Guest Post: How do you become a Chief Product Officer?

By Peter Franks

Of all the C-level functions, the Chief Product Officer role is one of the newest and most important.  Within my own headhunting career, the role has emerged from relative obscurity to become one of the searches we are most frequently asked to undertake.

Many internet, software and broader technology companies see the CPO role as a key source of competitive advantage – as the person who can help to define (and crucially execute) a product strategy that delivers a strong user experience for customers and provides differentiation against competitors.

The sudden rise in demand for Chief Product Officers has created an imbalance in the market, as there are relatively few candidates with deep experience at this level.  This has created a huge opportunity for Product Managers, Product Directors and VPs of Product looking to step up.  What are some of the key themes that companies look for when making this hire, and how can you manage your career to improve your chances of landing such a role?

Common Themes

Whilst the nuances of every CPO hiring process varies, there are some common themes that are normally required:

  • Influencing ability.  Being able to listen to, persuade and influence your colleagues and stakeholders is a fundamental skill for any CPO.  This challenge may manifest itself differently in larger or smaller company environments.  In bigger companies, the ability to drive innovation and change within complex, matrixed organisational structures is a key challenge.  The Chief Product Officer in this environment will often have to influence broad groups of stakeholders with different agendas, and will need patience and strong communication skills to make the necessary changes.By contrast, working in an earlier stage technology business might entail working with both technical and non-technical founders who are likely to have strong opinions as to the future product strategy.  Whilst the organisational structures are often much clearer than in larger businesses, being able to work with and influence founders can present a very different challenge.
  • Ability to drive product strategy.  No Chief Product Officer is the sole custodian of the product strategy for a technology business, but equally the largest difference between the CPO and less senior product leadership roles is the amount of responsibility the CPO has for shaping the product roadmap.  A CPO needs to be able to understand the customer, competition and market, and define a roadmap often with limited information and constrained resources.  The success or failure of that strategy will have a profound effect on the future success of the business, and therefore the business must have confidence that the Chief Product Officer is not merely an executor but also someone with the commercial acumen to help plot the right product strategy for the business.
  • Ability to execute. Being able to coach, motivate and inspire others is undoubtedly a key requirement for being a CPO.  But more than that, most technology companies have a strong preference for candidates with a good understanding of software development processes.  The modern CPO is required to be more than just a strategist, but also someone with a strong knowledge of the development steps necessary to execute the product roadmap.  The modern CPO must be strategic but also have the operational understanding to put that vision into action.

Managing your career

When we consider the three common themes – the ability to influence, the ability to drive product strategy and the ability to execute, there will often be areas where potential first-time CPOs will lack the requisite experience.

From an influencing perspective, there is a substantial difference between being a CPO (or other senior product leader) within a large, matrixed technology company compared to working within an earlier stage, often founder led business.  Candidates who have only worked in start-ups may be surprised by the blurred lines of responsibility and quantity of stakeholders in a larger business.  By contrast, bigger company candidates may find working with strong-willed founders in resource-constrained environments a much different challenge too.  Consequently, both large and small companies looking to hire a CPO will often prefer candidates with experience of working in those types of environments.  Having experience of working in both large and small companies will give you the maximum amount of future career opportunities in the function.

To show that you can drive product strategy, it’s important to demonstrate experience of having helped to create successful technology products.  It’s key to possess experience beyond just localising or implementing product strategies devised elsewhere, and gain experience of driving product management globally for a product.  This need not necessarily entail owning the entire product (this could be a tough ask within a tech giant like Google), but could be having responsibility for a key feature or aspect – such as the checkout pages for an e-commerce business.  Furthermore, you need to be prepared to answer open questions about the market and competitive environment.  You need to show you can handle the ambiguity of being the senior person who has to make the key decisions.

Having a strong understanding of software development is increasingly important for modern CPOs, and whilst they need not be able to write code themselves, traditional top-down waterfall methodologies are not generally well regarded by most technology companies.  Make sure you are as well versed as you can be about the latest software development methodologies and processes.

The huge rise in demand for Chief Product Officers is creating many opportunities for candidates to take the step up.  If you can build your skills and manage your career the right way, there is every chance of successfully making the transition.

Peter Franks is a Partner with Neon River, an executive search firm that specialises in partnering with internet and technology companies to build world-class management teams.