For many executives, serving on a board is an exciting proposition – from the experience, visibility, impact and also the potential to set themselves up for an enriching board career once they go “plural” in their post-executive life. In recent years, we’ve seen a rising demand for a broader range of functional leaders on boards, including product leaders who can bring a unique skillset to the table.
Egon Zehnder gathered a dozen Chief Product Officers, with a varied level of board experience, to hear their stories and perspectives.
A key insight across the conversation was that the product leaders skillset was both highly valuable to a board and yet also may provide some challenges for product leaders as they adapt to the board setting:
- The “T-shaped” breadth of their functional experience, allowing them to seamlessly translate between tech and commercial, their customer centricity and disruptive mindset, these are all significant valuable assets to bring to the board table.
However, of all executives, product leaders are arguably most defined by the product they deliver, whether it’s physical or digital, and their desire for meaningful and visible impact. The board context requires building a different approach, where it’s not necessarily about output and delivery, but rather about advising, guiding and influencing. These are different muscles to build which can be stretching for some product leaders, but can also lead to developing a more rounded skillset, helping to position them for broader C-suite roles such as CEO or COO.
Advice for Product Leaders
Lean into your key skill of creating a bridge between technology and commercial. Your ability to “speak both languages” will be invaluable on a board. Position yourself as a translator and a facilitator of understanding for other board members where required.
Remember, it’s not about output. In your executive life, work is all about delivering a product. A board member, on the other hand, is called upon to advise, guide and influence. This may require both patience and a different mindset to play the role effectively.
Board roles include governance, especially in listed company settings. While bringing the “disruptive product mindset” to the table can sometimes add value, think carefully about how and when to use it. In many board scenarios, shaking things up is not what is required.
Boards dance to a different beat. Product leaders are often the drivers of agile movement and constant iteration. Boards are more contemplative and less inclined to take adventurous leaps. This will feel like a very different work rhythm for a product leader. Take some time to get used to it!
Choose your first board experience wisely. Advising a startup or sitting on a non-profit board can often be a good starter experience.
Ultimately, board experience can be additive to a product leader’s journey and can bring the benefits of perspective on issues of governance and high-level decision-making. It builds a new set of skills in influencing and guidance that might not be available in the day-to-day product leadership process.
Our advice would be for product leaders to pursue gaining board experience thoughtfully in order to both serve the board well and gain useful experience on a personal level. An understanding of the different mindset and demands will help position the product leader for board-level success.