Anu Bharadwaj recently stepped into the role of President of Atlassian – a role she rose to through multiple positions rooted in Product Management. Enticed into the tech world as a software engineer, she let her love of technology and solving customer problems lead her to the world of Product. Recently, I connected with Anu to talk about the role Product can play in preparing a leader for the C-Suite.
What sparked your passion for career in Product?
I didn’t start as a Product Manager. Microsoft hired me straight out of school, and my first job was building video games as a developer. As a nerd and a gamer, I thought it was the best gig ever.
For the next few years, I built different kinds of products in different roles.
"I tried on a lot of different hats: researcher, tester, developer, and engineering lead. These experiences helped me hone in on what’s important to me. I loved talking to customers to figure out what was working for them and what their needs are."
In these conversations, I learned how having an effective tool can be so impactful to a customer’s life and discovered that I’m really energized by figuring out solutions to customer problems and seeing the real-life impact on end users. After I had this realization, I shifted from engineering into product management and haven’t looked back since. The feeling of delighting customers never gets old!
How will the Product function evolve in scale, scope, and pathways?
As our tools get better and allow for more creative expression, these will lower the barrier of entry for a PM role. I think you’ll see a bigger influx of tech-fluent people move into the PM role from other walks of life or functions like engineering, marketing, and more. There will be more paths into the product function, and I’m very excited by the diversity of thinkers who’ll be working on our future products.
And as you move up the career ladder, successful senior PMs will need to have a strong and broad skillset. There’s more expectation that they’ll be able to operate, communicate, manage people, set strategy, and understand technology, sales, and marketing in their roles.
Finally, in a world where we’ll only have more data and AI assistants at our disposal, great PMs will shine in the gray areas where there are no clear answers. PMs who are empathetic, plugged into their customers and their needs, and able to translate them to outcomes and see-through the execution, will always be invaluable to any product organization.
What are the top three leadership principles you lived by as a Product leader and now President?
Be the role model for your team. When I first joined Atlassian, I was pleasantly surprised by how much employees are really living the values. Our two founders set the tone and role-model behaviors for the rest of the company. One of our values is “open company, no bs.” Often this means I have to take the first step at being vulnerable with my own struggles or sharing information when we don’t have all the answers. Your teams are always emulating your behavior, so I try my hardest to be a great role model at Atlassian.
Learn from others but stay true to yourself. When I first started my previous job as COO, I had no experience in the role! So, like any good Product Manager, I researched by talking to as many COOs as I could in the first three months of my new role. I loved learning about their culture and rituals, but it fell to me to synthesize these learnings and applying them to Atlassian Be true to who you are and harness your unique strengths.
Embrace individuality and build balanced teams. As a leader, I put my people first and surround myself with diverse perspectives. I try hard to get to know my team as people. What are their goals and dreams? What makes them excited to come to work every day? People tend to be spiky in certain skills but weaker in other areas, so getting to know each individual helps me build balanced teams with healthier dynamics.
How did your experience in Product position you for the COO role at Atlassian and now as President?
Atlassian is a product company, so I’m grateful that my years spent building products have set me up for the COO and President roles. I went into the role with a strong understanding of our product portfolio and customers, so I could quickly ramp up on M&A, strategy and biz-ops and program management, all of which are teams I’ve closely partnered with in the past.
At Atlassian we grew so quickly over the past two years, there was a critical need for us to scale our operations and processes to support and sustain our growth. When I worked in Product, I personally felt the frustration of executing slowly, or being hampered by heavyweight processes, or worse, when my team was a bottleneck for other teams. So, I was really determined to help the entire company focus on the right priorities so every single Atlassian can execute better.
The hypothesis I formed in my first months as COO was that by bringing Product and Operations closer together, we could drive more focus and accountability across the company. We worked on creating a backbone to connect our strategic and financial planning with our goals and execution. We introduced some changes, like moving from an annual planning cycle to more responsive quarterly reviews that help us resolve dependencies and make resource allocation decisions that help our teams execute with high velocity.
What advice do you have for Product executives as they carve their path beyond product into broader C-suite roles?
I didn’t start my career as a PM with the intent of becoming a C-suite exec. I did it because solving customer problems was what brought me the most fulfilment. It’s been an unconventional journey, but I’m grateful for this foundational experience.
My first piece of advice for aspiring C-suite executives would be to leverage the depth and breadth that comes with Product experience. Take on different opportunities and try new things that expand your ability to manage complex situations. Challenge yourself with messy, cross-functional initiatives that will give you more visibility and hands-on experience across different areas of the business. This type of experiences will set you up well to step into a C-suite role, because you will develop a solid grasp of the company’s business strategy, technology, and customers along the way.
My second piece of advice would be to keep building strong relationships, especially with customers. In a product role, you’re interfacing with different stakeholders internally and externally every day. Continuing to develop their trust and support will help you in any C-suite role and open the door to unexpected opportunities.
Finally, effective communication becomes more critical the higher up you are. A big part of my job is sharing context with my extended team and communicating clearly with my peers and board members. It also gets much harder to stay connected and receive honest feedback from your teams, especially those that are a few layers down from you. I encourage you to think about ways to make yourself available to your teams and create a safe environment where people can share their honest feedback with you.