Hiring a strong VP product

In many startups the CEO may initially play the role VP product. At some point the organization and processes need to be professionalized and a VP product will need to be hired in. Many CEOs at this point are tempted to hire a “process person” to drive product management as the CEO feels she understands product and just needs someone to execute her vision. This is often a mistake as the company scales and more is delegated to the VP layer over time. Instead, CEOs should look for a VP product who both understands product management processes as well as has a complementary or similar vision for the product and its road map.

The role of a VP product is to:

1. Drive product strategy, road-mapping, and execution across the organization. Obviously, this is done with the guidance of the CEO who is the final authority.

  • Set product vision and road map. Work with the CEO and other key executives to ensure a robust product vision and road map is set and adhered to.
  • Think strategically and articulate that strategy. The VP product should be able to lay out a compelling product strategy that includes a strong understanding of (i) who your customers really are, (ii) what it means to win in your market, (iii) how to differentiate as a product and company, and (iv) how to build compelling and remarkable products for your customers.
  • Make cross-functional, strategic trade-offs. Product management is about product strategy and prioritization. A great product leader should be able to work with the founders on company strategy and own the product road map. This does not mean the founder/CEO should not ultimately make decisions in this area. Rather, the founder/CEO should be able to delegate strategic product planning and prioritization to the VP product and then bless/modify the outcome of that process.

2. Create and empower a professional product management discipline.

  • Recruit experienced product managers who have overseen multiple stages of the lifecycle of high use products. If your company is in high-growth mode, you want to hire experienced product managers who have shipped products at scale and then managed them through their lifecycle.
  • Represent product management at the executive level. Work well with peers. Product is the central spoke in communicating with, integrating feedback from, and pushing back on design, engineering, sales, marketing, operations, customer support, and other functions. This means product managers need to build deep relationships in each organization and be able to work with many different functions and personality types effectively.
  • Empower PMs in their organization to work effectively and get things done. Help PMs on her team navigate internal politics and stakeholders. The VP product should also clearly define, and get cross-company buy-in on, the roles and responsibilities of PMs and the adoption of simple product processes.
  • Build programs to train and support new PMs. Ensure that your company has proper mentoring and training to support new PMs as you make university hire and internal conversions.

3. Set cross-company product management processes.

  • Develop processes needed to run product development efficiently, prioritize product decisions, and launch products. This includes experience with a multi-functional launch calendar, writing simple product requirement documents (PRDs), and navigating cross-functional input and trade-offs for products. Ensure adoption of these processes by the broader company.

Empowering the VP product

As with all executive hires, as CEO you need to spend time onboarding and empowering the VP product. This may include:

  • Delegate aspects of product strategy and planning to the VP product. Delegation does not mean abdication. Rather, the VP product should work with cross-functional teams to generate a product road map and prioritization that is then blessed/modified by the CEO.
  • Empower and support the VP product. The VP product may implement a set of basic new processes that did not exist before at your company. They may turn over or re-organize a subset of their team just as any new executive would. They may also carve out a stronger role for product management than has existed traditionally at your company. This may cause tension with other influential teams at the company. The VP product will need the CEO’s support to make these changes.
  • Be patient. You have been thinking and working on this company for years. It takes some time to transfer all the knowledge. It will take three months for your VP product to come up to speed on the company, product, key people, processes, etc. It will take another three months for them to start to be valuable. This is true of any senior hire, especially as your organization gets larger. That said, any senior hire should start to get some quick, low-hanging- fruit wins in the first few weeks or months and take some pressure off of the CEO. Strong onboarding is critical to any executive hire’s success.

Once a CEO has seen a “great” product organization and VP product in action, product management tends to become one of the most valued functions in a company.