Product Professional to CEO

Google recently promoted Sundar Pichai to the role of CEO. Naturally, this received a lot of press with many articles talking about Pichai’s journey from a middle class family background in India, his education at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Stanford and Wharton, and working at McKinsey and Google. No doubt, it is a remarkable story of progress. Since Pichai is an India-born CEO, it generated even more interest.

The journey that I find more interesting, however, is not from one place to another, or one highly reputed institution to another, leading to one highly coveted job to another. Rather, it is the journey from a product professional to CEO. Pichai started his career at Google in product management with responsibility for the Google Toolbar product.

There are others who have had a similar journey.

Satya Nadella -> engineer at Sun -> engineering management and executive roles at Microsoft -> CEO

Shantanu Narayen -> Apple -> director of products at Silicon Graphics -> sold his startup to Adobe -> CEO

Marissa Mayer -> engineer at Google -> senior management roles at Google -> CEO at Yahoo

And lest we think that this is only to be expected in technology companies, Indra Nooyi started her career as a product manager at Johnson & Johnson, got increasing responsibilities at Pepsi, before becoming CEO. These are only a handful of examples in the popular press. There are similar stories of people starting their careers as product professionals (engineers and product managers) who have gone on to become CEOs.

CEO of the Product

It is often said that the product manager is the CEO of the product, and there are some who cynically disagree by pointing out that often times a product manager has no real authority or P&L ownership to make CEO-like decisions.

IMHO, the debate about whether the product manager is CEO of the product or not is actually irrelevant.tweetbutton

If you think like you are the CEO of your product, chances are good that you may end up having an upward and accelerated career graph and may even become a CEO.

If you argue about it, more than likely you won’t. You will wait to be promoted to a role that gives you the authority and ownership that you have so waited for, but then again you may not.

What if I am not a Product Manager?

You don’t have to be a product manager. You may be a great engineer, writing some killer code. Or you may be a great QA professional, testing that great engineer’s code. When I worked at McAfee, the CTO was someone who had started his career as a QA manager.  He is now CEO of a company.

The question to ask is how can you become a product leader. You might be in any function at any level in the org chart. It should not stop you from thinking and behaving like a product leader.

What does it mean to be a Product Leader?

Companies typically hire people for specific skills and specific job descriptions. A Product Leader is not a title, it is not a job opening that is advertised, that you apply for and get hired as. “Product Leadership” is a mindset. It is a way of thinking that influences your actions and behaviors. When you become a product leader, other people (hint: senior management and executives) automatically start noticing you. Why? Because you make a difference to the business and the company, no matter where you sit in the org chart.

So where do you start?

The question to ask yourself is – What do you care about?

Is it about the next fire that you need to fight? Or the politics in the organization? Or your specific quarterly MBOs? Or the next pay raise and bonus? Or what you need to do to get promoted?

OR

Do you care about how successful your product is? Or what’s needed to make it successful? Do you care to know more about your customers, why they use your product, and how satisfied they are? Do you care not just about how your product is built, but about how it is marketed, sold and supported?

Your actions and behaviors will reflect the things you care about. You will ask better questions, because you care about more than just your immediate responsibilities. You will seek accountability and responsibility, because you care about more than just your quarterly MBOs.

Product Leadership in Action

I know a product manager who had newly joined a company. Before long she asked questions about an overall discounting trend in an email to her director of product management. That email got forwarded to a senior VP, who forwarded to the CTO, who forwarded to the President of the company, who then sent it around to the Executive VP of Sales, who in turn called the product manager to talk about it. She was not merely a product manager, she was a product leader.

An engineering manager happened to be on a conference call with support executives and the customer’s CISO and his staff. It was a tense call with a long standing issue being discussed, not related to the engineer’s product. The customer made it clear that they expected an apology on the call. When there was a prolonged silence, the engineering manager spoke up and apologized on behalf of the company. After the call was over, the executive of support called to thank him. At that moment, he was not an engineering manager, but he was a product leader.

Not surprisingly, these individuals got promoted faster than their peers, because they were recognized and seen as product leaders, as people who cared about more than just their job.

Make it Easy for Your Boss

As I say to the participants in our workshops and programs at the Institute of Product Leadership:

“Behave today as if you are already in the next role” tweetbutton

Make it easy for your boss to promote you.

Become a product leader, no matter where you are on the org chart.tweetbutton

What do you think?

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