Decades ago, many large companies had a single member of the C-suite; the CEO. Because many of those companies were publicly traded, next came the CFO, followed in short order by the COO, CMO and – with the rise of the computer age – the CTO. Strangely, it took a while for organization that rely on product sales to realize they needed a product owner represented. But the Chief Product Officer (CPO) is now just as likely to be making major business impact in the organization. Let’s discuss why.
So What is a CPO?
The Chief Product Offer leads the product department and bears responsibility for a company’s product portfolio. The growth of the CPO office has been primarily driven by the evolution of product management as a separate discipline. Product teams have become as important as marketing and engineering departments, which is why companies are beginning to see the need for a person who can elevate product vision to the C-suite.
The Chief Product Officer has the gargantuan task of ensuring smooth development of great products that deliver value to customers, and in turn, the organization. They drive the entire product lifecycle, from vision-setting to launch.
More importantly, they understand every aspect of how business is done and use this to drive company-wide impact. They have to be passionate about the product and make a case for it. In the same vein, they must be humble enough to let go of their product if the data doesn’t support their hypothesis. They also have to carefully walk a tightrope between convincing stakeholders and not offending them.
If the above job description sounds tough, that’s because it is. However, it is every bit rewarding as it is challenging. The CPO uses market research juxtaposed with a deep understanding of their company’s capabilities to determine what products are needed, why they’re needed, and when they should be needed.
What Kinds of Companies are Looking for a CPO?
Though CPOs can be found in nearly every industry, the companies that have this role share a few common traits:
- Companies that have achieved product market fit once, and now wish to expand their product portfolio.
- Companies seeking to add a formal methodology to their product portfolio.
- Companies adding processes to maximize scale.
- Fast-growing organizations evolving from generalists to more specialized roles.
The Four Types of CPOs
Not surprising among new roles, you likely won’t find two CPOs who do the job the exact same way. That said, most chief product officers fit within one of the following four buckets.
1. Innovative Visionary
A visionary with the necessary foresight needed to ensure the company stays on top of customer needs. Such visionary CPOs have compelling goals for the organization beyond the challenges and ambiguities of today to a powerful new tomorrow. To this end, both the CPO and the stakeholders must have a high level of risk appetite to achieve their goals.
2. Customer-Centric Expert
This CPO develops strategies that revolve around the customer’s needs. The strategy must take into account the myriad of organizational changes and be rooted in reality. This CPO will often rely heavily on customer data before diving into any specific direction. As such, they develop and rely upon detailed personas to reflect customers across different spectrums of unmet needs.
3. Technology Leader
If your company’s product is software, your CPO must have the technical background to keep ahead of trends. Understanding customers is still critical, but as important is the ability to understand what can be accomplished with software today, and how that will likely evolve tomorrow. Moreover, we’ve already discussed the role of the CPO to add rigor to processes with the development process. More and more, that’s accomplished through technology.
4. Brand Communications Specialist
Though most CPOs are “product people,” there’s truth to the notion that in some organizations, the message a company is conveying can be as important as the product itself. A brand communications expert is skilled at creating a strong network that can generate media hype around the business and its products. These CPOs find themselves cultivating powerful communities in and around the product portfolio to maximize the brand experience in a way that resembles how other companies might rely upon a Chief Marketing Officer.
The Future of the CPO
Seemingly every day, there’s a trendy new title and it’s hard to know if it’s the flavor of the week or something that will stick long-term. But ironically, while C-level titles have been applied to technology and marketing for decades, only now is the CPO role becoming more and more common. And yet, this office is arguably the most important as it is entrusted for the continuous care of the most valuable asset in an organization – the product itself.
Chances are, if your organization is committed to continuous product innovation, there’s a CPO in your future – if they haven’t taken the helm already.