What's your focus during your first 90 days as Head of Product?
Short answer: Focus on strategy, building out the product team, and accelerating the pace of product development to ensure faster learning.
Gib’s note: After 6 months, we’re nearly 7,000 strong. Each week, I answer a few “Ask Gib” questions, drawing from my experience as VP of Product at Netflix and Chief Product Officer at Chegg (the textbook rental and homework help company that went public in 2014). This answer is essay #46!
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What’s your focus during your first 90 days as Head of Product?
Throughout my thirty-year product career, I joined startups with a proof of concept and helped them scale. After 4-5 years, I move on to the next company, which means I have lots of experience as the new product head.
During the first three months, I focus on making sure the product team moves in the right direction and has the right people and resources needed to build products quickly.
Think of the product organization as a cannon. Is it pointed in the right direction? Does it have the right people to load and fire it? Are there enough cannonballs and gunpowder for rapid-fire blasts?
During my first three months, I:
Outline the product strategy
Build the product team, and
Enable high-cadence product development
I work quickly, reminding myself that the company hired me to be a change agent. But there’s a balancing act. If I work too quickly, I’ll get some things wrong. If I act too slowly, I lose my ability to inspire change. Folks expect change when I first arrive but resist it after I have been there a while.
I’m also careful not to apply a playbook from my last job. Every situation requires fresh thinking, and teams are suspicious of “cut & paste” approaches.
Here’s how I navigate the challenge of those first three months.
1) Build a SWAG of the Product Strategy
During my first two weeks, I create a SWAG (Stupid Wild-Ass Guess) of the product strategy. Then I share the strategy in one-on-one meetings with peers, direct reports, and the CEO. The deadline forces me to learn the product, the company, and the industry very quickly, so I spend my first two weeks asking lots of questions.
The SWAG product strategy includes:
Prioritization of Growth, Engagement, and Monetization
Product strategies, along with metrics and tactics, and a
High-level four-quarter rolling roadmap
I develop a product strategy for the overall product but not for each of its swimlanes. Instead, I ask each product leader to articulate their swimlane’s strategy as sometimes their strategy informs mine. After a month or two, I share a more polished version of the product strategy with the entire company and board.
I prioritize the product strategy because there’s lots of leverage in pointing the organization in the right direction. If the product team moves in the wrong direction or lacks focus, it’s a waste of time and resources.
(Note: I wrote a 12-part essay on Medium called, “How to Define Your Product Strategy” if you’d like to learn more.)
2) Build the team
To learn the business and how things work, I spend time with the CEO, my peers, and my direct reports:
With the CEO, I work to understand the company vision and strategy and the results needed for the next round of funding at the desired valuation.
With peers, I discuss how the product team fits into the overall company, identify potential misalignment, and seek to understand how the company allocates resources.
With direct reports, I try to understand each person’s skills and motivations, the details of what’s going well/poorly, and how they feel about their job.
In all conversations, I try to understand the company culture. I ask lots of questions to learn how the company’s values inform people, product, and business decisions.
My main focus is on the product team. Given I join fast-growing startups, the team is often messy. Startups are full of friends, family, and “starters” who may not have the skills required to scale the company. Last, the organizational structure is often ambiguous—folks are unsure about who their boss is.
The most challenging issue is that about half the folks who work for me don’t have the skills required. I focus my efforts first on the folks who work for me — clarifying whether they have the skills or potential— but by the end of three months, I have let folks know whether I will be upgrading their role or not. Sometimes this means I ask them to leave. In other cases, I tell them that I am working to recruit a new boss for them.
Most heads of product procrastinate on these conversations, try to “make do” with what they’ve got, or are overwhelmed by the recruiting requirements. I have learned to address these thorny issues within the first three months to ensure I have the right team by the end of my first year. By the end of month three, I spend one to two days a week recruiting to ensure I have the right team in place by the end of my first year.
In the first few months, I clarify the organizational structure and set up my weekly one-on-ones with my reports. I also set up a weekly product team meeting. The purpose of these meetings is to continue to get to know the individuals in the product organization and anticipate potential fire drills to help address them quickly. Fire drills are the real challenge of your first three months — you have to do the foundational work but handle lots of unanticipated work that comes your way.
3) High cadence output
Innovative companies build things quickly, enabling fast-paced learning. The opposite is typically due to:
lack of focus (hence my initial product strategy work)
lack of resources (why I accelerate hiring)
lack of tools (like data or AB test systems)
lack of management systems (how teams work together, share learnings, and make decisions)
Initially, I work to identify the gaiting resources. I determine who is on the hook to address these issues and make sure they fix them as teams are only as strong as their weakest link.
I spend more than half of my time with the swimlane (product area/pod/squad) that I feel has the highest potential to deliver results. Here’s what I do to help them accelerate their progress.
Work with the product leader to clarify the swimlane’s strategy along with their proxy metrics, and projects.
Encourage the team to think of their projects as hypotheses and to quicken the pace of experimentation in order to learn faster.
Establish a monthly strategy meeting that includes the team’s product, design, engineering, and data leaders. The intent is to encourage the team to think more strategically and to handle execution details in other forums.
Celebrate results and learnings from this swimlane across the product organization to broadcast their skills, behaviors, and outcomes.
My intent? I establish the team as a role model that the other swimlanes can emulate. People don’t like to be told what to do and how to do it. Working shoulder to shoulder with the role model team helps them get to know me and, over time, provides an example other swimlanes can follow.
As the role model team’s throughput and learning increase and they deliver more results, I encourage other leaders to drop in on their monthly strategy meeting. Eventually, these other teams structure their monthly strategy meeting as they learn from the role model team's example.
If I’m lucky, by the end of my first three months, I bring all of the swimlanes together for our first quarterly product strategy meeting. Each team shares their future hypotheses, along with their results and learning. Given that this first meeting has the potential for disaster, I invite the CEO and leaders from other functions to the second quarterly product strategy meeting.
(For more details read, “How To Run a Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting” on Medium, or you can read about my management systems in this previous “Ask Gib” essay.)
This essay is particular to heads of product, but here’s what you can abstract for your first three months of any role:
Ensure you’re heading in the right direction and that the strategy, metrics, and projects against these strategies are clear.
Spend lots of time with the organization's people, ensuring you have the right employees to deliver results.
Focus on developing high-cadence output and eliminate any weak links — lack of tools, systems, or resources.
With luck, you develop the foundation for a great first year during these first three months. As momentum grows, constantly re-articulate the product strategy, upgrade the teams, and then hand the teams a constant flow of “cannonballs” by enabling them to hire the engineers, designers, and data scientists they need to accelerate their pace.
(If you’d like to read/hear more details on how I handled my first year as VP Product at Netflix, I published an “Ask Gib” podcast on this topic a month ago.)
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This is a great complement to Deb Liu's piece on her first 90 days as Ancestry's new CEO: https://debliu.substack.com/p/make-the-first-90-days-count
Great essay that helps me look at my new job with context. Thanks Gib 🙏!