There are likely lots of compelling reasons to hire your next product management leader from outside your company — a fresh take on the product; adding seniority and experience to your leadership team; and/or adding specific experiences your company needs. But, your best VP/Head of Products candidate may already be sitting inside your company, doing great work, and just looking for you to give them a chance to grow into the leader of tomorrow.
Having been a Product Manager myself, worked alongside some great ones, and recruited/lead/hired/managed/grew many product managers over the last 12 years, here are a few simple steps to help you create your playbook for growing your next VP/Head of Products internally.
Step 1. Know Thy Self
As in most cases, it helps to start at the beginning. Take stock of your company and the macro circumstances that would surround and impact the role of VP/Head of Products. Here are a few questions to answer (honestly):
- C-Level — Is your CEO a hands-on, product-oriented person, who will want to maintain ownership of important product decisions? Or, is she/he an enabler, focused on surrounding themselves with great talent and helping them succeed?
- Product Type — Is your product primarily software, hardware, a service, or some combination? Is this focus expected to change? If you build under-the-skin-mounted heart monitors, or online tax software as a service for small businesses, that definitely defines who your company is, and ultimately who you hire.
- Growth — Are you a startup that has just closed a seed round? A growth stage company looking to scale? An established leader in your space, with many successful product launches and iterations? Where your company is in its growth helps identify challenges that a VP/Head of Products would need to face, and resolve.
- Maturity — Do you have repeatable and waste-free ways to manage what goes into a product, ways to incorporate lead customer feedback into your requirements, or methods for making data-driven decisions? Or, do you need your next hire to have organizational/operational experience in building product management processes, and the interest in building them again?
- Existing Team — What kinds of Product Management staff do you have today, and what do they need? A team of senior developers who have transitioned into Product Management, have very different needs than might a group of technical Business Analysts who have increased the scope of their roles over time. Maybe there is no team and this role is a team of 1.
- Path to Here — How did you get to where you are now? Did all product management staff report to a VP Engineering, who had temporary responsibility for the product function? Did your CEO play the role of Head of Product, and now realizes she/he needs a dedicated person in this role? Or did you hire a VP of Product previously, and for whatever reason it didn’t work out? If so, did you hire brainpower and realize you needed horsepower, or vice versa?
- Attractiveness — Are top talent beating down your door for interviews?
Step 2. Confirm Needs
With this information in hand, you can create a solid picture of what you need from your next VP/Head of Products. If, for example, your company is a B2C wearables security software company, has found its ‘product market fit’, is still in early growth phase, with a hands-on CEO who has taken a team of 3 Product Owners to where they are now, and you have found it hard attracting top talent, that is a clear scenario.
Now, you can map what you know to what you need:
- CEO Alignment — If your CEO is hands-on and needs an operational executor, or an enabler and needs someone who is the same, or needs a counterpart to create and drive a vision, your next VP/Head of Products needs to fit in to that gap.
- Product Influence — If your product is a software platform used by developers to create software for other people to use, your next VP/Head of Products needs to be able to influence a primarily technical audience, and have a track record of doing the same, elsewhere.
- Growth Science — If your company is in a growth stage, focused on driving higher average revenue per user, for example, you likely have an inherent need for someone who has (a) done that before, and (b) understands multiple data science approaches to help identify the Metrics that Matter to achieving growth.
- Maturity — If your company needs someone to introduce a limited set of processes in order for the team/product/company to be successful, it’s important the right candidate has done that before, can do it again, and (most importantly) wants to do that again.
- Team Leader — Leading people who lead others is an important job. Knowing, for example, that you have Product Owners and Product Managers from varied backgrounds (Technical, User, Design, Business), paints a clear picture of what you need in their leader. If, on the other hand, you are hiring someone to be a team of 1, then you know the person needs to be able to multitask, to operate strategically with execs while simultaneously living “in the weeds” to ensure the details are covered.
- Known Path — If your company had a VP/Head of Products previously, you should have a fair view of what did and didn’t work. Hopefully you had a chance to conduct a retroactive review of the outgoing leader, and have a good idea as to how to put the next leader in a position to be successful.
- Attractiveness — If your company is working in an area that is super niche, with few people seeking you out, you know that your next VP/Head of Products has to also be a pretty effective cheerleader. Someone who can be out in the community, demonstrating your core values for people to see, and be charismatic enough to draw people into his/her world and (almost) do their own recruiting. If, on the other hand, your company has great brand awareness, with product candidates flocking your way daily, and you have an impressive and diverse product group already, you have a different challenge for your next VP/Head of Products. Having a top notch team means the person in this role must be a great enabler, able to lead equally from the front as they are from the back, and must want to care enough to take the time to find out what motivates each team member.
Now, you can objectively identify how your needs could be met by internal candidates (or not).
Step 3. Evaluating Internal Candidate Readiness
Ideally, your company has done a great job managing and grooming your existing Product Management team (if you have one), and you have a good sense of who on your Product team might be ready to take on new challenges and responsibilities.
If you plot your current Product team members based on their roles and responsibilities to date, and identify what you need in the same way, you now have a visual representation of need vs internal capabilities/readiness (see example below).
With this perspective in hand, you (and your other decision makers) can make an informed decision as to whether or not you can/should/could hire your next VP/Head of Products from within, or, if you should seek out a new hire from outside of your company. See a great piece on What to Look For in Your Next Head of Product.
If the result is an external hire, I would recommend moving to Step 4 anyways and call it Succession Planning or Growth Plans for your existing team. Having this information handy can also help existing team members understand why an external hire was needed, in advance of being asked.
Step 4. Plotting a Growth Path
Using the same growth model, you can now take a few moments to chart a path forward for each of your team members, which you can then discuss with each team member and align their interests accordingly.
Next — since we’re being super pragmatic anyways — we could also plot an Action Plan with aligned career goals that could be tracked in the individual’s performance reviews, OKRs, or whatever your team/company uses to map and measure performance. As a responsible leader, you owe it to your current Product Management team to plot learning paths with and for them, give them chances to succeed in new ways, and foster their growth. You won’t regret it.
I hope everyone can find something to take away from this piece. Please share if you do!