Degreed CPO Kat Kennedy explains the skills you need to excel as a product executive
Written by Kat Kennedy, Chief Experience Officer at Degreed, for our ebook, The Path to Product Excellence: Stories and Advice From the Field.
Seven years ago, my CEO asked me if I was interested in moving from my software development role into a product management role. I was a little skeptical about it because I already loved what I was doing, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what product management was. In fact, I asked him, “what exactly do product managers do and how many of them do you really need?
Luckily, he was patient and explained his plan for both my growth and how the company would scale. I took him up on his offer and eventually became our Chief Product Officer. Seven years has flown by!
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I started my career at Degreed as a software developer and loved seeing ideas come to life by shipping code. After I moved into product management, I poured that same passion into delivering value to users by shipping great products. Now, as our Chief Product Officer, I get to effectively “ship” an organization. I’m still doing what I’ve always loved — building, just not products. Instead, I’m building teams, cross-functional relationships, and processes to make sure that everyone is successful. Here are some important things I’ve done to be a successful product executive.
As an executive, you naturally work a lot with the CEO, other C-level executives, and the board. What’s unique in these interactions is that you need to be ahead of the conversations. Have answers to questions that haven’t been asked yet and have solutions to problems that haven’t been mentioned yet. Ultimately, leadership’s job is to manage constraints. If you’re not continuously changing these constraints or removing blockers, then something is wrong. When someone tells you about a problem that you aren’t already acting on, then it’s too late.
You need to have a forward-facing view of product strategy that’s ahead of where everyone else is. Sometimes, it feels like playing 3-dimensional chess.
“Have answers to questions that haven’t been asked yet and have solutions to problems that haven’t been mentioned yet.”
I stay ahead of everything with constant communication and make sure that I have an in-depth awareness of the company both in the low-level details and from a 30,000-foot view at all times. The process is quite similar to product management where you do discovery and market research to find insights and determine how to act on them. As a product executive, you do the same work but with people and processes. I communicate our strategy, our wins, and losses, and I make sure I know the same information about other teams.
It’s essential to have a vision and plan for how your product organization works with other teams. For example, my goal is to make sure our product team is innovating instead of reacting, which is why I make sure they work closely with the sales team to identify issues before they become problems.
I built close, trusting relationships with our Chief Revenue Officer and our Chief Customer Officer and spent a considerable amount of time on the ground with our sales team. This created a model for how our product managers should interact with sales on a regular cadence and how to listen to feedback from them and then turn that information into solutions that create value for our customers.
When working with other teams, make sure to prevent any kind of “us vs. them” mentality, which can naturally happen when things inevitably get tough. Be on the lookout for defensive attitudes, and make sure to coach everyone on your team and other teams to give everyone else the benefit of the doubt by highlighting that everyone is working on the same goal of delivering value to users so the business can thrive.
Interested in taking the leap?
Product management is a great job that prepares you for executive leadership. In fact, product managers often become founders. But often as startups evolve into more mature companies, their product executives tend to be replaced by more seasoned veterans. I stayed and continued to grow in my role by asking a simple question:
“If someone were to replace me, what would they do?”
I thought about that question every day and interviewed other executives about what they thought. After getting a sense of the different answers and seeing our company continue to grow, I started doing those things, some of which I describe above. My advice to anyone interested in taking a leadership role is to look for problems to solve internally. As an executive, that’s your primary job.
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This post is an excerpt from our ebook, The Path to Product Excellence: Stories and Advice From the Field. Get your copy now for more valuable insights from product management thought leaders.