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How to Onboard a New VP of Product

December 8, 2021   By Kent McDonald

There are a few trends intersecting right now that are driving the increase of new people in a VP of Product role.

One trend driving people to move into a completely new VP of Product role is the increase in digital transformation and product transformations where organizations change their way of working from project-based to product-based. These organizations realize that in order for their product transformation to be successful, they need to have someone in the executive ranks leading the transformation. That person typically holds the VP of Product or similar executive Product Leader title. (Chief Product Officer or Head of Product).

Another trend causing new people to enter existing VP of Product roles is the “great resignation”. The last couple of years have driven people to reevaluate their lives and whether they are really doing what they wanted to do when they grew up. This means that some people left their VP of Product jobs for what seemed like greener pastures. Others decided they wanted to move up into an executive product leadership position or try a position at a different company.

Regardless of why someone is new in a VP of Product role, you want to make sure that the new person is set up for success, The foundation for success starts with how that VP of product is onboarded into their new organization.

To help those new VPs of Product get started, we wanted to take a look at how to onboard a new VP of Product. As part of that exploration, this article covers:

  • What should you expect from the new VP of Product?
  • What should the new VP of Product do in the first 90 days?
  • What should other executives do to prepare their organization for a new VP of Product?
  • Do classic HR onboarding processes work in today’s remote-first work environment?

What should you expect from the new VP of Product?

When formulating expectations for a new VP of Product, it’s a good idea to have different expectations for the first few months compared to when they are fully acclimated to the organization.

Expectations for the first three months

If you’re starting a new tenure as a VP of Product, you can’t expect to make earth-shattering changes right away. You’ll need some time to learn about your organization, your products, and your customers. In fact, your first 2 to 3 months may be the only time during your tenure that you can dedicate 100% to learning.

It’s not just you. Carolyn Dewar and Scott Keller from McKinsey note that “most new leaders—92 percent of external hires and 72 percent of internal hires—take far more than 90 days to get up to full speed. Many executives admit it took them at least six months to achieve real impact (62 percent for external, 25 percent for internal hires).”

Even though you’re focused on learning you still can use this time to get some quick wins based on things you learn as you’re finding out about your organization, your product, and your customers. These small wins may often be things that strengthen relationships with your peers.

Ongoing expectations

Once you have your feet underneath you in your new role, you can expect to fulfill the four key responsibilities that Rich Mironov, a 20+ year product management veteran identified:

  • Grow and support a team of product managers
  • Drive product strategy, tooling, and processes
  • Build cross-functional collaboration and trust
  • Align with their executive peers on strategies and goals.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these responsibilities.

Grow and support a team of product managers

As a product leader, your product is your team of product managers. As a result, you need to think about how many product managers you need and how you align those product managers with the rest of the organization. Do you align Product managers to specific products, segments, or markets?

Once you figure out how many product managers you need and how to structure your team you need to figure out how you can support and mentor those product managers. You need to provide air cover for your team. In order to be effective at providing air cover, you need strong relationships with their peers – the other executives and the CSuite.

So one expectation of a VP of Product is that you’ve coached and led product managers before.

Drive product strategy, tooling, processes

You’re the champion of a product way of thinking at your company, and that shows up through ensuring that your organization has a strong product strategy. You don’t have to create that product strategy in isolation, in fact, you shouldn’t. You do need to make sure that the best minds in the company work together on a product strategy that supports the organization’s outcomes. 

You also need to make sure that the organization has access to tools and follows processes that support an effective product-based approach. These tools and processes can include:

  • How you create and communicate roadmaps
  • How the product teams manage their work
  • How product teams engage in discovery and research
  • How you describe the customer problems you want to solve.

In other words, you know what product management does, and “sell” that to the rest of the organization.

With all of that in mind, as a VP of Product, you need to have a great deal of experience in the art and science of product management. That generally means that you have done product management before.

Build cross-functional collaboration and trust

Just like product managers sit at the intersection of a few different venn diagrams the VP of Product sits at the intersection of several different parts of your organization such as engineering, sales, marketing, and customer support.

As a result, you play a big part in determining the structure of product teams. You also need to make sure that the members on those teams have the cross-functional trust and psychological safety they need to work well together. You need to establish an environment where team members can work out issues among themselves rather than sending concerns up to their individual chain of command, over to you or one of your peers, and back down.

You also need to champion rational inter-organizational decisions informed by data over opinions. The best way to do that is to work with your peers to support a rational decision-making process based on market realities and qualitative and quantitative feedback.

That means as VP of Product you need to be able to collaborate with people from all different parts of the organization.

Align with their executive peers on strategies and goals

Finally, you need to make sure that you and your peers in the executive ranks are aligned on strategies and goals. You also want to make sure that everyone connects activities and deliverables to clear business outcomes. In other words, you help everyone understand why your organization should or should not roll out a new product.

Because you don’t have a large staff or budget you can be an “interested bystander” when your executive peers launch into budget and reorganization battles. You can ask tough questions such as “how might we organize to accomplish that outcome” without being suspected of trying to build an empire.

So to be an effective VP of Product, you need to have experience working with executives in a product leadership capacity.

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What should the new VP do in the first 90 days? 

As mentioned above, your first 90 days in a new VP of Product role is your chance to focus on learning, but you want to learn with a purpose.

Consider creating a plan to guide your learning during the first weeks of your tenure and focus it on concrete actions. 

For example, Yaniv Gilad created a 100-day plan as he was starting a VP of Product Data role at Button. That plan broke the first 100 days into three separate phases, each with a specific focus: Learn, Plan, and Execute.

Let’s take a look at what a similar plan may look like.

0 – 30 Days: Learn 

Seek to understand as much as you can about some key topics such as your customers, the market, your products, other key people at your organization, and existing product management processes and tools. 

Don’t meet extensively with your peers in engineering, sales, marketing, and customer success too early. Wait until you’ve had the opportunity to meet with customers, understand the industry dynamics, and formulate a goal for your product portfolio in terms of customer business value.

If you meet with your peers too early, you’ll have nothing to offer and you’ll just get an earful of what all is currently wrong with product management.

30 – 60 Days: Plan

Based on what you learned in the first 30 days, set a framework for what product management will look like at your organization. That includes any changes you’ll make to the product teams, and the product development process. You’ll also want to establish your approach for creating a product strategy.

Now is the time to have those in-depth meetings with your executive peers. Those discussions can be much more fruitful because you have an initial understanding of the context that you can validate and refine. 

You can also discuss your plans with your peers from engineering, sales, marketing, and customer success and you can revise those plans based on their input.

61 – 100 Days: Execute

Once you have a chance to formulate your plans and get support for those plans where needed, it’s time to put them into action.

Some of those actions may include:

  • Assess the skills of the product managers on your team and identify action items for addressing any gaps such as hiring, replacing, training, and/or coaching
  • Pull the key people together in your organization to revise (or establish) a product strategy
  • Ensure that you have a consistent product development process in place to ensure an effective discovery, delivery, and ongoing learning.
  • Implement meaningful metrics to make sure you understand customer needs and the impact that your products have.
  • Take explicit steps to build strong relationships across the organization.

Throughout this entire process make sure you’re communicating up, down, and across the organization.


What should you expect from other executives as a new VP of Product?

For your onboarding as a VP of Product to be truly successful, it’s only proper that you have some expectations of the other executives in your organization.

It’s appropriate to expect your CEO to empower you to own the product vision and product strategy. If you’re filling an existing VP of Product spot, this may be easier accomplished than if you are the first product leader.

Your CEO should discuss their views on overall corporate vision, strategy, and culture.

You should also be able to expect support from your CEO in case some of the changes you make irritate others in the organization. Hopefully, you’ve taken actions to build strong relationships that will overcome any irritation, but there may be cases where you need some air cover.

Finally, you should be able to expect some patience from the CEO and other executives as you get up to speed on the organization, its customers, product market, and processes.

From other executives, the main thing you should expect is a willingness to have open, honest discussions about the current situation at the organization and their thoughts on what can be done to address those issues. You should also expect each executive to be honest about the best way to work with them so that you can establish productive relationships.


Do classic HR onboarding processes work in today’s remote first work environment? 

You could argue that classic HR onboarding processes weren’t effective before most work went remote. A 2017 Gallup poll found that only 12% strongly agreed that their organization did a great job onboarding new employees.

What may make up for deficiencies in the formal onboarding process is the opportunity for new executives to strike up spontaneous, casual conversations when you bump into people at the coffee counter. Going remote removes this opportunity for spontaneous interactions and casual coaching.

You still need to establish relationships with your peers – the difference is you’re doing it via video call. Here are some suggestions for building those relationships:

  • Remember to practice active listening in all of your interactions with executive peers.
  • Plan how you will communicate with all key stakeholders, especially your new peers.
  • Keep reminders of what you want to chat about when you have virtual drop ins (since your opportunities will be less frequent than when you’re in person)
  • Schedule informal after hour discussions that give you a chance to learn more about the other executives as people This will give you an idea about the company culture and learn about other’s expectations


Onboarding is about learning and building relationships

You lay the groundwork for your future success as a VP of Product during the first couple of months in the role. In order to be as effective as possible, take advantage of that time to learn as much as you can about your customers, your product, your market, and your organization.

As you learn, look for ways to establish strong relationships across the organization so that you can make cross-functional collaboration a reality.

Would you like some help getting a good start to your VP of Product tenure? Fahren can help you out. Contact us to find out how.

Contributor

Kent J McDonald writes about and practices software product management. He has product development experience in a variety of industries including financial services, health insurance, nonprofit, and automotive. Kent practices his craft with a variety of product teams and provides just-in-time resources for product people at KBP.media.  When not writing or product managing, Kent is his family’s #ubersherpa, listens to jazz and podcasts (but not necessarily podcasts about jazz), and collects national parks.

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