Dear Gib: How do you best prepare for Head of Product/Product Director roles?

Short answer: Understand the product and leadership skills required to do the job and how these skills develop as you climb the leadership ladder.

Great question— your question had 92 upvotes! I assume your question is, “In the long-term, how do you develop the product and leadership skills required to become a head of product?”

Below, I:

  • Describe both the product and leadership skills required of a product leader.

  • Outline the leadership stages as product leaders advance their careers.

  • Map the product and leadership skills to each of the above stages.

Last, I highlight the most important skills required as you grow from individual contributor to manager, then to a VP-level leadership role, along with suggestions on how you can practice these skills today, regardless of your current role.

The Product & Leadership Skills of a Product Leader

I have interviewed hundreds of product leaders, and most of my interviews begin by asking candidates how they force rank their skills from the list below.  There’s no right or wrong answer-- I try to tease out the candidate’s top 2-3 skills to see if there’s a fit for the position I seek to fill. (Below, I will replicate a few slides from my “Hacking Your Product Leader Career” talk.)

Two points to amplify:

  • “Light process to deliver results” means you enable designers, engineers, data scientists, etc., to work together to deliver results without being overly prescriptive. You marshall the best ideas from the team.

  • Consumer science is all about fast-paced experimentation. This is where consumer empathy lives, too.

The next set of leadership skills outline what I expect from all leaders, whether they are in the product, marketing, finance, or technology organization:

Three notes here:

  • For leaders, I redefine “Management” from managing a project to recruiting and developing a team. 

  • “Strategic thinking” means outlining product strategies that “delight customers in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways.” Margin means profits.

  • I purposely balance “Results-oriented” skills against the softer issues of “Culture.”  I highlight the importance of culture to develop the skills and behaviors required to drive great decision-making by individuals without mind-numbing process.

As with the first set of skills, none of these skills is more or less important than another. It depends on the requirements of the specific product leadership role.

Product Leadership Stages

Product leaders love to build stuff.  And the career path climbs a ladder that typically looks like this. It’s best to read this list from bottom to top:

  • Build an industry

  • Build a company

  • Build an organization

  • Build a “hit.”

  • Build something

Below is more detail on each stage. I present this in a “flipped” orientation so you can read it the way your career will likely progress:

  • Build something. You demonstrate the ability to get designers, engineers, and data scientists to work together to build something, no matter how small the project.

  • Build a “hit.” You demonstrate a degree of mastery— you build something great.

  • Build an organization. You assemble teams to build things that have a large impact. This is often a director or VP-level role.

  • Build a company. This is likely a VP-level or Head of Product role. You need to help team members across departments to come together to form one company.

  • Build an industry. Rarely do product leaders reach this stage, but, as an example, I contributed to building the streaming industry.

Combining the Two Models

Below I map the product and leadership skills onto the rungs of the career ladder:

This exercise highlights the key skills that a product leader needs to develop to become an effective Director-level/Head of Product:

  • Leadership: The ability to communicate an inspired vision of the future, plus build cross-functional leadership across departments and organizations.

  • Strategy: The ability to craft a product strategy, outlining how you will delight customers in hard to copy, margin-enhancing ways.

  • Hiring: The ability to recruit and evaluate talent and to help these employees advance their own careers.

  • Culture: Be “on culture” at your company and understand its role in helping employees make great decisions without heavy-handed processes. 

To prepare for Head of Product roles, find ways to practice the four skills above.

Practicing the skills

The good news: You will likely have an opportunity to manage your own “swimlane” -- a part of the overall organization.  In this role, work to:

  • Craft a clear vision of the future,

  • Outline a clear strategy with accompanying metrics, tactics, and rolling four-quarter roadmap,

  • Find ways to engage in the hiring process for your own or other teams. 

Last, do your best to become a “culture carrier,” embodying the skills and beliefs of your company’s culture to help its values become more than a laminated document at the water-cooler.  

I hope you found this essay helpful. If you’d like, you can subscribe to my newsletter so that you’ll never miss an answer— I answer one question each business day:

Best,

Gib

Gibson Biddle

gibsonbiddle.com

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