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What is a Chief Product Officer (CPO) and What Does It Take To Become One?

what is a CPO

Executive Summary

A Chief Product Officer (CPO) oversees an organization’s entire product portfolio while achieving the company’s vision and mission and driving business outcomes. It is one of the most cross-functional roles within a company. Designing, building, and delivering products while achieving outcomes and bottom-line impact relies on many decisions from the CPO. 

CPOs focus on:

  • Making the best investment decisions that drive outcomes
  • Keeping their teams motivated and focused on the company’s vision and mission
  • Helping navigate internal stakeholders to keep the product org viewed as a strategic partner and not an order taker

Keep in mind that CPOs don’t do the actual product building. They do not design, code, or write marketing materials. CPOs connect all the related product work to the company’s overarching strategy while collaborating with:

  • Engineering for development work
  • Marketing for positioning and messaging
  • Sales for pricing, demos, and closing
  • Customer success for continued adoption, upsell, and cross-sell opportunities
  • Fiance for budgeting and identifying ways to optimize gross and net margins

Therefore, the primary job of a Chief Product Officer is to drive business outcomes while effectively collaborating with key functions involved in building and delivering meaningful products. 

CPOs balance multiple dimensions, including customer needs, business goals, and engineering resources. They set the top-down strategy and empower their teams to create bottoms-up innovation.

This post will dive into the most common questions regarding the Chief Product Officer:

What Does a CPO Do?

Chief Product Officers collaborate with the various functions required to build and deliver products. Great CPOs apply a portfolio approach which helps them balance customers’ needs, business goals (OKRs), and engineering capabilities to achieve the best product outcomes. To deliver upon this challenging task, CPOs:

  • Take a responsive approach to planning, strategizing, allocating, and dynamically re-adjusting in real-time
  • Work to achieve both near-term results and long-term vision with limited time and resources
  • Continuously promote progress by sharing a source of truth as they champion the idea that transparency creates trust

Because the CPO role is still so new, it requires many organizations to switch their mentality from delivering features to driving outcomes. It also means taking a broader perspective, from one product to the entire portfolio, and managing various functions:

Product Strategy: The CPO outlines a comprehensive product strategy that encompasses the whole portfolio. They are responsible for the “why” of the product, ensuring the product direction fulfills the company’s strategic vision and delivers meaningful outcomes.

Design and Development: Depending on the organization’s size, the CPO may completely own design and development. In larger organizations, this tends to be broken into multiple leadership roles. Regardless, the CPO influences the design and development teams as they handle the increasing complexity of multiple product lines. 

Product Marketing and Sales: CPOs tend to be the voice of the customer internally, communicating insights from research and analysis with the marketing and sales teams. The CPO also interfaces with these groups when creating the ideal customer journey, from product awareness to onboarding and buying additional products and services. This collaboration focuses on customer retention and is a crucial metric for Product, Marketing, and Sales. 

No matter where they get involved, the CPO ensures the product direction delivers the company vision and adjusts responsively to changing internal and external conditions.

Who Does a CPO Manage?

CPOs lead the entire product portfolio or sometimes a portfolio of portfolios. They are at the top of the product org. The following roles typically ladder up the CPO:

VP of Product: Owns a product line or a group of products.

Director of Product: Owns a set of product areas or a single product. 

Product Manager: Owns an individual product area.

While CPOs serve as an important mentor and influence the product org’s day-to-day dynamics, they primarily collaborate with functional leaders to influence strategic directions by:

  • Effectively communicating company goals
  • Providing visibility into roadmap strategy and planning
  • Delivering stakeholder reports to define objectives and show progress
  • Communicating the why behind prioritization decisions

Great product portfolios only come to life through great collaboration. This is why multiple cross-functional teams must come together to deliver significant outputs. To realize the vision, the CPO helps define a long-term plan that outlines how they will turn ideas into impactful products that drive revenue. This strategy work must consider resourcing needs and dependencies. It should connect the high-level objectives and key results (OKRs) to the day-to-day execution.

To bring a winning product portfolio to market, a CPO must orchestrate the efforts of various departments, such as their product managers, software developers, UX/UI designers, data scientists, researchers, and marketers. The CPO must rally these teams—ensuring everyone stays aligned to the common goal while communicating the vision of the desired outcomes. 

What is the Difference Between a VP of Product and CPO?

VPs of Product are typically exceptional at managing and scaling one or two product lines and tend to be more focused on coaching the product managers. 

What does a CPO do that a VP of Product doesn’t? CPOs:

  1. Identify what’s the right business strategy to follow, working with the C-suite to determine it
  2. Tie the financial outcomes and product roadmap expectations back to what the C-suite’s doing 
  3. Interface with the board and with the rest of the executives to bring it all together and make sure to drive growth through a product and not unrepeatable services.
  4. Build teams underneath them that will really scale.

“What it really comes down to is understanding the ROI and making sure that you get ROI from your product investments. That’s what a Chief Product Officer is going to bring to the table. They’re going to make sure that you are building the right things that will get a return for your company. And they’re making sure that you can scale appropriately with that.” 

– Melissa Perri on the difference between a VP of Product and a CPO

Does Every Company Need A CPO?

Simply put, yes! 

Every company needs someone championing a portfolio approach because every organization’s product or product lines need to support multiple goals, segments, and themes. Product portfolio management isn’t about the size of the portfolio but rather about the craft of managing complexity and delivering the best product outcomes given constraints. Product leaders find themselves already doing this work. 

If your company isn’t convinced they need a CPO, ask these questions:

  • Do you want to become outcome-focused and escape the build trap?
  • Do you want to keep mandating initiatives or start providing strategic intent?
  • Do you need a new framework that connects OKRs with Agile execution?
  • Do you need to align priorities across revenue, customers, operations, and business stakeholders?
  • Do you need to connect the dots between all moving pieces for real-time portfolio planning and allocation?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s validation that you need a CPO. 

What Does It Take To Become A CPO?

To lead as a CPO, you need more than deep product-related experience. Here is a list of critical traits that the most successful CPOs possess:

Leadership: CPOs need to motivate cross-functional teams to maximize their efforts toward achieving the company’s strategic goals. As the Chief Product Officer, it is crucial to unify various groups to keep everyone aligned, focused, and inspired toward a shared vision.

Influence and communication: CPOs have many stakeholders that require influencing and precise communication. From board members and executives to product teams and customers, the CPO needs to continuously communicate the vision and plans for how it will be fulfilled. 

Strategic thinking: Great CPOs leverage strategic frameworks that guide product decisions across all levels of the organization. They define the strategic drivers, standardize prioritization efforts, and allocate resources towards objectives (OKRs) and initiatives.

Data-driven decisions: CPOs make decisions based on data. They measure outcomes to influence the next iteration of product strategy. They also assess resourcing needs, progress tracking, and what-if scenarios using real-time data. A responsive approach to planning, strategizing, and allocating, allows CPOs to use data to adjust their plans dynamically.

Prioritization: CPOs overly prioritize within the context of business goals, customer needs, and product strategies. They use RICE, MoAR, or their customized prioritization framework.

Roadmap visibility: Creating and sharing roadmaps is one thing. Creating and sharing roadmap progress roll-ups at all levels by any dimension in real-time is another. CPOs can accomplish the latter with the help of a product portfolio tool. 

Conclusions

The role of the Chief Product Officer is new to many organizations. It requires:

CPOs drive top-down strategy and empower bottom-up innovation while instilling cross-team collaboration. Their primary job is to effectively collaborate with key functions involved in building and delivering meaningful products. 

If you’re new to the role, check out our 90-Day Success Plan for New Chief Product Officers.

Dragonboat is the fastest growing roadmap and product portfolio platform for outcome-focused CPOs and their 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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