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The Path to Product

In conversation with Mads Johnsen, Chief Product Officer of Calm

Mads Johnsen is the Chief Product Officer at Calm, where he leads product and growth teams. He took the role in 2021 after stints at Uber, LinkedIn, McKinsey and Nokia. While his titles have changed over the years, his work has always been in service to product. He spoke with Egon Zehnder’s Anna Auerbach about the ways in which the product role has evolved. 

What was your path to product?

In my teens, I quickly realized that software development fits my temperament quite well. I love how quickly you can move from idea to prototype.

That interest led to my first job at Nokia as a software engineer, followed by an MBA and a few years in management consulting. My path to product has been anything but linear, but I frequently draw on all my past experiences to execute my current role.

I'm now leading product at Calm. It feels full circle. I started my career back when mobile devices were “connecting people.” Two decades later and our technology has unfortunately also become a source of anxiety and stress. I'm excited to be in a place where I can put our amazing technology to use to make the world happier and healthier. 

What do you think is the biggest misconception about the product function?

The biggest misconception is that the product role has a clear definition of success. There is a common belief that the product leader is the “CEO of the Product” but when I ask CEOs what they expect from their product leaders, they usually stumble and end up talking vaguely about communication and vision. Revenue or any other hard financial target never comes up.

Meanwhile, I've never met a CEO that had any ambiguity about the financial target they were expected to meet. 

It's crucial as a leader to have clarity on what role you want the product organization to play. It can range from general management to project management and anything in between. 

What do you look for in product talent?

I look for three things:

  • Intellectual curiosity: Great product managers have an instinct to question things that others accept as the truth.
  • Strong desire to win: Too many product managers are solely focused on keeping everybody on the broader team happy. I look for product leaders who push teams to win. 
  • Ability to get stuff done: I value high productivity and hustle. I rarely look at formal education and years of experience. 

What is the future of the product function? 

I wonder that myself. As more and more industries move into software, I anticipate the overall need for product managers to continue to grow. Many industries have just started hiring product managers.

Within the consumer high tech space, highly sophisticated product analytics capabilities have become commonplace and created an environment where product leadership often looks purely at engagement and a/b tests, far removed from business outcomes. This is unsustainable, and I think we will see consumer product management move back to become accountable for overall business metrics in addition to the consumer experience. We will see the PM becoming the GM.

It should be a fun journey. I’m grateful to be on it.

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