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❓ Product Executive: What's the job really like?
A peak behind the curtain at key experiences that define my job
👋 Adam here! This week’s post is centered around these questions:
From the curious: What does a product executive do, exactly?
From new executives: What should I expect out of this job?
From aspiring product leaders: Do I ever want a job like yours?
I explain the seminal experiences that define being a Product Executive and how that’s different from Product Leader roles.
👋 Mind The Beet: Two working parents (both product leaders in tech) discuss our journey with career, parenting, and life. We publish every Sunday. Subscribing is free.
The Levels of a Career In Product
Back in June, I introduced a framework for how I think about a career in product management:
I went on to discuss tips for the most important career transition: From Product Manager to Product Leader. It is now our most popular post on Mind The Beet!
Let’s continue down the career journey and discuss that next phase: Product Executive. As a reminder, here is how I defined the Product Executive role:
Product Executive: Your job becomes empowering very senior product leaders to do their best work. Building culture and new multi-org coalitions are a primary focus. Executive relationships, brokering new x-team/x-functional solutions to unarticulated needs, and securing funding are part of the day job. Names for this include Chief Product Officer, VP of Product, Director of Product, and Partner GPM and often they are M3 or higher roles (i.e. managers of managers of managers). This is generally between 2%-5% of a PM team. Many people reflect the job feels less like building product anymore (“a lot less time playing with Lego blocks”) and more about creating systems of people.
At Microsoft, I define Product Executive as the first stage of Partner (Level 68), although many L67 roles can have a large product exec component them. At Google and Amazon, it’s somewhere between L8/L10. This is a somewhat arbitrary definition and perhaps using the term “executive” inflates the position a bit, but I’ll ask for some grace here as I try to define some inflection point that is often about owning a portfolio of products with multiple layers of management rather than a single product owner with a direct team.
I was promoted to Partner five years ago and was recently promoted to the third stage of product executive (VP of PM). So about 30% of my career has been in the product executive gig. How I got here is a topic for another post - entry into these jobs requires a lot of luck and being in the right place at the right time. Remembering how fortunate I’ve been to even have this opportunity in the first place keeps me grounded and drives my curiosity to uncover the truth about the role (and share the learnings as broadly as I can).
Product Executive: The Most Common Experiences
Here are the key experiences that shape a Product Executive’s role, with some tips and advice mixed in. All of these experiences are either new or dramatically different than Product Leader roles, and I’ll explain why.
This list also functions as a good “here’s what to expect in your first year in this role” if you find yourself a product executive for the first time.
🛣️ The company trusts you to define your own job.
This is what I tell people the definition of “Partner” at Microsoft means: You are capable of discovering the highest value ways of spending your own time to drive differentiated impact. Before, in your previous role, you had a lot of autonomy as well - but often you were working on the frontline and the urgent tasks often defined your time. In your new role, you’ve delegated the mission-critical, freeing you up to go on full-time quests of your choosing. We promote to Partner when we are confident that you have the intuition and listening signals to choose good quests for yourself. And you’ve got to foster the self-confidence to be comfortable with the fact that “the trains will still run” without you. Your main now job is to build new stations or connect to partner rail lines.
In my own career, fixing a relationship with a partner team that’s gotten stuck, prioritizing the 18-24 month vision over the current quarter’s needs, going deep on a process issue, or evangelizing our team’s mission more are all examples of “important but not urgent” quests that I’ve constructed for myself. Getting feedback from my peers and my own team on where to spend time has been critical.
📈 You optimize for future growth, even when uncomfortable.
To paraphrase the famous Serenity prayer by Reinhold Neibuhr, here is a prayer that defines the roles of a Product Executive:
Give me patience when the current experts should make the call.
Give me strength to chart new courses when patterns are shifting.
Give me wisdom to know the difference.
Your job is to empower senior leaders; they should be making most of the decisions. Their expertise depth is an advantage, although it carries with it risks of Innovator’s Dilemma and tunnel vision. That’s where you come in: you spent more time worrying about growth, the future, and emerging patterns given your altitude. This is the most common type of entropy you’ll inject into the team: prioritizing not the next obvious step that today’s customers asked for but instead the path to long-term growth (in customers, headcount, revenue, industry norms).
In my own career, I’ve used my curiosity to develop the systems and signals that give me a preview of emerging growth engines that I can then synthesize to my team: Product executive briefings, talking to startups, reviews across products that give me a broader perspective, and relationship building with other parts of the company are examples.
🐠 Welcome to the fishbowl!
Being a role model is a required part of the job as a Product Executive. Many describe this as being “in the fishbowl” - people are always watching you and the implicit signals you send. I remember vividly early in my time as a product executive when I realized how the room was watching my body language for a reaction to a contentious topic. I was giving a signal I didn’t even know I had.
Beyond body language, scale is a critical factor here. Whether it’s using LinkedIn, Twitter, Substack, or internal social networks like Yammer, figuring out a way where you can share your philosophy, strategy, and thoughts in a broadly consumable way is now a required part of the job.
Furthermore, creating a culture of inclusion is an important part of being a product executive in today’s tech world. Tech’s impact is not benign and companies with trillion-dollar market caps are so big that we must ensure everyone can benefit from their economic engines. The concepts of allyship & covering, why diversity is important to you personally and your business, and how you are taking concrete steps to invest in D&I: Your job now is to be able to talk to large audiences publicly about these efforts.
🏁 You are the voice of impact mindset over execution thinking.
This is the most classic disconnect in product-making conversations:
Team: Look how hard it was to improve X by Y.
Executive: That’s impressive, but look how far away Y is from the business goal that customers and stakeholders would define as success.
You’ll need to maintain empathy for execution difficulty, but your primary role is to drive impact mindset thinking into the organization. Where do we NEED to be? Not how FAR can we go? The final plan is a great merger of both types of thinking, but your role is to be a counterweight sitting on the impact end of the spectrum.
🥁 Your relationship with operations, business rhythms, and budgets changes.
You’ll evolve from being someone who needs to use business rhythms to drive closure to now someone whom operations are designed around. It’s a very new skill to work with an increasing number of operations, business administration, and staff roles. Efficiency, judgment on when to push vs. accept what the system provides, and how to motivate those with roles very different than your own are key skills. It can be incredibly rewarding to see the scale of impact and the pride in operational details from people who invest their careers in operations roles. I am a kindred spirit to the highly structured thinking required for success here and I use that passion to forge relationships and show authentic appreciation.
What’s more, a greater percentage of your role is interacting with budgets and resource allocation. It’s all a zero-sum game. Delivering hard news, making unpopular tradeoffs, and justifying expenses come with the territory. It’s common for many product executives to shield their team from these distractions and carry the burden themselves.
💔 You resolve the most challenging disagreements.
There is a saying that nothing easy ever gets to the desk of the U.S. President. If it was easy, it would have been solved by someone already. In your own life, this will become increasingly more true the higher up in the organization you go. Often you get left with the “intractables” as a Product Executive: all the stuff that has no good solution.
I struggle with this part of the job. It’s so hard to figure out where “good enough” is on problems that have no good solutions - rarely is there a positive feedback cycle that validates my work. Often times I need help from other executives but it’s hard to do so without complaining. And it’s easy to be so busy that I ignore the tough problems. But leaning in here is part of my job. In fact, post sabbatical this year, I’ve really recommitted to ensuring a good portion of my job is solving the toughest problems so my team doesn’t have to slog through mediocre conditions. I asked my team and wrote down examples of where the status quo wasn’t helping and created a list of “things we wish were true about the world.” It’s been the seed of my post-sabbatical quest list.
⚡ Your most precious resource is energy, not time.
Early in your career, you could get more done by putting in more hours. The job scaled that way and more repetitions meant more learning. This is no longer true as a product executive. The intractable problems, the scaled communications, the need to be a role model: all of these don’t get better if you put in more hours to solving them. Instead, they are a burden you carry for the team that requires judgment, grit, and optimism to solve. Finding the sustainable mental energy to tackle them is a key unlock for a product executive.
My Strengths and Weaknesses
I thought it might be a good insight into my day-to-day if I shared my own personal assessment of when I’m at my best and where I struggle. I hope it gives insight into the type of role this is.
When I’m at my best as a product executive, I find myself…
Providing a calm presence and focusing on the long term. Never quick to anger.
Being a nurturer, leading with transparency and openness and a desire to help others grow
Recognizing that setting context is my superpower - explaining the path to growth and the reasons behind our strategy.
Functioning as a polite yet firm bar raiser, especially on desired business and customer impact.
Embracing smart risk-taking - explaining how we need a lot of safe bets but also require some high-risk/high-rewards bets in our portfolio, too.
When I’m not at my best as a product executive, I need to watch out for when I find myself…
Expressing too much cynicism and frustration and accepting that in others
Intellectualizing problems too much
Doing what’s easy instead of solving the complex problems
Optimizing for consensus instead of making difficult tradeoffs
Focusing on politics instead of being a maker/creator.
If you are new to the Product Executive role, try writing the same 2x5 - given the visible nature of the role, you will be a role model and your strengths and weaknesses will be on display. Better for you to crystalize them first than those around you.
Wrapping Up: Finding Balance
One thing you may be asking: Do you actually build product anymore, Adam? The answer is an emphatic yes! It’s different than as a product manager or product leader, but I still find myself immersed every day in the tradeoff conversations, customer empathy wallows, and decisions that go into making great product. I still feel like I get to play with Legos every day and it’s a great feeling.
But that’s not the only part of the job anymore, as I hope this post shows. I emphasized all the other aspects of the job in this post to give you a sense of the role beyond product making because I think this is what people fear most when they take roles like this. And it’s true, if I only centered my self-identify on creating products - on building Legos - I’d fail to thrive in the role.
For me this wasn’t too big of a jump - building bridges and nurturing others has always been a part of my core personality. I remember in 12th grade my Yearbook teacher was giving out end-of-year awards and she gave me a bottle of Elmer’s Glue. She said more than others I helped bridge divides between different parts of the staff and kept teams together. In many ways, that represents the role I’m in today: I love setting context and finding the gaps between different people’s perspectives and closing them. Being able to relate this part of the job back to early-age strengths has given me some perspective and confidence.
The key is to find the balance between it all: maintain that joy of being a creator, find purpose in nurturing others, and gain mastery at building systems of people so we all achieve more than we could alone.