CPO Series: Advice for the First Time CPO

As more companies recognize the strategic needs in product leadership, demand for CPO (“Chief Product Officer”) has skyrocketed. If you are new to this role, or aspiring to become one, you may find this webinar from a multiple time CPO, Ketan Babaria, very insightful.

Ketan is a veteran product executive in the tech industry. Currently Ketan is the CPO of M1 Finance. Previously he has held CPO and head of product role at Roofstock, Life Lock, Capital One D3, to name a few.

In this webinar, Ketan lends his advices on

  • Before you get started
  • What to expect when getting started 🏁
  • Mistakes to avoid (which he learned from the hard way)
  • How to set yourself up for success in your first 90 days

The full transcript is provided below.

Read the Full Transcript

The following transcript has been altered for readability. 

Ketan Babaria: It’s great to be here with all of you today. As Kalei mentioned, I’ve been CPO at a few companies now. You know what the hardest part about being a CPO? Is explaining to your friends and family what you actually do. As a VP product, you say, “Oh, I build that.” CPO role is very different and we’ll get into it in a bit. In reality, each CPO role is very unique, but there are a few commonalities. I’ll be outlining a few observations based on my experiences and also watching my fellow CPOs. So here’s what I will be talking about today. What should you be thinking about before taking the CPO role? What are the expectations from a CPO, and how are they different from a VP product role, and pit falls avoid, and finally, what you try doing in your first 90 days. Next slide. And I’ll try to go through this in 10 minutes or so, so that we’ll have ample time for Q&A at the end, because that is where the interesting conversations will happen.

So first thing you need to answer is, why do you want to become CPO? Right? Are there motivations beyond career progression? It would be helpful to write it down, being a CPO is not all about product. And we’ll get to that in a minute. One key indicator that I use generally is, are you passionate about that area? Do you feel energized about that area or line of business or the product? When you look at a product, you think, “Oh, can really improve this?” And you should use this as an indicator to see if you’re passionate about it.

Second thing you need to do is do a deeper dive on why is the company looking for a CPO? What are they trying to solve? Are they looking for you to build teams, improve process, a business goal, looking for a domain expert, digital transformation, all of that. Just do a deeper dive on why is the company looking for a CPO at this stage? And then once you know that, how do you feel about the challenge? Do you feel that again, energized? Do you feel that, “Oh, really, would like to tackle that challenge.” And also, have you done that role before at a smaller scale? Especially for the one big challenge that the company is trying to solve for. It could be hard coming in cold at something which is the top priority for the company, but you have never done it before. And it would be really hard learning in the job for such a thing.

Finally, who is defining the roadmap, who has the P&L responsibilities in the current state, and are you okay with it? Generally, ownership changes takes time, and it’s not that easy. So you should be very clear about, “Okay, who is owning what? And this is what I’m owning, and I’m comfortable with owning that, or I need to own differently.” You should have very good idea about what it is that you are owning versus other members of the executive. So let’s talk a bit about how the expectations change once you become CPO. And these are the things you’re expected to do beyond what you are doing already. Let’s say, as a VP product or head of product. You are expected to manage the entire portfolio. You are not thinking about growing your own product line, but you’re thinking about the portfolio products. You are defining the resourcing and a prioritization at a portfolio level, and you are expected to drive the business outcomes, not just product metrics.

Second is, yeah. I talked about this one. The third is you are expected to drive consensus which much broader functional areas. Earlier, you may be working with your engineering counterpart, design counterpart. But now you’re working with the executive leadership team. CTOs, CRO CMO, GMs, and even board. So the role changes dramatically, the scope changes dramatically and we’re expected to drive consensus among all these various parties. Each have their own kind of KPIs that they attract. And you are expected to identify gaps in the current process, which could be leading to inefficient execution. We should look at communication gaps and fix those. Generally speaking, you need to do a clean sweep and look at all the gaps in the execution and the business, which is getting in the middle of business outcomes.

And finally, as I mentioned earlier, like building teams, making sure that you are looking at the talent the right way and build a high performing team, generally speaking. Board updates. This will probably be the newest thing for any VP product that you are finally interacting with the board, providing regular updates, making sure that they understand where you’re going and making sure there’s enough consensus across the board of doing certain things or not. Right? So we, for example, have multiple conversations about, “Okay, should we launch Crypto or not?” And these are the kind of conversations you get into with your board before deciding on big, big product.

All right, let’s talk about mistakes to avoid in your new role. One of the biggest mistakes to avoid is not knowing what’s expected of you. You know how to build great products. Otherwise, you won’t be there, but the challenge could be in execution or in process or in misalignment among the team. You need to know what that is. And you want to make sure that you’re focusing on the right thing and not get distracted with the non-priority items. Again, very typical coming from product, thinking everything is a product solve. Don’t get me wrong. Product is the biggest lever, but you could be scrappy and figure things out what you can do quickly and deliver on your business goals without having six to nine months as a product built, for example, teaming up with ops and figure out how can do things manually first before you build a full blown product.

Figuring out, can you do it as smarter scale? Can you partner? Again, not thinking build all the time, but thinking the business outcomes that you’re trying to drive to. Goes without saying quickest way to fail as if you have a very rigid attitude. My way or the highway doesn’t work. And you already know this being a PM and head of product. It’s again, if you had this attitude, you wouldn’t be there because it’s very much a collaborative thing, but it becomes even more crucial as you become a CPO.

Onboarding new roles. This is another interesting one. If you’re thinking about introducing a new role within the company, say product or ops, make sure that you have consensus with the broader team about the interaction models and roles and responsibilities, making sure that everybody’s on the same page about the interaction model with the outside teams. You do not want them to come into the company and everybody saying, “Oh, who are you? Why are you here? Why are you asking these questions?” You want to make sure that you talk with the team beforehand and make sure that everybody’s in agreement with the rules and responsibilities in the outcome.

When you’re working with the leadership team in the board, get a good understanding of how quickly they would want things to change. Sometimes, companies don’t want to rock the boat too much. They do not want to change the culture. They think they have great culture, but they want to change something else. Sometimes, companies want dramatic change like, “Oh, this is a transformation. I want you to come and change things here, do whatever you need to do. But here are the outcomes I’m looking for.”

Whatever it may be, but make sure that you modulate your pace based on the expectations or reset the expectations like, “Okay, this the amount of time I need. And this is one of the big reasons for having a misalignment, especially with the CEO.” All right, finally, again, if you’re a leader, you’re not waiting for the permission and this is one job where no one truly will tell you what to do. You have take initiative, make board decisions, of course work with your cross-functional team. By the way, XFN means cross-functional teams. Somebody asked me earlier, but make sure that there’s an alignment, but you have to lead. You have to make decisions and drive consensus.

And finally, and probably the most important, your success will be defined to a very large extent by your team, which is to in many roles, but even more so in this role, you should do a clear eyed assessment of your team and what the company needs, and then find the right talent for these roles or reassign people to different roles where you need help, but make sure that you do a very clear eyed assessment of your current team talent. So with that in mind, what should you do in the first 90 days? As I mentioned, clearly understand what’s expected of you and write it down. Conform with the individual parties and look for contradictions. Is one peer expecting different from you than the other one? What are the commonalities? Share the expectation doc early and often.

Start building relationships with your peers and directs. This is part of your listening tour. Do not need to provide, prescribe any solution, but just asking questions, asking what’s working, what’s not working. What’s the biggest challenge with the current product team. What’s the perception of the weakest and strongest pair in your team. And if your company has done engagement surveys, look at the areas of strengths and concerns. By the way, I typically find open-ended responsibility insightful in these surveys. But yeah, look at all of that and start looking at what is working, what is not working and what the expectations are. And as a part of relationship and trust, see if there’s a way for you to help your peers quickly. Is there something that you can do in a short order to help them that we very much appreciated and you build trust very quickly.

I mentioned that already. Understanding product economics. This is an interesting one. I’m not talking here about say, your pilot metrics or your activation rates, activity rates, and so on so forth. Work with your … Sorry, move forward. Work with your CFO to understand what are your product economics and how does the company make money? What are the revenue streams? What are the cost structures? What are the margins? Business levers? Deeply understanding each aspect of your business and your products, that’ll be super, super helpful. As a product head, you want to make sure that you’re making decisions based on data. So start identifying data gaps. If you do not have a lot of data, start figuring out how do you get all that data from your products or what other metrics are? So come prioritization time. We are talking about data. Not opinions. Finally, work with your peers, managers, and team to create a cohesive product vision, strategy and high level roadmap.

And again, as a co-create is something that you cannot go six months away and come back with, “Oh, okay, here’s my vision, strategy and roadmap.” It is a very, very collaborative exercise. And you work very closely with your leadership team, your team, to define what it is, have your own view of course, you lead with your view, but you have to work with your team to ensure that everybody is in alignment with that. An important part here is, create the regular cadence for these conversations very early on. Otherwise, there are so many things which come in day to day, which are very tactical and this would probably take a back burner. You would start thinking, “Okay, let me increase the revenue here, let me do something there.” And your days will be consumed by that.

So make sure you got about time and set a regular cadence of conversation with your cross-functional team, your team, your leadership team, to talk about this in more detail and have a plan to do so within first 90 days or within the first few months. That’s all I have and we’ll get into questions. I’m sure there’ll be tons of them, but I’m happy to help. Please connect if I can be of help, happy to brainstorm. If you’re thinking about new role in the product as a CPO. Happy to talk about that, so.

Kalei White: Wow. Amazing. Thank you so much for sharing. We have a ton of questions already, so let’s get deeper into some of the topics that you mentioned. Super excited. So when you mention a product portfolio, how is the CPO at a smaller startup with a few product teams different from very large companies?

Ketan Babaria: So in a large companies, typically, so in a small company, the product portfolio ends up being some other product which are already working well. You’re thinking about building new products to enter new lines of businesses, for example, and then you have small product, like say, “Hey, I want to test one out or a small AB test or whatever. Not.” So product portfolio at a startup level ends up being your strategic projects, whatever that’s working. You’re thinking about entering a new area. And then the rest of it. At a bigger company though, you typically have more established products. And that is where majority of your time is going. Strategically, majority of the company is working on that. That is probably the biggest difference. At a smaller company, I feel there are more batch that you’re placing. You are trying out new things with a very limited resources, whereas at a bigger company, you have more established product, which you’re trying to grow and you have way more resources to do so.

Kalei White: So which one do you like better?

Ketan Babaria: Picking the favorite child question, huh? Well, to be honest, I like aspects of both. So at a startup, I’ll tell you the best thing is you can define a strategic direction. Buy-in, doesn’t take too long. It’s very quick. And given that you’re small, you can take much bigger risks and you move fast. The bigger company though, when you take a big bet, it pays off. It works. It takes time, right? Consensus takes time in a bigger company. Always. I’ve never seen consensus being faster at a big company than a small company. But when you do actually do it, you already have an established base of customers. Product extensions are easier to launch, so you can see the impact very quickly. And at the startup level, you are pretty much building customers from pretty much zero. So that’s the big difference that are good. I like flavors of both.

Kalei White: Right. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. So another question from the audience is, in your opinion, what are the pluses and the minuses, if a CPO manages both product and engineering functions?

Ketan Babaria: Great question. So typically, what I have seen is product managing the front end engineering, typically, the north manage the platform engineering. So in the product roles, typically, you may have product design for sure. And you have product ops and then you have engineering. So the pros of having that approach is your front end engineering team is very much aligned with the user experience and they can work. They can work hand in hand and move quickly. Engineering is thinking about UX as well, front end engineering I’m talking about. And especially, if you align it based on product, so this is your front end engineering team assigned to product A and then you have product manager and designer, they’re working hand in hand closely together every day, day and night, day out. So that use user experience typically works very well because engineers are thinking about user experience at that time.

The cons of this approach though is, and again, the pro for having it separately is then there’s a gap between front end engineering and backend engineering. And they end up playing a game of telephone. So unless there is a good working model between front end and backend engineering, it takes longer to get your products out because front end engineering then defines the stuff. And then they say, “Hey, backend engineering, can you build this for me?” Then goes into backend engineering roadmap, backend engineering typically, do not have a single roadmap. That’s why they have a single roadmap, whereas product engineering tends to have product specific roadmap. So you’re an acute waiting. So there are pros and cons of both approaches.

Kalei White: Right. Thank you. That makes a lot of sense. So let’s go back to working with leadership and the board. How do you get them on your side? Do you have an example of a good deck and what would you put in it?

Ketan Babaria: I mean, they are on your side, they hired you. So again, it is at that point, I have not seen ours versus them. And that level for sure, I mean, just like everybody is trying to go in the same direction, but what is important is something that I mentioned earlier is understanding their expectations and aligning your outputs with their expectations. And how do you get that? Again, it comes back to, do you know what they expect? Do you have a way to get to that point, giving them visibility into here’s what I’m thinking, and here’s a plan so that I get, get to what the outcomes that you’re looking for and communicating frequently and making sure that they are all still on the same page.

Kalei White: Totally. Yeah. Love it. Oh, another great question. Talking about business outcomes, how do you connect business outcome with product goals? How do you translate dollars and numbers to what your VP products will focus on?

Ketan Babaria: Yeah, I think, so one thing I mentioned earlier is if you do not have product metrics, you would need it right away. Otherwise, you’ll not be able to tie it. So having a product metrics is super crucial. If you know the funnel numbers, if you know your pilot metrics, that becomes your foundation for tying that with your company’s goals or OKRs, right? Whatever they’re trying to get to. So at a portfolio level, for example, you are thinking about what should I be driving for, for revenue in Q4? And then you look at your product portfolio and you see, again, working with your CFO, you already know the product numbers, right? So how much revenue is coming from each product line? What is a growth? What is a margin, right? All of that stuff. And then you say, “Okay, what are my biggest lever to drive that revenue in Q4?”

And that’s how you drive, it connect the dots between the product numbers and your revenue numbers. So for example, if you include revenue by X, Y, or Z, you look in your product, you say, “Okay, this product brings in this amount of revenue. The conversion here can be improved by 10%, if I were to do that is a revenue impact.” And then you say, “Is that enough or not?” So you start tying it back based on each one of the metrics, the business metrics for each product line and align that with the company metric.

Kalei White: Right. Yeah. Makes total sense. Oh, a great question from our friend, Heather, how can a newly appointed CPO and legacy organization ensure that there’s a synergy yet definition between the CPO and the CTO?

Ketan Babaria: That conversation needs to happen before you take the role and make sure that there’s a broad level alignment on the roles and responsibilities, making sure, as I was saying earlier, who owns the roadmap? Who owns the P&L? It would be very clear about, “Okay, what does that partnership look like?” And making sure there’s an agreement very early on, even before you take the role of what the output is and what the ownership looks like. Because again, that’s a very good question because beyond your team, your success to logics and also hinges on your relationship with your CTO and making sure that you both are on the same page and you’d be buddies.

Kalei White: Yeah. I love that answer. You have to define the roles and responsibilities before you take on the role. Makes so much sense. So we don’t have that much time left, but we do have one question that we ask every speaker on our series, which is in your opinion, what separates a good CPO from the great?

Ketan Babaria: Good CPO and great CPO. Well, a good CPO delivers on the business outcomes. And that is kind of like a given, but the great CPO are transformative. They really have … They’re 10XRs. They have 10 X business impact. They make your team 10X better. They make the organization product led. Basically, they’re transformative. Hitting the goal is good, but transformative is hard. So great CPOs do that.

Kalei White: Yes. Love it. And there’s a really good question from Vishal. What can someone do to accelerate their career path and get into the CPO role without waiting years? I love that question. Without waiting years.

Ketan Babaria: Well, in a way start doing it, right? The things that you are expected to do as a CPO start picking up that stuff, start understanding your business metrics, start understanding where is the company going, start understanding what the business outcomes you’re looking for, start understanding the product economics. If you’re not in a management role, try to get into management role, because building a team is one of the most crucial things you will do to start getting experience in that. Beyond that, I think is just finding the right company who is looking for one and aligning based on your experience and going there. Typically, breaking into a CPO role at a bigger organizations is harder. It’s easier at a smaller company.

Dragonboat is the fastest growing product portfolio platform for outcome-focused teams to strategize, prioritize, plan and deliver products that drive business results. With Dragonboat, product teams can connect OKRs, customer insights, and product initiatives in one source of truth PPM platform. Sign up for a free trial or book a demo.

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