From Associate Product Manager to Chief Product Officer: A Quick Guide
First, congratulations. You’re investigating strategies to advance your career in product management, which means you’ve already found one of the most fulfilling and sought-after professions. Research cited by Career Karma found that the average product management professional rates their job satisfaction level at 3.7 out of 5 stars — “highly satisfied.” And Product Management made LinkedIn’s 2022 list of the Top 25 roles showing the most growth in demand.
In other words, if you’re willing to work for it, you can create a long and rewarding career in product management. And if you’re successful, your career might take you all the way up the typical product hierarchy, with a progression that looks like this:
- Associate Product Manager (APM)
- Product Manager (PM)
- Senior Product Manager (SPM)
- Director of Product
- VP of Product
- Chief Product Officer (CPO)
If you’re early in your product career and near the bottom rung on the ladder, becoming a CPO might seem like an unachievable career goal. But you can do it.
Although you probably can’t make a direct leap from APM to CPO, the path is simply a series of strategic steps. This post will walk you through each of those steps — as well as offer suggestions for each stage of your career — to help you advance to the next one.
But first, let’s work backward and discuss what it will take to land that CPO job someday.
What makes a great CPO?
Being a great CPO requires a diverse skillset. But as you review the CPO qualifications below, keep in mind that you don’t need them all now; and that you will gain some of the skills as you move up the product organization hierarchy.
Can you inspire a team? Can you keep your organization focused on the most strategically advantageous priorities? Have you shown an ability to bring together people and departments across a company to work cohesively and deliver outstanding products?
Do you know how to identify, recruit, and onboard talent? Are you capable of letting go of team members who prove not to be high performers? Have you demonstrated that you’re able to manage a departmental budget?
Proven ability to develop and communicate a vision
Have you proven that you can identify opportunities, develop ideas to take advantage of voids in an industry, and rally an entire company around solving that industry’s problem?
Do you have a strong enough understanding of business operations in general — revenue vs. profit, building a company culture, HR issues, etc. — to be a valuable contributor to a C-level team?
Mastery of the product management role
Have you spent enough time as a PM to understand what organizations need and expect from the role? Do you understand the position well enough that you can identify the signs when a PM needs help so that as a CPO, you’ll be able to recognize when your product teams need guidance?
How do you advance to a CPO job?
Naturally, the list above does not tell the whole story. Businesses will demand a lot more from their CPOs. But this required skillset should give you an idea of the wide range of experience and knowledge you will need to gain before you’re a viable CPO candidate.
As you may have noticed, businesses won’t be concerned with a CPO candidate’s ability to perform the typical duties of a PM. As you scale the product management ladder, you will hand off more of these roles — such as doing product demos for sales reps, updating product roadmaps, and reviewing deadlines with developers — to people on your team.
Here’s what the process looks like for typical product management professionals advancing in their careers through the product organization hierarchy.
From APM to PM
As the first rung on the product department’s org chart, APMs play a supportive role and do not have much strategic responsibility for the product. They are responsible for helping PMs perform their jobs more efficiently. This might mean collecting data for the product team and updating stakeholders across the company.
It’s worth noting that many companies treat their APM roles as apprenticeships. That means your organization will want you to use your time in this position to learn the ins and outs of product management by working closely with PMs. The company’s goal is to move you up to PM when you’re ready.
Pro tip: Position yourself for the leap to PM.
As an APM, use your time to learn. Study every detail you can about how product management works and how the product team collaborates with the rest of the organization.
You might want to keep a journal of your observations, experiences, and the best/worst practices used by PMs to drive their products forward.
From PM to SPM and Director of Product
As a PM, you’re an individual contributor. You are responsible for your product’s success, but you have no authority over a team. That means you need to focus on execution and keep track of the details of your product’s development.
As you move to SPM and Director of Product, this will be the first time you have people reporting to you, specifically PMs. Because your company will judge you according to different criteria — such as how well your PMs and your product portfolio perform — you will need to develop new skills, such as:
- Delegating more of the day-to-day product responsibilities to your team.
- Switching your focus from execution to management.
- Learning to trust your PMs and other members of your team (product owners, product operations managers, etc.) to handle the responsibilities you had as a PM.
- Taking a broader view of your industry and identifying strategic opportunities over a longer timeframe than you did as a PM. PMs develop roadmaps looking out 6 to 18 months, but you might now need to develop a 3-year strategic plan for your company.
Pro tip: Position yourself for the leap to Director of Product.
As a PM, you have the chance to work with various teams and departments. The more you can learn about how these teams operate, the more valuable business knowledge you will gain. That will give you an edge as you make the leadership transition.
Many PMs prefer to delegate these relationships. They ask their product owner to meet with the Customer Success team to learn what customers are saying. They ask their Product Marketing Manager to explain the product features and value proposition to the Marketing Department.
But if you want to ascend to product leadership, don’t miss these opportunities to work closely with different professionals across your company.
From Director of Product to VP of Product
In most companies, the primary difference between Director and VP roles is scale. As Director of Product, you were overseeing the work of PMs. As VP of Product, you may now be responsible for the work of several Directors of Product. You may also be accountable not only for a specific product portfolio but your company’s entire P&L.
With these added responsibilities, you will need to pull back even more from the day-to-day operations and focus on broader strategic and business planning. In other words, taking on the VP role will mean more delegation of responsibilities, more trust, and more high-level strategic planning.
And because you’re now a product executive, you will need to develop longer-term plans for the business, such as a 3-year product strategy, 5-year goals, and even a 10-year vision for the company.
Pro tip: Position yourself for the leap to VP of Product.
As Director of Product, you probably report to the VP of Product (in smaller companies, this role might be the CPO). Use this opportunity to study how your supervisor handles executive responsibilities and glean ideas on how to approach your role one day as VP or CPO. And even if your supervisor handles the job poorly, it will be a valuable lesson on how not to be a product leader.
From VP of Product to CPO
Finally, you’ve reached the product rung just below the CPO. As VP of Product, you’re already an executive, and you’ve gained a lot of knowledge and experience in managing a department, leading and inspiring a team, and taking ownership of a business’s successes (and failures).
In fact, many of the skills you’ve used to succeed as VP of Product will translate directly to the CPO role. So here are a few suggestions for making that final leap to the top spot on the product org chart.
Pro tips: Making the jump to CPO.
- Spend as much time as you can with your C-level team.
When you’re a VP of Product, you will be reporting directly to your company’s CPO. Use this time to study the CPO’s strategies, form of leadership, and range of responsibilities (most people in a company have very little understanding of what their senior leadership team does).
- Look for a CPO role in a company smaller than the one you’re in today.
If you’re a VP of Product in a big enterprise, a midsized company might view your background as more than sufficient for a C-level job on their team. Executives often make the biggest leaps in their careers by moving to smaller companies.
- Prepare your story.
If you’re going to be interviewing for CPO roles, you’ll want a compelling story about your journey through the product hierarchy. That story should include how you developed your leadership style, anecdotes about product successes and flops, and quantifiable examples of how you’ve contributed to your organization’s bottom line. Preparing this story requires thought and strategic planning. Don’t leave the details to chance, or assume you’ll be able to rattle them off from memory in a job interview. A C-level position is a vital role in any company. When you walk into a business to discuss a CPO job, you’ll want to be ready to tell them about what you’ve learned in your impressive career as a PM, Director of Product, and VP of Product.
The good news: You’re already on the road to CPO
As we’ve tried to illustrate in this post, your path from APM to CPO will be slow and at times frustrating. But we hope we’ve also demonstrated that you can get there. Focus on learning as much as possible in your current product position to prepare yourself for the next. That’s how all successful CPOs do it.
And the great news is, even if you’re just starting your career now as an APM or a first-time PM, you’ve already taken the first steps toward that CPO role.
A few product leadership courses we recommend
Finally, whenever you find time in your career, you’ll want to supplement your real-world experience with professional training on how to master product management and become a product leader. Courses from well-respected product organizations represent a valuable ongoing investment in yourself and your career. Never stop learning.
With that in mind, here are a few of our favorite courses and degree programs, listed in order of greatest to least time commitment:
Institute of Product Leadership
(18 months, weekends only)
(8 weeks, remote learning)
(4 or 6 weeks, part-time, remote learning)
Note: This course requires Reforge membership, but the organization offers many benefits for PMs who join.
(4 days, online and instructor-led)
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