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Scaleup C-Suite: Chief Product Officer

In the fourth instalment of our series focusing on each of the key scale-up leadership roles, we take a more detailed look at the role of the Chief Product Officer (CPO).

As a scale-up moves further towards or beyond commercialisation, there is often an increasing need to improve, extend or diversify its offering. Parallel to this, the leadership team finds itself ever more stretched and the requirement may arise to hire a CPO who will provide greater focus on product development than the CEO or CTO can afford. Bringing in a CPO at this stage is, in many cases, critical to the successful launch of solutions to market and maintaining a positive growth trajectory.

However, it is a tricky hire – one that can be made more difficult by a lack of definition around which challenges the CPO needs to solve, and exacerbated by a limited pool of proven senior talent due to product being a relatively new discipline.

That being said, product leadership is a broad church and, across the tech sector, there are many different types of CPO whose particular area of expertise could be anything from marketing to engineering; project management to R&D. Businesses often struggle to make an effective hire if they fixate on finding someone with deep experience across the whole product spectrum – so it’s important to set out with a clear sense of which “brand” of CPO the company needs.

Development vs. Delivery

Most business leaders have a strong vision for their company and a clear product roadmap may already be in place. Often, in these circumstances, the main objective of an incoming CPO will be to deliver the existing roadmap whilst identifying and remedying any issues in the technology, processes, or market readiness. On the other hand, if the roadmap itself needs addressing or the current offering needs to enhanced, then a more visionary candidate with a track record of developing successful products is needed. In either case, the scale-up CPO should be a highly effective translator – articulating both the company vision and the needs of the customer into a commercially viable product.

An experienced CPO will likely have a track record across the full lifecycle, from conception to development to successful launch. However, the vast majority will lean more towards either development or delivery and it’s worth understanding this distinction. A visionary CPO can become frustrated in a pure delivery role and, equally, a candidate who is more of an implementer may falter if the remit is too innovation-focused.

Transferable Skills

As the talent pool of high calibre CPOs can be limited – more so in nascent technology areas – it can help to broaden the number of potential candidates by determining which skills may be transferable, and the areas in which they will need specific experience. For example, will the CPO need a deep technical understanding of the particular technology? Must they have knowledge of the same customer base or route-to-market? Should they have a track record of launching products to certain timescales? Establishing which of these experiences are non-negotiable creates the building blocks for the ideal candidate profile. Equally, identifying where a different skillset could be transferable will build flexibility into the brief and open up a broader talent pool.

Making Room

The clue is in the job title - the CPO is a c-suite role and, at this level, chances are you’re hiring someone with experience and track record. Someone who has done this before. Regardless of whether or not there is a robust product roadmap in place, this individual is going to be a key part of the strategic discussion so the existing leadership team needs to be open to bringing in another “voice”, especially as the right hire will bring a fresh and valuable perspective. CPO appointments are often made at a delicate stage in a company’s growth, as the emphasis shifts from innovation to generating revenue, so finding someone who can command the respect of the team and communicate effectively is an important factor.

Securing The One

In our experience, CPO candidates often share similar motivations and concerns when considering a move. Naturally, the product offering needs to excite them, in a technology space that is of genuine interest. In addition, the company’s commitment to product development is something that regularly comes up during the later interview stages – candidates are often keen to understand the level of current and anticipated investment in this area. Another important factor is the internal dynamics – the CPO has touchpoints across many business functions and will often work closely with the CTO and CEO (who may also be the founders). Exploring the personality fit and identifying potential conflict areas will be a critical element of the hiring process for both parties.

Hiring a dedicated CPO at scale-up stage can have a huge impact on successful commercialisation and the right candidate will be instrumental in the achievement of the company’s ambitions and objectives. Key to this is finding someone who suits the needs and skill-gaps of the business, with the leadership ability to build a strong product function as the business grows.

If you need help hiring a Chief Product Officer for your scaleup, get in touch

For more information on C-suite compensation, please download our latest salary report:

C-Suite Compensation Report 21
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