Product Leaders In Demand As Never Before

Feb 6, 2022

  • The pandemic has accelerated the need to solve new customer problems around how to connect to and interact with brands, leading to a dramatic uptick in demand for senior product leaders.

  • In addition to understanding what customers want, product executives must have the ability to work with and influence colleagues in engineering, the C-suite, sales and marketing, and the operations team.

  • As product ease of use becomes more important beyond the consumer app space, product leaders are increasingly focusing on market strategy and design/UX vs. scaling a team or executing on a roadmap.

  • Hiring diverse product leaders brings organizations a wider range of perspectives that can be beneficial in product development and in working with customers and decision makers.

  • Product market fit has never been more critical, and hiring companies are seeking product executives who understand how best to prioritize and move quickly in a hypercompetitive market.

Competition for senior talent is fiercer than ever, with COVID putting the ability of businesses to effectively solve customer problems front and center. Over the past year, ON Partners consultants have seen a dramatic increase in demand for senior-level product roles across multiple market sectors. They have appointed product leaders at organizations including EarnUp, Epicor, Glassdoor, International Sports Sciences Association, Logitech, Pagaya and Shapeways, among others.

Whether it be IT, supply chain, banking or retail, companies across nearly every market sector have had to become more responsive and agile, with the product executive tasked with leading the organization to solve problems.

Businesses lacking an innovative, execution-oriented product leader to navigate through the pandemic have suffered, while those that have been successful are either doubling down and expanding product talent and scope or looking for the person who can move them forward more quickly. 

While engineers are tasked with building products and sales executives with selling them, product leaders critically represent the voice of the customer. They must understand what their customers want and be able to work with and influence nearly everyone: engineering, the C-suite, sales and marketing, customer service, finance, and of course customers. Because the product function touches virtually all parts of a business, leaders in this role must act almost like “mini-CEOs” who understand the market opportunity, investment tradeoffs and how to execute.

COVID has tipped the scales to online, driving more traffic, higher expectations and shrinking attention spans. As a result, companies are selling and delivering products differently, and product leaders must come up with new ways to get products front and center and released quickly. If a product is not easy to use and intuitive, potential customers are going to move on with the swipe of a finger.

“The ability to put yourself in the customers’ shoes is a key capability for product leaders,” said partner Lynda Robey. “There was a time when companies only asked this of their marketing department, but it has quickly evolved to be expected of the product role as well. Product leaders who possess true customer empathy are in high demand.”

There is an app for everything now, and with the importance of ease of use expanding beyond the consumer space, product executives across the board are becoming more strategy and design-focused. Even enterprise software companies have recognized the need to become more “ground-floor” oriented, focusing on ensuring products are highly ergonomic. In a world where there are likely scores of competitors, if a product doesn’t work quickly and easily, businesses must rotate them until they’ve figured it out.

“Many of the product searches we’ve been doing in the past twelve months or so have been focused predominantly on driving innovation and future offerings vs. scaling an existing team or perfecting the relationship with engineering,” noted partner John Morrow. “Forecasting what customers want now and what they’ll want two to four years from now – and how to put that in motion – is most important.”

According to partner Jeff Hocking, “There is an increasing focus on new product development vs. enhancing current products. How do you continue to differentiate, whether it’s new products through acquisition or new products in development? With the market being so competitive, how do you trade product market fit and the investments required with getting a solid product into the market that paves the way for another major release?”

Companies are seeking product leaders who thoroughly understand product-market fit – where best to focus and the importance of moving quickly – and they look for markers of their past success that reflect that. Instead of reviewing a candidate’s resume during an interview, hiring executives increasingly are evaluating a product leader’s previous product, with the candidate walking through how and why it was a success.

“An awakening around product market fit needs to happen,” noted Morrow. “There’s a turning point at which you realize your product will satisfy 80% of the market need, and top product leaders use that as their north star, can adjust accordingly, and are good at articulating it and helping a company prioritize in order to speed time to market.”

In addition, product leaders who understand how to work with and get the most from the engineering team, approaching conversations in the spirit of collaboration and mutual respect, are highly sought after. Product executives should be able to work together with engineering to evaluate what the product platform looks like now, where it needs to go, and how the product and engineering teams get there together. A healthy respect for engineering goes a long way.

Hiring product leaders from diverse backgrounds brings organizations different perspectives that can be valuable when developing product strategy. In addition, when working with a wide range of customers and decision makers, senior product executives who are not white males can more accurately reflect the people who are developing and using the product.

“There’s a higher degree of expectation resting on the shoulders of product leaders,” noted Robey. “They need to be asking critical questions: Who are we today? Where are we innovating? How do I marshal resources and excitement internally to get where we need to be as quickly as possible? How do I see around corners to make sure we continue to deliver for customers?”

In such a hypercompetitive market, alignment and motivation around product is key. Product leaders must understand how to influence others and help get everyone aligned around product goals. Coming together around product milestones and deliverables helps organizations to be successful – and those organizations that have underestimated the importance of a strong product leader are now finding themselves playing catch up.

View more product executive appointments made by ON Partners in the last year here.

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Find our related successful placements of leading executives here.

About ON Partners

Since 2006, ON Partners is the only pure-play executive search firm building diverse C-level and board leadership teams. We rebuilt the institution of executive search for the way you work. Our approach includes present partners who engage with their clients from the first brief to the final decision, individually crafted solutions that are unique to each client, and an easier experience all around. Named by Forbes as one of America’s Best Executive Recruiting Firms and to the Inc. 500/5000 Lists nine times, ON Partners is consistently ranked among the top 20 retained executive search firms in the U.S.

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