The product spotlight: conversations with experts - Progressing from an individual contributor to leadership
Teagan O’Donovan, October 10th 2023

My name is Teagan, and I’m a Managing Consultant at ISL Talent. I specialise in product and have worked hard to build a solid network over the years. I’ve created this blog series to gather insights from high level product people and help others in the community with advice to take their careers to the next level.

In this interview, I chat to Chief Product Officer Tom White about everything from what it takes to become a successful leader to the current challenges faced in product and advice for people wanting to advance in their product careers.

Can you tell me a bit about who you are and what you do?

“I started my professional life wanting to be a public health consultant in the NHS. Along the way, I got really interested in the emergent theme in healthcare which was digital transformation and how you use data to plan services. I got really interested in that and less interested in the public health consultant pathway. So 9-10 years ago, I moved across to a private health service provider and ended up heading up their digital arm. Because they were private, they were looking to innovate and win more market share, they were bidding competitively for business. They realised that to give a better service, to balance the books and improve outcomes (all of the things you’d need technology for), they needed a discreet technology offering to support and provide part of the services. Eventually, I got to sell the products on the road, which was my starting point in product management. Since then, I’ve moved into various startups and businesses in product leadership roles but found my niche in digital health startups.

I do a bit of advising for early-stage med tech and digital health startups via an incubator. I also do quite a lot of teaching and mentoring of product managers. My primary focus is my current role as Chief Product Officer at an early-stage digital health startup selling into the pharma market.”

What are the primary challenges you’re facing in the product industry?

“One challenge I see is that the Chief Product Officer is not at the leadership table consistently and this leads to a lack of understanding with what product managers should be doing in organisations. I think because it (product) is quite a young discipline it can struggle a bit for identity relative to more traditional business departments. 

The other challenge for product people is finding organisations that have good product practice that you can learn from and grow with, rather than just firefighting or administering a feature factory".

What trends are you seeing or future predictions do you have about the product space?

“The first and most obvious one is AI. Health tech is buzzing around AI because it’s a great amplifier for labour, and that’s a big problem in health. You need to do more with less, and health has been slow to adopt technology, so everyone is looking for massive wins.

In product, the traditional roles have gone a bit out of fashion. I’m seeing more demand for hybrid product/delivery manager roles which is interesting. Personally, I think CEOs will get more value in having someone who can talk to customers and do market strategy rather than have a focus on delivery. We’ll see a tighter definition around that soon”.

What do you think are the most important qualities or attributes for a successful leader?

“It sounds corny but being authentic with people and yourself. I like clarity and I like to be definite in the way I’m speaking to people. People get into product management because they’re good critical thinkers, so you need to balance being direct with giving your team freedom. If you start telling people exactly what to do, then you probably won’t have a team for much longer.

The other side of that coin is setting clear guidelines around the strategy. Point people in the direction of the goal but let them choose the journey of how to get there; that’s what I like to do with my leadership style, and it’s worked well for me. I think this method gives people ownership or a piece of value in the product and allows them to flex their creative muscles without feeling that they’ve got to define the whole product strategy.”

How did you know you were ready to step into a leadership position, and what advice do you give to other people?

“I don’t think I knew I was ready, but it’s what needed to happen in my situation. In terms of advice, first figure out if product is definitely the way you want to go. And from there, make a plan and work backwards from your first head of product role. What do you need to know? Can you get into mentoring? The main thing is to be intentional. Put yourself in the best position to succeed and communicate with your manager, this is where I see myself, can you help me? If your manager isn’t prepared to help then there’s loads of product mentor schemes out there or come and speak to someone like me. There’s loads of great product leaders who will help. There are also plenty of educational courses out there, but I’ve always found the best way of learning is by actually doing it myself.”

In this interview, we've delved into the ever-evolving realm of product management and leadership. Tom's journey, insights, and advice provide a valuable compass for product professionals, and his journey underscores the importance of intentionality, mentorship, and continuous learning for those aspiring to excel in product careers.

These blogs are all about connecting people, so if you liked what Tom had to say, connect with him here. Alternatively, if you’d like to feature in a blog or would like to chat to me about product roles, drop me a message on LinkedIn here.

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