It is rare for Gainsight CEO Nick Mehta to be surprised by a guest. But in a recent webinar, Chris Battles, Chief Product Officer at Zuora, presented him with a view and definition of Product rarely heard.
Zuora is a Silicon Valley-based company with customers and offices all over the world. They are trying to help businesses, no matter the industry, embrace the subscription economy and win it by providing cloud-based software solutions, especially for billing and revenue recognition. Zuora wants its customers to transform and manage their subscribers by empowering them with the right understanding and flexibility surrounding the subscription business model. Their solution automates to price, package, and extend the order-to-cash function in the right way to survive as more companies turn to the “World Subscribed” function.
Chris revealed that as CPO, he sees his role as having accountabilities for ALL the product strategy, product roadmap, and product execution. He believes his job entails everything outbound through product marketing into the field organization. Anything from the “helps build what you sell part of the organization and the self you build part of the organization” is his responsibility. It is the full product, narrative, story, and execution.
Nick noted this was a broader definition of Product than people started with years ago. The evolution of what people think about what Product is has changed. Nick wondered if the description has developed and changed due to the varied backgrounds and career paths that many CPOs have, including Chris’s.
A Data Nerd at Heart
Chris’s path to CPO began unconventionally. His actual area of study was in economics and statistics—a true data nerd at heart. He started in investment banking and later found himself in management consulting at Boston Consulting Group (BCG). It was there that he was not only exposed to a new business strategy but also how different parts of an organization have to interconnect to come to life.
When Chris incorporated work in developing strategy through customer discovery and customer research, his passion for understanding customers came alive. He wanted to understand their problems and how to identify potential solutions to those problems. From BCG, he bridged over into more customer-facing roles. “It’s a classic story of what management consultants do,” Chris said. “I went to work for one of my clients. That led me into a role more at kind of a director-level product where I was helping to run products for one of the businesses at Intuit.” From finance and investment banking to product? “That’s interesting. You made that transition from consulting and working on business strategy to leading a product team? But without having been a product manager?”
Chris acknowledged that he didn’t have a deep technical background. However, the role needed was to cast an eye forward to where the business needed to go over time. Chris explained that “It was a good complement to the skills I brought to the table at the start, which is more of the strategy type. What is the sequence of moves? What’s the market opportunity that the organization didn’t have. I could use that to cover up my deficiencies.”
It was in the process of managing the team that Chris learned to work both the management and on the technology sides. He delved into the strategy, the execution, and the other dimensions of the Product, and through that process, he came up to speed in the areas he felt he was lacking. Chris credit finding a company where you find the right fit.
“You know, if you’re if you haven’t done the job before, going into an organization that doesn’t have that functional skill might be a stretch too far. You have to find the right set for where and what the organization is and what you need. For me, this was a good set.”
Knowing You Don’t Know
Chris warned against the misconception that, while you may not have a deep technical background to be in product management, there is still the ability to become a PM. First, you have to acknowledge that you know you don’t know. Some of the most successful PMs that Chris worked with have come from non-technical backgrounds, such as marketing and customer success.
“One of my greatest examples was a documentation writer who transitioned into being a product manager. Also, people from the customer success organization transitioned in because they had such an affinity for the customer problem. They were able to kind of translate that and make the bridge over into product. For me, the question is, do you have that deep passion for the customer? Then, how do you help bridge that into what can you do to help solve customer pain? Again, you don’t have to be an engineer or have a computer science background to do that.”
For Chris, the ability to partner well with other people with skills you may not possess at the moment is critical. Balancing out what you will bring from your passion for customers and a desire to solve problems helps make a beneficial relationship with others who have more of a Product or technical background. The first step in that partnership is to acknowledge that you know you don’t know. Next, be open to listen and learn.
Another way to transition into product management is a process that Nick called “cross-pollination.” As a CPO, Chris acknowledges there are many paths into the profession. For Chris, the role he came into when he started was a good fit. He matched the vacancy of the candidate from the technical aspect coupled with his other skills.
The problem sometimes is on the part of the company hiring. Can they take the risk of the non-traditional candidate who does not have the background or experience versus someone who has the “resume?” Chris shared that often the places his company has the most successful hire are internal to the organization but outside of Product.
The key to these “stretch” assignments, according to Chris, depends on surrounding people with the right structure. “Are the pieces in place to be successful? Is your organization strong enough to support them when they come? You don’t want to throw someone in the fire and stretch them if there’s nothing to support them. That’s where you can be more open-minded when you have that kind of organizational strength in place.”
Chris also spoke about rotational assignments within companies. For instance, can companies allow people within their Customer Success organization to “flex” to learn more about product functions? Often CSMs know more about the Product than incoming candidates. The rotation can be for a three to six-month duration. And if they do return to their previous position, they have more inroads back into Product. The bonus, according to Chris, is that “They can also then be an evangelist back into that organization for what the product is doing.”
Chris’s advice to people wanting to head into Product management is “know how to manage your career.” In other words, don’t hope that someone else will be looking out for opportunities for you. Chris said, “Take control of your career. Hopefully, you’ll have a mentor or a boss who does that for you.” However, don’t sit around, hoping that someone’s going to tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey, we’ve got this great stretch assignment for you.” Chris also suggested talking to any product manager and leader of a product organization in your company. They always have ten times the work that they can do. If you show interest in something and have the “appetite,” it will open the door to building a relationship.
Acceleration to the C-level
Everyone seems to want to know what accelerates your career trajectory. Chris explained that the best way to make those transitions is to demonstrate your strategic assets along with execution ability. His particular mix may have been bred at a consulting firm, but he still had to prove his ability to execute. Sometimes that has to happen in a general management position. In those roles, he proved leadership experience that resonates with Product leadership.
The best example of this came from the observations of one of his mentors, Chris Highland, the former CEO of Imperva. Chris shared that his mentor was focused on operational discipline. However, it was necessary to balance both the interests of the individual with the interests of what the organization needs. If you have the vision for this, you will see how those timelines intersect to take advantage of them for Product, your company, and your career. The most crucial part is always to treat people with respect. Combining it all together “helps ensure your organization is in the right place from a skilled perspective to deliver for the broader needs of the whole company.” He believes this was one of the best things that helped guide and unlock incredible opportunities for him.
In the end, every opportunity is a bridge to something in the future by complementing it with past experiences. “I tend to look at things in terms of market dynamics. How big is the opportunity in front of it? What kind of expansion mode opportunity is there?” According to Chris, there are very different environments and experiences. If you’re looking for places to grow in scale, then look for companies in growth mode. In those instances, you must have the aptitude and the ability to take more on, drive value, get exposed, and take advantage of opportunities. But that trajectory does not fit everyone.
“I’m always in place with that eye towards what is going to give me a new experience from the last one.” Ultimately, what companies are hiring is a “basket of skills.” They want to know, are yours a different basket of skills and experiences? Have you faced a different set of problems and challenges? As Chris said, “Because that kind of person can generally navigate the ebbs and flows of fortune in a different way than if you just had one line of experience over time.”