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The Path to CPO

Tommi Forsstrom | January 30, 2019| 1 min. read

I’ve been on a path of rapid growth and self-assessment recently.

Since joining the Insight Venture Partners x Produx Labs CPO in-Residence program a few months ago, I’ve seen a thing or two. It’s given me the luxury of observing a string of awesome growth-stage companies and their leaders  in Product and otherwise. I’ve seen their triumphs and their adversities, and have been able to get a much crisper view of why one does not simply jump from VP to CPO.

Some of the challenges I’ve observed have given me the chance to reflect on what I would’ve done in a similar situation. Unfortunately quite often, I would not have instinctively done the right thing.

Here are a few of my observations on where I personally still need to grow to gain the confidence to call myself a CPO. I hope it will help others on their journey, growing from well-rounded VPs to game-changing CPOs.

But first, a few caveats:

  • This list is not exhaustive. I’m still learning every single day and identifying my skill gaps. I will be updating this article as I go along.
  • Not everything here will apply to all scenarios aka “your mileage may vary”. The companies I’m observing and specializing in are in a very specific leg of their journey: the growth stage. I will write a separate article on what makes that stage and the transformation it requires so unique later. But for this article, bear in mind that I’m looking at this from a very specific perspective.
  • Some of these skills will already be highly useful at lower levels of Product Management, or any type of leadership position. Just because you’re not ready to think about this shift yet, don’t let that stop you from ramping up already!
  • These gaps are specific to me. This is an account of where I need to grow. Or at least I know I need to grow. You might have completely different gaps altogether.

Get Out of the Weeds — Macro Over Micro

This advice is already very relevant in earlier stages of leadership growth as well, but at the CPO level failing to act on it will ruin your game.

This is particularly relevant if you — like me — cut your chops in the front lines as an individual contributor. The appeal of dwelling on micro-level issues, guiding your team through the motions of day-to-day work, and “leading by doing” is strong.

Especially if the boat is leaking, your instinct is to grab a bailer and start removing water.

While you’re doing that, nobody is steering the boat.

Every second you spend pumping water, the deck is unmanned.

For more on this topic, see Shelley Perry’s article The best growth stage Chief Product Officers never write a user story.

Leverage, Leverage, Leverage…

At this stage, your time is very valuable. Not just in dollars and cents, but in impact as well. There’s a reason you got the responsibility of CPO and it was not you being the superior individual contributor.

That’s not saying you aren’t the superior individual contributor. Maybe you could do the jobs of your team better than all of them. That doesn’t matter.

You need to get comfortable with delegating, with people doing tasks worse than you would’ve or taking significantly more time. You’re their guidance system and support network.

Build a system, not an empire. 

There’s Nobody Left to Blame

Ruh-roh, you’ve found yourself on the top rung of the ladder!

The first thing you need to understand right now is that you just ran out of people to blame. In every job below this level, you can always blame the environment and those above you for failures. Not empowered enough, not trusted enough, no data available, no clarity of mission…Those are all amazing reasons to justify lack of success.

But here’s the catch: you’re now on the hook for fixing all those issues–and many more! You are now the one that needs to identify why your org doesn’t consistently use evidence in decision-making. You need to set direction and give clarity. You empower others. You set the tone and tenor of the culture. These are things where inaction is even more of an action than actual action. But, as noted above, “you are the one that…” does not imply you diving into the weeds to sort out the details. This is a slippery slope to your organization (and you as a leader) being too busy to solve the root causes of being busy.

Trial-and-Error Often Fails at Scale

This flies in the face of everything we believe in Product. We’re all about small isolated experiments and incremental change.

The most critical thing about trial-and-error is immediate and clear feedback loops. At this level, most of your actions have very unclear reverberations (both positive and negative). The full impact is often hard to quantify and requires a timespan of months. You’re no longer driving a speedboat, you’re commandeering an ocean liner.

Flip-flopping will always have a surprisingly high cost. One that’s not immediately apparent.

Your Words Mean Things

Whether you lead by influence or by fiat, as a C-level executive, your words carry weight. As a director or even a VP, it’s totally cool and inclusive to think out loud, spitball, and brainstorm in public.

At this stage, you need to be way more careful.

When anything you say can be interpreted as an order or direct guidance, there is a huge risk in putting half-baked thoughts into action. You need to be mindful at all times about the things you state in public.

The risk here is that you fix this issue by being non-inclusive and opaque. This is a problem as well. I’m in no way advocating for shutting your organization out. But you need to understand that you have the power to sow seeds of confusion.

The trick is to understand that you also have the power to sow seeds of focus and clarity.

Everything Has to Connect to $

At every level below the C-suite, there’s some room for ambiguity on matters of $.

Not here.

You’ll be spending most of your time interfacing with people that just want to see the money: the board, investors, the rest of the exec team.

If you’re not tying your decisions to how it will move financial metrics, you’re toast. No matter if you’re talking short-term, medium-term or long-term, it has to tie back into real impact to the business.

Arguably, financial intelligence is important for all product people, but as CPO, it’s your #1 tool.

The tough bit here is that often the information within the product organization alone won’t be enough. You’ll need to learn to master looking at data cross-functionally. At this stage, you can no longer afford to not understand things like sales operations, M&A activity, company valuation principles and investor motivation.

Operating in the comfort zone of product metrics will leave you and your org in a servant position.

You playing this part of your role right is the make-or-break component of making your organization product-led. In the growth stage, product is the only part of the organization that is positioned to bring holistic evidence on the table and failing to do that will keep product in a subservient role — always delivering based on immediate opportunities.

Bias for Action

This is a terrifying one. You need to act.

Here’s the catch: you’ll never ever have a full 100% foolproof picture and data to justify it.

This is the one I personally struggle with the most. I want to research, learn the context, meet the people, and understand.

But that’s a luxury you rarely have.

The really successful leaders would rather act on directional evidence than sit still waiting for a perfect picture emerge. Call it “analysis paralysis” or whatever, but great leaders move in a swift and decisive manner. Of course you readjust (carefully, see above) as you learn more, but it’s more important to have momentum, than wait for a “Eureka!” moment.

These are the topics that are currently at the top of my mind as I’m trekking down the path of self-improvement.

I’m really lucky to have stumbled upon this opportunity to be surrounded by a support network. I have expert mentors pointing out every learning opportunity, an impressive group of seasoned leaders in the Insight portfolioto learn from, and a team around me that’s as committed to learning as I am. I basically get a playbook of growth thrown at me! I know most people out there aren’t as lucky.

Try to find your network and support system. If all else fails, my Twitter DMs are open. What am I missing?

Please feel free to reach out with your thoughts — or better yet, submit a response below! Especially if you’re on the same journey or have recently completed it.