How Product Leaders Can Earn Their Seat at the Executive Table
Tommi Forsström is the VP of Product at Teachable. He’s been on a journey from a university math major in 1999 through engineering and product to executive roles in the software industry, completely unsure of where this all leads. Passionate about growing product people into the cross-functional leaders they don't know they are yet.
He recently spoke at a Product That Count hosted webinar and discussed how to earn and keep your seat around the executive table as a product person. He shared his experiences —both 1st person and observed through his time in consulting—on the dos and don'ts of not only getting to the top of the ladder but also thriving in it with your new teammates that don't give two hoots about your velocities, engagement metrics or scrum processes.
Teachable VP of Product, Tommi Forsström, had a lot of valuable wisdom to share with product leaders who have the ambition to take their careers to the next level. He reminded product leaders that the skills that powered them to that point in their careers will still be their superpowers. However, a paradigm shift and new language will be required to earn and keep a seat at the exec table.
On why product leaders earning a seat at the executive table is important
Who wouldn’t be all ears for a webinar after hearing this call to action from Tommi Forsström?
“The ulterior motive, the real takeaway that I’m hoping to have, like a little call to action here is that in order for our craft, to keep maturing and to keep being a force of change, and to keep being a fundamental thing, you need to build great products in the world. We need you, again, whatever level you’re at right now. I really need you to take an interest in cultivating those skills you’re going to need once you reach that, that level in which you know, the door to the executive chamber opens to you and I want you to do it because I want you to consider the future generations of product. And I want you to understand that us getting good enough to be leaders and executives paves the way for a lot, a lot of cool product innovation in the future.”
One the eye-opening moment of what it takes for a product leader to by heard by executives
Product leaders need to see beyond their own roles to be heard by the executive team.
“I got a really cool opportunity to start working with our head of Biz Dev, building out a strategy for Shutterstock’s API products. What’s now known as their platform services. And that person and I worked super close together for four months, five months. Building a business plan, basically as if we’re two co-founders.
That relationship was one of the most pivotal moments in my career because I was able to start seeing the other piece of the puzzle that I had been lacking in all my talk about like execution process or structure, all that stuff. I’d completely forgotten that there’s a connection that needs to be made with the business side of things. I still didn’t realize that that was the missing piece.
But I finally started getting into the financial models with this person, projecting revenues, production costs, building headcount, ramp-ups, and all that kind of stuff. I saw the difference when we presented to people and we had this angle to our work. I could see them taking an interest. We presented to the executives, the board and they were all like, this is dope. This is great.”
On the transition from the product team to the executive level
Product leaders come from many different backgrounds, but the path from there to the executive table is generally consistent.
“You start being a PM, maybe you become a Senior PM. You get a little bit more ground to cover and so forth. Become Director, you get to start managing people but you’re still managing product managers. You’re still managing the art and the craft of product. VP, still the same thing. You trade off on your product expertise. You’re a badass product person. That’s your thing.
Then you find yourself on the executive team and suddenly all that just doesn’t work. Your team is now people who don’t give two craps about the product stuff. The people you’re somewhat directly accountable to is a board and a bunch of investors. They don’t give two craps about your sprints. None of the velocity, the user research insights, none of that matters at all. The paradigm shift that has to happen is up until now you’ve majored in product. You have to stop majoring in product. You’re now majoring in business, minor in product.”
Why product leaders belong at the executive table
The skills of great product leaders are important and under-represented at the executive table.
“The product person has grinded it out in the trenches, built products, paid their dues. They know how to work with engineers. Know how to work with design. They know how to execute, and they’re, most importantly. connected to the customer and they know all this stuff very well.
For people like us to learn what it takes to be on the leadership team is much, much easier than for somebody who just comes at it from the world of frameworks and the world of business paradigms, learning what it takes to build product. Ultimately, all this stuff that we know and hold dear is super important. The role of a CPO or kind of the product-centric executive team member is really to be a translation layer between two worlds.”