A chief product officer is the top dog role in a product team. But before we dive into the details, let’s quickly define what a product is.
A product is a tangible or intangible item designed to meet a customer’s needs. It could be a physical product, like a car or a shoe. It could be software, like an app or a system. It might be content, like a blog post. Or it could be a service, like a digital subscription or financial advice.
The CPO is in charge of the product, whatever that product may be. But there’s often a lot of confusion surrounding what they actually do. Let’s clear that up.
What is a chief product officer?
The chief product officer (CPO) is responsible for guiding the strategic direction of a company’s products or services. This role encompasses the entire product lifecycle, from that first spark of an idea, through development, market launch, and ongoing iterations.
The CPO’s main goal is to understand the market landscape, the company’s target audience, and how the product or service fits into both.
In terms of their place in the business, they are C-suite execs who dabble with work across departments — usually marketing, sales, customer service, and technology — to ensure the product meets the needs of customers and contributes to the company’s overall business goals.
What is the difference between a CPO and other product leaders?
Product leaders include product managers, product directors, and vice presidents of product. These roles, while instrumental in shaping the product’s trajectory, do not carry the same breadth of responsibility or level of strategic oversight as a CPO.
Scope of responsibility
CPOs own the product vision; its success or failure ultimately rests on their shoulders. In terms of scope, they’re typically responsible for the entire suite of products or services that a company offers, while a Product Manager or Director might be in charge of one product or a particular product line. This broader responsibility means a big part of the CPO role is considering how multiple products strategically align with the company’s overall business strategy.
CPOs are members of the C-suite, which means they contribute to high-level decisions that directly influence the company’s direction. Other product leaders, while influential, typically do not have the same level of input.
CPOs bridge various functions within a company, including marketing, sales, engineering, customer service, and more. They ensure each of these different areas are working together effectively to create, launch, and support the product. While other product leaders also work cross-functionally, the CPO has the authority to make decisions that impact multiple departments.
CPOs are often called upon to represent the company’s product vision to investors, media, and at industry events. They are the public face of the company’s product strategy in a way that other product leaders typically are not.
CPO vs. CTO
It’s easy to get caught up in the swirl of ‘chief’ titles. You’ve got the CEO, CFO, CIO, and a whole alphabet soup of other ‘C’s. But right now, let’s focus on two key big hitters: the chief product officer (CPO) and the chief technology officer (CTO). They both sit at the big kids’ table, but their roles are as different as chalk and cheese.
The CPO is in charge of steering the company’s product vision. To use a ship analogy, they’re like the navigator, scanning the horizon (market landscape), making sure everyone is heading in the right direction and keeping an eye out for opportunities.
To continue the ship analogy — the CTO is more like the engineer down in the engine room, making sure all the gears and cogs (read: technology and systems) are working perfectly. They oversee the technical direction of the company, which can involve everything from IT infrastructure to the technology used in the products themselves. They’re the tech guru, the go-to person for anything related to technology and engineering.
Yes, there’s overlap: Both the CPO and CTO need to understand the product and the tech. But while the CPO is looking at the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of the product — what should we build and why should we build it, the CTO is more focused on the ‘how’ — how can we build it using the best and most efficient technology.
Do all organizations need a CPO?
It’s a bit like asking, ‘Do I need that extra cup of coffee in the morning?’ Well, it depends.
Startups and smaller organizations might not have a dedicated CPO. You might find the CEO or founder wearing multiple hats, including the product leadership one. But, as the business grows and things get more complex — more features, more products, more people, higher stakes — that’s where a dedicated CPO can be a real game-changer.
CPOs guide the company’s product strategy with laser precision, ensuring every decision aligns with the overall business goals. They can also balance different departments’ needs and expectations to make sure everyone’s rowing in the same direction.
So, do all organizations need a CPO? Not necessarily. But could a CPO be the missing puzzle piece for a growing company looking to make its mark with standout products? Absolutely.
What are some key objectives for a CPO?
Just as a sports team has its key goals, a chief product officer (CPO) has some critical objectives to knock out of the park. Let’s break down a few of these:
Set product strategy
The CPO is the mastermind behind the product roadmap. They define where the product needs to go and how to get there, all while aligning this vision with the company’s broader goals.
Understand the market and customers
A good CPO needs to be a little bit of a psychic — they need to anticipate market trends and customer needs. It’s about knowing what the customers want even before they do and how to position the product to meet those needs.
In the business world, standing still equals moving backward. A CPO’s job is to keep the company ahead of its competitors. This means fostering a culture of creativity to keep the product fresh.
A CPO is like a team coach, rousing everyone up to do their best work and operate in unison. They ensure sales, marketing, development, customer service — basically, the whole company — understand the product vision and work together to make it happen.
Deliver business results
Ultimately, a CPO’s success is measured by the impact on the company’s bottom line. They need to deliver products that not only wow the customers but also drive business growth, profitability, and market share.
What does a CPO do, day-to-day?
Now we’ve covered their goals, let’s take a look at how these translate into daily tasks.
Oversee product development
A pivotal part of the CPO’s day revolves around product development. This means coordinating with the design, engineering, and development teams, monitoring progress, and ensuring the product is on track as per the roadmap.
Remember that ‘psychic’ part? A CPO constantly reviews market data, conducts competitor analysis, and evaluates feedback. This might mean going through reports, or even better, scheduling time to chat with real customers — essentially, customer discovery and its related tasks.
Brainstorming and ideation
A CPO regularly engages in brainstorming sessions, either with their product team or cross-functionally. This could be about tweaking a feature, exploring a new tech or platform, or brainstorming solutions to a roadblock.
Communication is key. CPOs regularly meet with stakeholders, from internal teams to external partners and investors, ensuring everyone’s on the same page and garnering support for product initiatives.
Standing still isn’t an option. The CPO often dives deep into key performance indicators (KPIs) to gauge the success of the product, making tweaks and adjustments as necessary.
Beyond meetings and strategy, a CPO dedicates time to mentor and coach their team. They’re the guiding hand, providing direction, resolving conflicts, and keeping everyone motivated and on track.
A CPO’s calendar often includes catch-ups with sales, marketing, customer service, etc. These aren’t just for friendly chats; they’re meetings to ensure every person understands and can articulate the product’s value proposition and upcoming features.
Part of being at the helm means anticipating risks. A CPO evaluates potential issues in the product’s lifecycle and devises strategies to mitigate them.
Even amidst the daily hustle, a CPO allocates time for thinking about the next big thing. This could be planning the next version of the product or even a brand-new product line.
Lastly, a CPO never ends their day without checking in on feedback, be it from users, the market, or their team. They understand that a product is only as good as its latest iteration, and they’re always ready to evolve.
Key attributes for a CPO
So what does it take to step into these shoes? Here are the skills you need (or will be prepared to develop):
As the leader responsible for the company’s product vision, a CPO needs to be a strategic thinker. They need to understand market trends, recognize opportunities, anticipate challenges, and effectively communicate a clear and actionable product roadmap.
A great CPO places the customer at the heart of all decisions. They understand customer needs and aspirations as if they were their own. And they need to know how to translate these insights into product features.
While a CPO doesn’t necessarily need to be the most technically proficient member of the team, a solid understanding of tech is essential so you can get the gist of what your developers are talking about. The CPO should also be able to comprehend the strengths and limitations of their technology stack and communicate effectively with their engineers.
Leadership and team management
A CPO leads a diverse team of professionals. Therefore, strong leadership and team management skills are a must. This includes being able to motivate, inspire, and guide team members towards a common goal.
Communication and collaboration
A CPO needs to be an effective communicator and collaborator. They must articulate the product vision to stakeholders, collaborate with different teams, manage expectations, and keep everyone on track.
A CPO must be data-literate. They should be comfortable with analyzing data, using it to drive their decisions, and setting relevant KPIs to measure product success.
Resilience and adaptability
The product world changes as quickly as the weather up a mountain. A successful CPO should therefore be resilient and adaptable, capable of navigating through ambiguity and adjusting the product strategy as needed.
Last but not least is empathy. Whether it’s understanding customer needs or the challenges faced by their team, a successful CPO should have a high degree of empathy. This attribute can facilitate better product design, happier teams, and, ultimately, a more successful product.
The future of the CPO role
Things are looking good for CPOs. The role has seen a rise in prominence over the past decade. This growth is fueled by an increasing recognition of the important role that product management plays in a company’s success, particularly in the tech sector.
As the tech industry has grown, and the complexity and importance of product development has too, and the need for a dedicated CPO role has become increasingly clear.
There are several reasons for this shift:
- Complex product ecosystems: Products are no longer standalone. They often integrate with various other platforms, services, and devices. Managing this complex ecosystem requires a level of oversight and strategic thinking that justifies a dedicated role.
- Customer centricity: There’s a growing recognition that to be successful, companies must be relentlessly focused on their customers’ needs. This customer-centric approach is at the heart of the product role, further emphasizing its importance.
- Rapid technological change: The pace of technological innovation is faster than ever. Companies need someone at the helm who understands these trends, can adapt to them, and turn them into product opportunities.
- Product-led growth: Many tech companies are adopting a ‘product-led’ growth strategy, where the product itself is the main driver of customer acquisition, conversion, and expansion. This approach necessitates a CPO who can lead the charge and ensure that the product is effectively driving growth.
In this environment, the CPO has emerged as someone who isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ role, but a true lynchpin in the organization, linking together various departments, including engineering, design, marketing, sales, and customer service. As companies continue to recognize the value of a holistic and strategic approach to product management, the role of the chief product officer is likely to continue its rise in prominence and importance.
How do I become a CPO?
Becoming a chief product officer (CPO) is a combination of experience, skill, and strategic career planning. Here are the steps you need to take:
1. Educational foundation
Most aspiring CPOs begin with a bachelor’s degree in business, engineering, computer science, or a related field. The choice often depends on the industry you’re aiming for. Consider pursuing an MBA or a Master’s in a specialized domain. This not only offers deeper insights into business and product management but also broadens networking opportunities.
2. Starting roles
- Product analyst/associate: Begin your journey in roles that offer insights into product metrics, user analytics, and market research.
- Junior product manager: This is your chance to manage smaller product features or projects, coordinating between developers and designers.
3. Mid-level management
- Product manager: As a PM, you’ll be responsible for entire product lines, making critical decisions about features, coordinating go-to-market strategies, and interfacing with multiple teams.
- Senior product manager: With added experience, you’ll handle more complex products, mentor junior PMs, and play a more strategic role.
4. Leadership roles
- Director of product management: Here, you’ll oversee a team of product managers, define product strategies for larger segments, and influence company direction.
- Vice president of product: As a VP, you’ll be responsible for multiple product lines or entire product portfolios, ensuring alignment with company goals and stakeholder expectations.
5. The pinnacle: CPO
By this stage, you’ve not just amassed experience but also demonstrated the ability to align product strategy with company vision, drive innovation, and lead teams of all stripes. As a CPO, you’ll shape the company’s product vision, ensuring it stays competitive and meets market demands.
6. Continuous learning and networking
Across all stages, attend product management workshops, seminars, and conferences. Networking is invaluable, so use any opportunity you can to connect with peers, mentors, and industry leaders. Certifications from organizations like the Pragmatic Institute offer added advantages.
7. Diversify your experience
Consider taking roles in startups, mid-sized companies, and large corporations throughout your career. Each offers unique challenges and learning opportunities. Branch out to related roles occasionally; a stint in marketing, sales, or customer service can offer fresh perspectives
As you climb the ladder, remember to mentor the next generation. This not only enriches the product management community but also sharpens your own insights as you guide others.
The path to CPO isn’t linear. It’s a combination of structured learning, hands-on experience, strategic networking, and, above all, a passion for creating products that resonate with users. Each milestone is not just a position but a learning opportunity that paves the way for the next.
Regardless of your current position on the ladder, staying curious is a must. This means continually learning throughout your career, staying abreast of everything from the latest market trends, to the best project management tools, to the biggest industry events. Follow these tips, and you’ll be well on your way to a satisfying career in product development.