Outlook for the Chief Product Officer Role

by Beverly Harvey

What You Need to Know Right Now to Level Up as a CPO

The relatively new Chief Product Officer (CPO) role has been entering the C-Suite in significant numbers and is often the result of company growth. Google, CNN, Uber, and Forbes are among well-known companies with CPOs (not to be confused with another CPO, Chief Procurement Officer). The role is closely related to, and sometimes overlaps with, Chief Technology Officer and Chief Marketing Officer. The role functions at the intersection of tech, user requirements, and business requirements, says Tess Bennett, who profiled several CPOs in 2017 and who notes that “CPOs are emerging in industries that are delivering value through digital products.”

One definition of the role comes from an incumbent, Tom Willerer, CPO at Coursera, who was profiled by Sharon Florentine: “My job is to take my deep consumer understanding,” Willerer says, “and apply that to build a product to satisfy, delight, and be useful to people all around the world.” He notes that he is “constantly curating and executing a vision” of what product means to his company. CPOs strive for product engagement aimed at attaining business success.

Most CPOs report to the CEO. In an article about lessons learned as a CPO, Sylvester Kaczmarek observes that CPOs oversee all product-related matters from conception and development to innovation and eventual launch. “The CPO also ensures that the product would attract sales and ultimately generate profit for the business,” Kaczmarek says. CPOs develop product concept, strategy, design, development, and marketing and influence production, distribution, and procurement departments, he says.

Key Competencies for the CPO Role

A bachelor’s degree may be adequate for a job as CPO; Willerer suggests courses in project management, planning, business, management, design theory and design thinking, marketing, advertising, and sales, noting that management and soft skills are also vital for CPOs. Asked by the site IDG Connect to name three skills or abilities he looks for in prospective CPO candidates, Paul Trulove with SailPoint said, “the ability to communicate, technical and functional expertise in the job, and a track record of being able to process and tackle challenging situations.”

When preparing career communications to send to employers, those aspiring to the CPO role should emphasize these qualities:

  • Vision and ability to communicate that vision, as well as the ability to communicate across various functions, such as design, engineering, marketing, and user research
  • Hyper-focus on customer needs
  • Evangelistic marketing
  • Research and analysis
  • Tech-savvy and software-proficiency
  • Innovative problem solving
  • Product development
  • Trend-awareness
  • Design thinking

Level-Up Tips

Pointing out that the CEO of Instagram rose from a CPO-like role (VP of Product), writer Shane Schick predicted that “proving yourself as a CPO may soon become one of the quickest paths to the top.” A typical career path in the product realm looks like this, according to Dana Solomon at ProductPlan: Associate Product Manager to Product Manager to Senior Product Manager to Director of Product to VP of Product to Chief Product Officer, and beyond. Alternate paths are also possible, Duncan Malcolm points out, listing such roles as lead product manager/principal product manager, contract product manager, consultant product manager, and specialist product manager.

Here are a few suggestions for those seeking to break into the CPO role, expand their horizons in an existing CPO role, or even rise beyond the CPO role:

  • Determine if a company is product-centric or sales-driven. If you’re looking to make your mark in a top product position in a company new to you, you’ll be happier in a product-driven company. Companies that develop a product but fail to invest in it, instead investing resources in sales, are not product-centric, says Jeetu Patel, CPO of Box, in Bennett’s article.
  • Don’t be discouraged from the role if you lack a tech background. “It can be helpful to have a technical background, but it’s not entirely necessary.” That’s the observation of P.K. Agarwal, as quoted in Florentine’s article. “Agarwal says understanding that three departments – design, analytics/data, and engineering – must “coordinate efforts to design, develop and build a winning product and a successful CPO must be able to manage all those effectively” is more important than a tech background.
  • CPO is an excellent opportunity for women product leaders. The CPO position represents an excellent opportunity, points out Shelley Parry, operating partner at Insight, for women product leaders to step into the gap that has occurred because the emergent quality of project leadership has reduced the pool of available talent. “My advice to women is to take action and position yourselves to take advantage of an open and growing opportunity,” Parry advises. Mary Clark, Chief Product Officer and Chief Marketing Officer at Synchronoss, adds that aspiring female CPOs should “listen to their instincts and have confidence,” particularly with regard to conflict resolution. While opportunities are promising for women, not surprisingly female product managers earn less than their male counterparts.
  • Be hungry and curious. Box’s Patel says he looks for product leaders with hunger and curiosity. “Without enough of those characteristics, even the smartest or most technical person on the planet won’t do things the way they need to be done,” he says.

CPO Trends to Watch

  • Product teams are starting to report in greater numbers to a CPO, instead of to marketing. Jake Sorofman reports in The State of Product Leadership 2019 that in 2018, Chief Marketing Officers were the main role overseeing product management by a wide margin. That’s still the case, but the margin is shrinking, with an almost 7% increase in reporting to a chief product officer or equivalent in 2019.
  • Understanding of systems thinking increases. “As product managers, we can no longer just stay in our lanes or keep our heads down,” notes Rosemary King. “Our first order of business is to understand the ecosystems of our customers, organizations, and products, and how they all affect each other.” As director of training products for Mind the Product Training, King has noticed increased interest in systems-thinking training.
  • Customers guide decisions. Sorofman cited concern about a tendency in the recent past for product decisions to be informed “more often by competitors than by customers.” Happily, Sorofman says, the pendulum has now swung back to customers as guides.

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