From PM to CPO - Your Blueprint to Product C-Suite

The old adage ‘be careful for what you wish for’ can often apply to career moves or aspirations. Many product managers see moving to VP Product, Head of Product or even CPO a natural career progression. However the transition to C-suite might not be for everyone. With this seemingly aspirational move comes a new set of responsibilities but also the removal of the day to day that once inspired you as a PM. Whilst I cover some ground here I would certainly advise doing your research. Reach out to senior leaders or execs and start to engage in product communities to get a sense of what you’re letting yourself into.

I have not had a traditional product career and therefore not a usual transition to C-Suite. I was involved in multiple startups, founded my own agency and naturally moved into various CPO roles. What did surprise me however was that I had not anticipated how much I would enjoy the people side of a CPO role. Leading teams, mentoring people and spending a lot of time ‘listening’ has been one of the most rewarding parts of being a CPO.

Like any career progression the transition requires a shift in mindset, skillset, and leadership style. There are often highs and lows of this career progression, some of which I’ll tackle here.

The Starting Point: The Role of a Product Manager

As a Product Manager, your primary focus is on the product itself. You are responsible for understanding customer needs, prioritising features, working closely with engineering teams, and ensuring that the product delivers value. This role is the foundation of your product expertise and is crucial for your future success as a CPO. One thing to bear in mind is that you must be passionate about product in general to be an effective product leader. Think about what running product teams might entail, is this something that you’re truly engaged with and inspires you? If not then thinking about a more senior role may just be a way out of your current industry.

The Transition: Expanding Your Horizons

The transition from PM to CPO involves a significant expansion of your responsibilities. As a CPO, you are no longer solely focused on the product. Instead, you are tasked with aligning product strategy with overall business goals, leading cross-functional teams, and making high-stakes decisions that impact the entire organisation. I always suggest spending a good tenure as a PM within various different types of organisations – from a startup right through to an agency or even Apple, Google, Amazon, etc. You’ll be able to get a great foundation across multiple different work cultures as well as experience in ways of working.

Success Story – Satya Nadella at Microsoft

Satya Nadella’s journey at Microsoft is a testament to the potential for growth within a company. Nadella started in product roles and eventually became the CEO of Microsoft, guiding the company through significant transformations. His product-focused background provided him with the insights needed to steer Microsoft towards cloud computing, which has been a major success for the company.

Challenges Faced by Marissa Mayer at Yahoo

Marissa Mayer’s tenure as CEO of Yahoo highlights the challenges of stepping into a C-suite role from a product background. Despite her previous success at Google, Mayer faced numerous obstacles at Yahoo, including declining revenues and competition. Her experience underscores the importance of understanding the broader business environment and being adaptable to market changes.

Key Skills for a CPO

1. Strategic Vision: As a CPO, you must have a clear vision for where the product needs to go and how it aligns with the company’s long-term goals. This involves market analysis, competitive intelligence, and foresight. But it also means you’ll have to be good at SELLING the vision. You can no longer simply present data and analytics, you’ll have to learn the art of storytelling because the vision may be quite a long way off. By curating a story for your product vision you can better align your teams. Make sure you’re a dab hand at presentations too!

2. Leadership: Leading large, diverse teams requires strong leadership skills. You must inspire and motivate your team, create a collaborative environment, and manage conflicts effectively. Spend time reading books on leadership. Think about are you cut out for it? Can you handle dealing with many different personality types and remain calm in a more highly pressured environment than that of the PM.

3. Cross-Functional Collaboration: Working closely with other departments such as marketing, sales, and finance is crucial. Understanding their needs and constraints allows for better alignment and execution of the product strategy. Most PMs should already be doing this well – the role of the PM has evolved so much that your commercial head should already be at ease with company business strategy as well as other departments in your day to day work.

4. Decision-Making: High-stakes decisions are a daily part of a CPO’s role. This requires a balance of data-driven insights and intuition, honed through experience. There’s no easy way to ‘teach’ this – by moving first to a senior PM role or VP Product you can gain valuable experience in increasing your decision-making responsibilities.

The Rise of Spotify’s Gustav Söderström

Gustav Söderström, previously Spotify’s Chief R&D Officer, illustrates the importance of strategic vision and leadership. Starting as a PM, Söderström’s innovative approaches to product development and his ability to align product strategy with Spotify’s growth objectives have been pivotal in the company’s success. His journey shows the impact of strong leadership and strategic foresight.

Embracing the Challenges

The path to the CPO role is fraught with challenges, but it is also filled with opportunities for those who are prepared. Embrace continuous learning, seek mentorship, and be open to feedback. The ability to adapt and grow is essential.