Chief product officer is becoming one of the tech world’s most influential positions. According to our recent study, almost a quarter of product teams now report into a chief product officer (CPO), up from only 7% last year. 11-billion-dollar unicorn Okta poached a longtime Google executive to be its new CPO; Disney hired a Goldman exec as VP of product to guide its newest streaming offering; and Tinder nabbed a Facebook veteran to guide its rapidly expanding dating app. One of the world’s most powerful products, Facebook itself, lost its CPO Chris Cox earlier this year and the heads of its main products will now be reporting directly to Zuck himself.
CPO is also one of tech’s most demanding positions. It’s not enough for CPOs to be jacks of all trades; he must be a master of at least a few of them. In my product career I’ve found there are a few core virtues that make for successful CPOs and successful products. As Zuckerberg and other product leaders take on the immense challenges before them, they would do well to keep these virtues in mind.
1. Obsession with the customer’s problem
Product executives must have a near-obsessive desire to solve customer problems and feel a distinct unease if they’re not talking to customers regularly. They need to understand their customers in the context of their lives or work. If they’re developing customer service software, they visit support reps in a variety of locations and industries to understand their workflows and challenges. If they’re building a baby monitor, they spend time with new parents. They might find customers increasingly want to reach out in WhatsApp, or parents are most concerned about the range of their monitors. Survey and interviews are always helpful but may not get to the root of the real customer problem.
2. Business savvy
CPOs need to understand business priorities, resources, objectives and market positioning. This allows them to plan thoughtfully with an eye for the future. They may need to make decisions about refactoring, infrastructure or performance that may have long-term benefits to the product but come at great short-term cost.
This comprehension is also critical because it is the way product people earn their seat at the table: by aligning their goals with those of the business. They focus on metrics that make a business impact like revenue growth, retention and customer happiness, and lead their teams to do the same.
3. Design focus
Product leaders need a sophisticated eye for design. Innovation in and of itself is not enough — eventually it must be translated into a great user experience. Successful CPOs are constantly refining, reducing, and reworking as they seek to bring a level of artistry to the product and user experience. They seek elegance and realize that details matter, as those details add up to become the experience.
But design isn't just about beauty and simplicity. CPOs need to be aware of the inherent bias in any given design choice and how it might impact a potential customer, whether it be word choice, font size, imagery and language choices. Does your product adhere to development standards around accessibility? Do the images on your website represent the diverse customer base you serve?
4. Data-driven thinking
The best CPOs keep their egos in check and seek data to answer questions. They set clear goals and measure impact. They collect and analyze qualitative feedback and mine for behavioral insight. They collate this data with transactional data and revenue forecasts to make confident business decisions. Product leaders who claim to know better than the customer are just plain wrong. Stewart Buttefield wasn’t planning on developing Slack after his gaming company failed, but the data told him there was something there. Zuckerberg isn't just re-organizing Facebook around messaging for lofty moral reasons — hate to break it to you — he’s surely has the data to back up a move so consequential.
This is also part of the way product makes its voice heard: data is required to convince the CEO, the board and the whole company of big product decisions. If a project needs engineering, design or marketing resources, data makes the case.
5. Insatiable curiosity
Great CPOs are life-long learners. They are always in search of new sources of inspiration to inform product strategy and design, especially from unexpected corners. They’re experts in their industry and discipline, but make it a point to wander wide in search of creative solutions from other domains.
6. Technical fluency
The hard truth is product people who don’t understand the technical side will never be fully in sync with their engineering counterparts. While they don’t necessarily need to write code, product leaders do need to be fluent enough in architecture and implementation to understand the enablers, dependencies, and constraints of their product decisions.
The Jobsian archetype of the rare product genius is an overplayed trope, but the ability to tie a bold vision to an audacious goal can rally an entire company. It’s not nearly as magical as it seems: in reality, a strong vision is the culmination of the six traits above. Deep understanding of the problem paired with a never-ending quest to make things better, driven by curiosity — it all comes together into a larger vision that motivates a team to achieve something incredible. A CPO must be able to communicate, evangelize and live this vision every day.