruitment professional Chris Mason, director and co-founder of Intelligent People, one of the most important attributes you can demonstrate as a product leader is the ability to make the right commercial decisions. “If you’re a product leader in a smaller business, often the success of the business can flip depending on what you do and say,” he says, “so making the right commercial decisions is absolutely critical.” When Chris and his team are interviewing for these senior roles they will ask for examples of such decisions. “We’ll ask ‘give me an example of one of the most important commercial product decisions you’ve made, and talk us through what you did. What made you make that decision? What led to it? And why did you do it? Did you have to influence anyone along the way? And what was the outcome? And why was it successful or not successful?’.”

Confidently Manage Conflict

Conflict is inevitable. Be prepared to manage it and be a good example to your team

The ability to manage conflict is another attribute that any prospective product leader needs to be able to demonstrate, says Chris. A high-performing product team that’s achieving great commercial outcomes needs to be diverse, and diversity often creates conflict. Chris says: “The ability to manage people, by modelling good behaviour, being able to listen and demonstrate listening is really important. You need to be able to make sure that it’s ‘good conflict’ and a mixture of ideas and a discussion, as opposed to everyone agreeing all the time, because they think the same thing.”

manager handling conflict at work
Being able to listen and demonstrate listening to your team is important (Image: Shutterstock)

As Chris points out, a big global business will look for different traits from its product leaders than a smaller organisation. “With the latter they’re looking for people who are really good at strategy, but who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.” A global business will more likely have a list of competencies and principles that they use to assess candidates. Says Chris: “These will include obsessiveness for the customer, comfort with data and the confidence to challenge. They want examples of the competencies that they’re assessing against as you go through the interview process. And as you become more senior they look for bigger examples.”

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Find a Business Where you can Thrive

A happy and successful career at this level requires a good fit. Find an organisation where you can be your best self

Merissa has some words of caution for prospective product leaders on the hunt for a new role. She found herself looking for a new job last year. “I’ve paid my dues, I’ve run a lot of teams, I’ve worked on lots of different types of products,” she says. “I had a hard time finding a combination of a product that I thought was solving an interesting problem, and an organisation that was really taking a product-led approach.”

She suggests there are two types of organisations that people should look at: big companies where there are product squads running in parallel, and where they need someone at a head of product or VP level in order to run a couple of teams at once, or start-ups and scale-ups where there are either no product people or one mid to senior-level product person. In these companies, at some point, “they’ve realised they’re not getting the traction they want”, says Merissa. “They need a more senior-level product expert to come in so they can pivot from a more feature-focused approach to a product-led approach.” Merissa observes that while the intentions behind this model are good, the problem is that a huge amount of organisational change is needed in order for such senior-level product people to be successful – not just changing how the teams work, but a fundamental change in the mindset of the entire organisation: “That moment when a head of product might come in is often the moment when a company might shift from a top-down or sales-led approach to a more bottom-up product-led approach. That’s a tough shift for executives, especially.” And as a new person coming into an organisation it’s very rare that you’re given sufficient trust and autonomy to see through this scale of change management effectively, she says.

That said, her most recent experience has been very positive. Fundingport was originally looking for a mid-level product person, but came to realise as it interviewed candidates that it needed to hire someone more senior, who could “own the entire product development process, drive our strategy and make sure that we’re building the right thing in the right way”. She adds: “The people that I’m working with now are really open to hearing what I have to say, and they really want to be able to leverage my expertise in the product space. There’s a different level of trust and respect.”

Quick Tips

Before you get back to your day job and start putting these ideas into action, let’s recap with a few quick tips:

  1. You’ll need to think strategically, long into the future, and being good at managing people is a must.
  2. Moving into one of these top tier roles needs to be a conscious decision because you’ll be leaving the day-to-day product work behind and that’s not for everyone.
  3. Be confident in making important commercial product decisions. You’ll need to be able to demonstrate this to hiring managers.
  4. Being a good product leader requires strong soft skills so be prepared to put yours under the microscope.
  5. Be ready to manage conflict effectively because conflict is inevitable.

Further Resources

Recap the Series in Full

If you missed parts 1 or 2 of our Climb the Product Career Ladder series, you can recap them both today or revisit whenever you need to refresh your knowledge.


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