5 Ways to Become a Respected Product Leader in the C-Suite

By Jörg Malang February 17, 2015

Pragmatic Marketer Volume 12 Issue 1

What does it take for ambitious product leaders to become executives? Here are five things product team members can do to improve their odds of joining the C-suite.

1.  Leave Your Comfort Zone

Depending on your background, your comfort zone might be engineering, design or something else. But to be taken seriously, you must be able to speak the language of executives.

When I was chief product officer at XING AG, I often felt uncomfortable when peers asked me to push business topics. I refused to talk about recruiting business or advertising because I believed I wouldn´t add enough value to the conversations. Every time the group of senior executives discussed those topics, I remained quiet. I only spoke up when the discussion focused on product and product strategy.

Later, I realized that my thoughts about business weren’t so bad. By focusing solely on my function, I appeared less senior than I was and limited my sphere of influence. Avoid making the mistake I did; share your thoughts.

2.  Care About Strategy

Challenge your company to plan for the future. If there isn’t any planning yet, start working on it. Lead the process. Don’t let go. In one of my previous companies, I was too willing to accept what was available. I focused on driving my product and managing my 50-person team. I missed an opportunity to drive strategic thinking and set the agenda for the overall company.

Only after a senior corporate director came on board did I realize the gaps in strategy that I had ignored. By then, I’d lost valuable time and my product strategy no longer fit into the larger context. It became impossible to explain how our product could serve the company’s needs. Find out your company’s plans and if none exist, create some.

3.  Sell the Value that You Add

You do yourself a disservice when you fail to understand the value you bring to your job. I sold myself short on a consultancy project because I thought I wasn’t mainstream enough. During the final presentation of my results, instead of talking about the points I truly believed in, I tried to translate my findings into business-speak. The result was a diluted message that left me disappointed in my delivery.

During the final feedback meeting, my client explained that his company had hired me because I wasn’t mainstream. He helped me realize that I’d made a mistake trying to act like other consultants instead of focusing on my unconventional thinking and personal background. The same is true in how we present ourselves at work.

4.  Stay Focused on Your Customers

A good CEO always appreciates hearing customer insights so it’s important to view everything you do as a service to your customers, and position yourself as the voice of your users. When I worked at Nokia we debated a lot around product, but without really any focus on our users. When a new product manager—who grounded her work in user interviews—shared her insights during a presentation, that’s who earned the vice president’s respect. You can do the same.

5.  Deliver More than Data

It’s important to do things that are tangible and experiential, not just talk in data points. For example, an employee wanted to reduce the number of different types of gloves in use at his company. He tried various methods and reports without success. But when he placed the different glove models on a boardroom table, he was able to break through to the executives. They saw the gloves pile up and immediately approved the cost-cutting proposal. Remember to share the story, not just the data.

Entering the executive ranks requires you to shift your perspective, and not everyone is up for that. In fact, it’s more than okay to continue focusing on delivering great products. But if you are aiming for the C-suite, these five tips can help you get there.

Categories: Strategy Leadership Roles & Activities
Jörg Malang

Jörg Malang

Jörg Malang is a senior internet executive with a special focus on innovation and product strategy in the context of implementing business strategy. He is chief product officer at hotel.de AG in Nuremberg, Germany. Jörg holds an Executive MBA from HEC School of Management/HEC Paris. Follow Jörg on Twitter at @ProdMgmt_EMBA.

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