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Panel Discussion Wrap-up: Product Manager to Product Leader - Mapping the Journey!

While a Product Manager has secured a place among the C-level executives of a company, there’s an air of ambiguity and confusion among Product Managers on getting there. We manage to break some myths and present some facts that would hopefully ensure you have a clear picture of becoming a C-level Product Executive. 

We hosted Sharad Sharma, CPO of Mettl, Rajiv Thondanoor, CPO of, Anurag Jain, CPO & SVP of Domino’s & Gaurav Raheja, CPO of True Blue (Arvind Limited) for a panel discussion as part of the Product Leadership Festival 2020. The discussion was centered around the journey towards becoming a C-level Product Executive and the obstacles hindering Product Leaders from getting there. Here are a few excerpts from this insightful session.

Product Manager to Product Leader: Mapping the journey!


Prof. Pinkesh Shah: Was this (the CPO role) a natural progression as you grow through the ranks, Rajiv? Did you plan for a CPO role? Or was this a specific goal for you? How did this happen? 

Rajiv Thondanoor: It’s partly serendipity. It wasn’t necessarily planned as such. It was a sequence of events and opportunities provided to me in my career. It’s been an incredible journey and I’m extremely grateful to all my previous mentors and managers. I still have a lot to learn though!


Prof. Shah: As a C-level Product Leader, do you think it’s better to be specialized and have a deeper sense of skill set in one zone and then become a cross-functional leader?

Gaurav Raheja: I think it should be a healthy mix of both. You enter the industry with a specialized field and experience the journey of interacting with different teams and understand their problems. It’s important to understand the ecosystem and then broaden your horizon by getting into marketing or Sales. This way you have a better understanding of those functions. 

Prof. Shah: What is the key skill required for any Product Manager to move up to a CPO role?

Sharad Sharma: EQ is a very important skill of a Product Manager as you’re essentially creating products for the customer. Since you’re interacting with people at every step of the way while building the product and delivering it to people, EQ is of utmost importance. If you don’t put yourself in the customer’s shoes, you won’t be able to solve the problem efficiently.

Prof. Shah: What’s the one thing that differentiates a Product Manager and a C-level Product Executive (CPO)?

Anurag Jain: There are a few things that have to come together in the making of a CPO. To keep it simple, envisioning the product, formulating the strategy and then being able to execute it is expected of a C-level Product Executive. Whilst he/she’s at it, it is important to make communications across the board as clear as possible. When everyone understands the product objectives, it becomes that much simpler for them. So rallying the troops and making sure the message goes through the ranks by showing the big picture is what goes into the making of a CPO.

Gaurav: I completely agree with Anurag. Being able to understand the requirements from the consumer’s perspective and then being able to translate this into different functions internally. Being able to bring in synergy in terms of efforts going in is also important. Ability to inspire and motivate is also important because every function is coming from a different mindset and they look up to us for inspiration and motivation. That’s another softer aspect of a Product Leader. 

Prof. Shah: How do you know you’re ready for a C-level role? If you know you’re ready, how do you pitch for this role?

Gaurav: In my case, I was working closely with other functions so I had a fair idea of what problems they faced and the best ways to tackle those problems. Somewhere down the line, the whole system saw me as a suitable candidate for the position. So, I didn’t have to talk to anybody and push myself there. The system would see it if you’re able to get into others’ shoes and understand the problems, you’ll get noticed by the system. 
Rajiv: I agree with Gaurav on this. In some cases, you end up starting your own company and become a CPO/CTO/CEO. At other times, you’ve built a network of people you’ve worked with and they end up recommending you by looking at your abilities and the value you can bring to an organization. You can also go directly and have those tough conversations with the management. 

Sharad: I’d like to add something here. In this case, you’re the product. Something I’ve noticed and done is contributing even when you don’t have the title ‘officially.’ One can already start contributing as a leader before being offered the role. Even while we’re hiring Product Managers, we’re always on the lookout for proactive individuals who can add more value to the company than what is expected out of them. Eventually, you will get noticed by the organization. 

Prof. Shah: Do you think prior experience in product management is needed to become a CPO? Or being a functional leader in Engineering or Project Management or Sales & Marketing is enough to become a CPO?

Anurag: I’ve been in Product Management for the last 10 years or so and my humble belief is that if you want to lead a team that builds customer-centric products, then you have to dirty your hands. Prioritizing and taking tough decisions come naturally to a CPO only when he/she has prior experience. 

Rajiv: I’m with Anurag on this. You know what to do only when you have experience in the domain. A big chunk of leadership is experiences you’ve gained over time. You use this experience to circumvent obstacles while you’re at the helm. So, it’s very critical to have spent a few years in the role. 

Gaurav: While it’s always better to come with a Product Management background, I don’t see a limitation when you don’t have that background. I came from a design background and being able to come across as a dependable personality gets you there. With COVID coming in, it’s extremely crucial to adapt quickly to changes.

Sharad: I feel it depends a lot on the industry you’re in. For a majority of the roles, I’d highly recommend you to have experience as a Product Manager so that you appreciate the journey like Anurag and Rajiv mentioned. I also agree with Gaurav because we see engineering students starting up with no experience at all. Are they not successful as CEOs and CPOs? In early-stage startups, you don’t even have a CPO role. So, they’re doing everything from developing a product, marketing it and selling it. Hence, it largely depends upon the industry you’re getting into.

Thank you Rajiv, Gaurav, Anurag and Sharad for sharing your valuable insights on the journey towards becoming a C-level Product Executive. We have come to understand that a role in Product Management is a healthy admixture of Leadership, Strategy, Effective Communication and of course, Customer Obsession. 

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