Aniket Gune, Chief Product Officer of SmartAssets, joined the CPO Series to talk about how a Chief Product Officer can drive a product strategy. Aniket also goes into the process of creating alignment and where a tool like Dragonboat can come in to orchestrate success throughout the entire product org.
In this CPO Session, Aniket covers how Chief Product Officers can:
- Frame the problem
- Define success metrics
- Create alignment with internal & external stakeholders
The full transcript is provided below.
Read the Full Transcript
The following transcript has been altered for readability.
Aniket Gune: Just a little bit about me, I think you’ve heard, but I think what really drives me is connection. I’m a meditation teacher on the side and I bring that same ethos into product management where you are actually present with the person in front and you’re trying to help them actually do what they need to do in their life to really feel supported. I want to unpack four keys with you to unlock exceptional results that I’ve seen from my experience working at Amex or working at Amazon or working currently as the chief product officer at SmartAsset. And those four keys are, one is, again, I think y’all have heard this. I’m just going to share it from my experience, so the words might be different. Also, this is applicable to product leaders across different levels.
I would say it’s also beyond product if you want to take that, but one is really personalizing the vision and mission that a company defines itself by. The vision and mission is the sole reason why a company exists. It is why the company came into being. At SmartAsset, our founder talks about this. The trigger event was there was no great resource on the web to really say that, should you buy or should you rent? And the thought was, can we create calculators? And can we create these simple tools that would help consumers make better financial decisions? And even today, that mission actually has evolved in terms of how the product is moved, but the mission and the vision still stay the same. We want to be essentially a facilitator of great financial advice at scale.
Personalizing that mission becomes very key. The second thing is designing a strategy that actually covers the entire org so that no person feels left behind is extremely, extremely powerful in terms of unlocking results. If you can do it on an industry level, it’s even better, because then you’re making significant inroads into the market. In terms of the third key, it’s all about the people. How do you set up people in a place where they can succeed? And in the fourth piece, how do you create this culture of winning of formidable execution, and it feeds off each other? So I want to unpack each of these keys as we move forward. Talking about the vision and mission, I think this is really important to appreciate the context that you have come in, and one of the best ways to enter a new job is to be a historian. And being a historian means being incredibly interested, and excited, interviewing people who’ve been here at different lengths, and learning from them.
Normally, companies are built on the shoulder of giants. And just understanding the context of your business is really, really key to start understanding the vision and mission. The second, I would say, is really walking a mile in the shoes of your customer. I’ll give you an example. At SmartAsset, we are a marketplace that connects consumers to great financial advice and personal financial advisors, and I have felt the pain on the consumer side of the marketplace. When the markets go up, I feel very greedy intrinsically. And when the markets go down, I feel fearful. I have bought that journey. I know what the consumer feels. Now, I might be a certain type of consumer.
There might be people who are closer to retirement or people who are just starting out. But having you or somebody from a historian perspective to help you understand the pain points and the needs of the customer at this point, super, super critical. And then once you understand them, zoom out into their life. Think about 30 years, 40 years, and what your product and service means in the life of your consumer. And then the third thing, I would say, is as a chief product officer, understand your role, or even as a product leader, and that is to be a long term steward of value, be it customer value, team value, culture value, and from an investor perspective, valuation. If the work is not pointing in this direction, we’ve not done our job.
Once we have the vision and mission, how do you define a roadmap and a strategy that actually creates leverage, taking all your assets, taking all your people power, and pointing it in the right direction? And I mean Dragonboat is a great example, Becky. I’ve told you, this analogy really resonates with me. To move significantly, you all need to row in the same direction. All the seats on that boat need to be taken. And the best person needs to come on those seats. And a product strategy that encompasses the entire company is really key. There are three keys to unpack over here. One is to quantify your north star, and this is purposely a little bit more provocative. A north star is normally aspirational, but if you can quantify that, nothing like it. If you look at Amazon Kindle, they wanted to basically enable people to read the book in seconds from the time somebody purchased it, and that’s how Kindle came about.
But if you look at Uber, the best in class, I click a button and immediately within five minutes, a car is there. That is a really cool thing to do to really work towards from a longer term perspective. Then design a plan that actually is durable across different time zones. However urgent the short term and however strategic the long term, if it stands the test of time, you have a great plan. You have a good strategy. One of the hints that I normally think about, or one of the things that I think about deeply, is how do you evolve the strategy from a funnel to really a flywheel? And once you’re able to identify what that flywheel looks like, you know the points of leverage, you keep tweaking till the flywheel starts turning and then it gathers momentum and then it actually is self growing in some ways.
So one of the keys to getting a durable plan in place across time horizons is moving towards a flywheel that feeds off each other. And then the third thing, I would say, and my team has heard me do this every week, maybe every day, it’s evangelize this in repeated simple, meaningful ways. At SmartAsset, we just talk about three or four things: inspire trust with consumers, personalize the products and services they see, humanize the connections, and empower the consumers and advisors. And we talk about this in deep ways, in different ways, through the lens of data, through the lens of consumers, through the lens of advisors. But having people latch onto what your north star is and how you are getting there from a strategic perspective is extremely critical.
The third thing is once you embrace the vision, the mission, you’ve designed a holistic product strategy that actually encompasses the whole company. This is where the fund begins, and this is where you get to work with people and have them embrace their why and measure their what. The exciting piece over here that I personally feel a lot of fulfillment trauma is having the same question for my teams, for my leaders. In their personal careers, in their personal lives, what is their why? What is their roadmap to achieve what they need to from a long term perspective? And how can we set those individuals and those teams up for success, not just to achieve their roadmaps, but also the company’s roadmaps? Both are normally very closely linked. One of the things that one of my mentors mentioned, which I really resonated with, is your team or is the person accelerating the speed of learning or speed of contribution as compared to the company?
So simply said, are you pulling the company forward? Or is the company pulling you forward? And I think development and embracing the why becomes really key. On a hard day, the why is what gives you energy and inspires you. The way you, again, reinforce the how over here is through your values and principles. Every company has values and principles, and some might be spoken, but I was in really cultures across Amex and Amazon and SmartAsset where we truly lean on our values. Amazon leadership principles are really, really well known. Audible had great leadership principles. But at SmartAsset, one of my favorite ones is rise and adapt. As teams are scaling, as businesses are scaling, as context is changing, can you be flexible in mindset to have the ability to be flexible in the execution? Rise and adapt also links to the first one where people who rise and adapt are the ones who grow their careers who are able to create impact, and this is the one that we talk deeply.
And then if you’re able to get people to appreciate their why, understand their what, reinforce the how, the role as a chief product officer, along with your counterparts and technology data and the business, of course, working with the CEO, is how do you design a structure for collective leverage? You’ve pointed in the same direction. You’ve basically made sure everybody’s OKRs and results and goals are locking in over there. Then how do you create a structure that can create leverage and collective leverage for the entire organization and the company? This is where internally, we have what we call a pillar and a pod construct where we have four pillars on which delivery of value is built on, and of course there are foundational horizontals that we are working towards.
And then within each pillar, which has really well pointed directions, there are individual pods that work on, again, core customer problems that correspond to a product. But how do you design that structure that can be scaled and can apply collective leverage, again, as time goes on? And if you’re able to do these three things, it’s all in the execution. Creating a winning culture of formidable execution. I love this word formidable that Paul Graham uses. He talks about earnestness and he talks about repeatability, where there is an undeniable rigor and repeated nature of that trait and that execution. And the keys over here are, of course, identifying the bets and prioritizing [inaudible 00:11:07] multipliers. We normally have a three months by 12 months by 36 months planning cycle. So we look at the short term, we look at the medium term, and we look at the long term, and then we have corresponding zooms. We zoom in 100%, zoom in 50%. Different approaches. It might be a list, much more clear, less clear.
But we keep refining that every quarter and that allows us to make sure we are pointing again in the same direction for radical alignment actually. And this is the piece, I think, Becky, where I know you’re so passionate about and your team contributes so much across different companies and industries, but how do you then optimize the operations right from ideation to launch to really accelerate value, which means you need to measure value, which means you need to track value, which means you need to start seeing the progress? And what typically happens is let’s say you have four pillars, you have 10 teams, 15 teams, there’ll be teams at different levels of evolution. Can you take best practices one and marry it to the others.
But one of the key hints over here that you’re making progress is your input KPIs gain across teams. That’ll show you the traction. The proof is in the pudding. And where the KPIs are not moving, that is the place where you need to focus on and get right and tweak and optimize further. And then I would say if you get these things, each one of this is a topic to unpack further. I’m trying to run through all of this. The last thing is as a meditation teacher, I focus on the moment, or at least I aspire to, or I focus on the R or I focus on the day where as a product development team that is working across the aisle, you want to win one sprint, and that sprint is this one. And by win, I mean not every sprint is going to give you a feature release, but every sprint will give you some learning and some action that can improve the next sprint.
What has worked, what I have seen worked beautifully is you test and you iterate and you test and you iterate and you follow data and you have the gall to come up with the intuitive stuff and you execute. And then once something lands, this fit you scale. And you repeat that process repeatedly. As I was thinking through this, you do these, whatever, three, four things, there is no way you will not have great outcomes and great multiples delivered across customers, across the business, across your investors, but more primarily your own fulfillment levels. I’m going to pause there. I’m sorry I ran over a little bit maybe. I was just wondering if there are any questions the audience might have.
Becky Flint: Right. This is amazing. Everyone, please do submit your questions. You touched upon so many topics and you illustrate in a way, very illuminating. So want to just call out a few things I found really, really interesting here. So one of the things that a lot of people actually struggle through, we work with them and in personal career-wise, is that how you take a north star down to the sprint? And that’s a lot of times the people struggle. There’s the people, very visionary, talk about strategy every day, and then you have a team on the ground level. And the challenge to connect them, really not easy. And the way you describe it as taking the funnel concept, but making it a flywheel is amazing. So I would love to hear a little bit more of how you take a very high level, and instead of break it down into a prescriptive way, how do you turn that into a connecting from a north star metric and strategy vision to actually the team every day?
Aniket Gune: Yeah, Becky. That is the secret ingredient that unlocks the whole value, and it is not easy. There it is an iterative process, even on that first bullet that we spoke about. How do you design a strategy that actually… Again, I think this first bullet is really relevant. How does it straddle three sprints and three months a quarter and 12 months and 36 months and beyond? And how does it create space for it to be inspiring, but at the same time, directing the focus and attention of the organization? There is one big ingredient over here, which is happy coincidences and thoughts in the shower that you are surprised like, “Okay, this happens, this happened.” So I think there’s a little bit of art in science, but the key becomes, what is that aspirational metric that really drives you towards the longer term? Most of the companies treat it as revenue, but revenue is an outcome and that is not aspiring. That is not inspirational. Is there something that you can point towards that’ll create that human element of story and inspiration that really galvanizes the team?
I’ll give you an example. For US, it’s actually really simple. It’s assets under management, and we feel that’s the biggest indicator of trust. If somebody is willing to give assets to an advisor or is willing to give their business to the advisor, that is the mark of deep trust. That basically means we’ve been able to inspire trust. We’ve been able to personalize the recommendations. We are able to hand hold and humanize those connections with the advisor. We’ve been able to play the middle role, and that is a sign of deep trust. And we celebrate stories when that happens. And if that north star is quantifiable, everything starts moving from there. Again, as I said, and that’s not just the only one. The next evolution of that could be a different metric that gets us to that place, maybe faster. So these evolve. But in my experience, simple words, inspiring trust, personalizing, humanizing, and then empowering. That’s it. That tells a story and it can all be lined up with a KPI.
Becky Flint: Right. That’s great. Your strategic pillars are leading to your metrics, because the metrics can be a little further out. Then you will have the leading metrics that is closer to the execution so that will lead to that north star metric. This is amazing. Super cool. So we have another question around the topic today is around deliver exceptional results, but that’s an iterative process. Sometimes you do better. Sometimes your plan didn’t work out. So can you share a little bit of how do you incorporate this into your role-mapping, planning, cycles and process?
Aniket Gune: Yeah. Again, I think it goes back to the ability to have the ability to execute in the short term and plan simultaneously. I’ve done it in multiple ways. In an ideal world, you want to get to continuous planning. The planning is happening continuously, iteratively so that it’s not even any churn on the organization. But that’s not the case typically, because context switches. There are different directions maybe you have to take from a board. For that purpose, I think what we do is essentially focus on the data in terms of what… Again, I think going back to you take those pillars, you put KPIs over there, you put input level KPIs that move there. You take a stock of where your KPIs are, where they need to be as it lines up to a board budget or a future budget. And then what every team is essentially doing from a bottoms up innovation standpoint is essentially carving out, “Okay, these are the priorities that I can work on. These are the big force multipliers that we can deliver over a longer period of time.”
And then I think it becomes a question of investment allocation, because you want your investment to point in the direction where there’s maximum leverage. If you’ve been able to do that, the big boulders are already set and the conversations you are having are on the pebbles, like, “Should we do X or Y?” And that is a much more contained conversation to have at an executive level across the stakeholders. And there’s a lot more durability and predictability of the plans. But to get there is an adventure.
Becky Flint: Right. Totally, totally, totally. Well, this is a cool, and that really tied to something about that you talk about here as well, like a product operations. So we know a lot of chief product officers, especially today, obviously the role’s been around for a very long time, but more so today as the chief product officers are really focusing on business outcome than just deliver a roadmap. Product operations being really essential to many, many teams and organizations, so share a little bit of your thoughts on operations.
Aniket Gune: Yeah. I think this is the unseen hand that makes everything work. You know this, right, Becky? Having a way to ensure that people are not describing an elephant blindfolded is very key, because typically I’ve seen sometimes what can happen is people interpret what priorities might be or what the implications to their teams are. Somebody says, “It’s a tail.” Somebody says, “It’s a wall.” And how do you demystify that? And how do you actually have a single source of truth either through the storytelling, either through the tooling, either through the repeated communication, either through the alignment and context becomes really important. I think as leaders, context over details anytime, and then dive into the details where the context requires.
But I think product ops is the magic that holds the whole engine together. I’ve done it multiple ways. In previous jobs, I’ve done scale agile, which was much more like a hybrid between agile and waterfall in some ways, large teams, large organizations, very top-down prioritization. I’ve done it in very bottoms up ways where teams are just running and then over a period of time, they’re just splintering. So I think to keep that whole fabric really starts from slide number one, and that’s why I think the most important thing we can start with is setting that north star and getting everybody to buy-in so that they can understand their role. Once people understand their roles, that solves half of the issues, and then the tooling and the process just helps cement that.
Becky Flint: Super cool, because all these terms you’re using, it’s very consistent with the terms that we’re thinking here at Dragonboat as well. The elephants, you don’t see parts of elephants because you don’t see the whole picture. How do you tie in north stars? And a couple of things you mentioned also very cool early on about all these different lenses, the time horizons, the different angles. And how do you take these lens and look at your business? So amazing. Now, I know we don’t have a lot of time, so I’m going to spend one last question to you. This is a question we asked every one of our guests, which is, what do you think in your mind that differentiate a good chief product officer from a great chief product officer?
Aniket Gune: It’s a great question, the one I have been thinking about. And again, the proof is in the pudding. It’s the valuation, it’s the value that the person can unlock in the organization in teams, in people around becomes a true indicator of that. But what I would say is based on what we spoke about, the depth in which you can go on these skis and the breadth which you can go on these skis will define the trajectory of, is your impact really showing or is it muted as a chief product officer? I do also think there’s one element that is really, really key and that is luck, right time, right place, right idea in the showers, happy circumstances. Those are big thing. Jeff Bezos, one of his favorite questions in interviews was, do you consider yourself a lucky person? And that in some ways really highlights the fact that, yes, we can only control so much, but there’s something outside of our control that also contributes towards great outcomes and being a great Chief Product Officer .
Becky Flint: This is super amazing. We learned so much. Wish I had more time here today. I really think that tying things together, having a little bit luck on your side is super critical to the success of everyone as well as of every organization. So for those of you who joined us now or listening to our recording later on, just a recap, super excited to have Aniket Gune to share with us as a Chief Product Officer delivering how to deliver exceptional outcome. And this is our summer series of Chief Product Officer sharing their learnings and experiences and answer your questions. If you want to know more about how to deliver both roadmaps and outcomes, you should check out dragonboat.io/CPO. We hope to see you more. And Aniket, thank you so much.
Aniket Gune: Thank you so much, Becky. Thank you so much.
Becky Flint: All right, everyone. See you next time.
Aniket Gune: Hope it was helpful. Thank you. Bye.
Becky Flint: Take care.