92: Moving up to a CPO or VP Product role
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92: Moving up to a CPO or VP Product role

I’m writing about 100 things I’ve learned the hard way about product management. You can catch up on the previous entries if you like.

Stepping up to a Chief Product Officer (CPO) or VP Product role doesn’t so much change what you do. Rather it amplifies everything. This guide lets you know what to expect.

In this article

Your starting point

Let’s paint a picture to see if you can see yourself.

You’ll probably already be in a senior product management role. Depending on the career track you’ve taken, you may be a manager of product managers, an individual contributor, or a player-manager combining the two.

Your job title could be any of the following: head of product, product lead, principle product manager — there’s a lot of variation from place to place, but hopefully you get the idea. You probably report directly to the CPO or VP Product if you have one, or someone else in the C-suite if you don’t.

If you’re still hands-on with products (as opposed to purely a manager of product managers), you may already be looking after a large, complex product, perhaps the most significant one for your organisation. Or you may be looking after a group of related products, but not the whole product portfolio. And by ‘looking after’, I mean you are responsible and accountable, and you craft and execute the strategy and roadmap for your area of responsibility.

You’ll also (ideally) already be acting as some kind of mentor to the other product managers in your team, whether or not they report to you directly.

In terms of experience, you’ll probably have between 5 and 15 years’ worth (in very general terms), and at least the last few years in your current senior role.

All of this assumes you’re in a relatively well-established company.

When you’re the senior product person in a startup

When you’re the senior — or only — product person in a startup or scale-up, you may already be a VP Product or even a CPO despite only having a few years’ experience. If this is you, you’ll have earned your position by working extremely hard and learning a great deal very quickly (often the hard way). More wind to your sails.

Just don’t expect to be able to step straight into the same job title in a much larger organisation. There will be more complexity and if not more office politics then certainly a different flavour to the kind you encounter in startup land.

Although some people make this move across successfully and continue to perform in their new role, this is a rare occurrence. Interviewers will almost always assess you on your actual experience rather than your job title.

How a CPO or VP Product role will differ

So what’s going to change when you step up to CPO or VP Product? Every role is unique (I’m trying really hard not to write “it depends”). Even so there are some general differences you can anticipate.

What you’ll look after

You’ll now be responsible and accountable for the whole product portfolio, the associated product strategy, and for ensuring it aligns with the broader corporate strategy (if there is one).

In some companies, the products account for almost all revenue, so the product strategy will be a major part of the company strategy. In other organisations there may be other sources of revenue alongside product, such as professional services or licensing, which typically do not become part of your remit.

Direct reports

Again it will vary from place to place, but you can reasonably expect to be responsible for the disciplines that are closely aligned with product, such as user research, design and data science (not an exhaustive list). However, engineering and development will usually still report into the Chief Technical Officer (CTO).

Occasionally the CTO and CPO roles are merged. If you came from a software engineering background before you moved into product, this will be less of a culture shock for you. If not, it would be a good idea to ensure you have a capable head of engineering reporting to you. Professional credibility with the team will be particularly important here.

As the overall product organisation could be quite large, you’ll almost certainly have one or more team leads or ‘heads of’ reporting directly to you, and each of those will handle the day-to-day management of the product delivery teams.

This can be a challenging change particularly if you’re coming from a role that solely looked after either products or people (but not both). And if you were promoted internally, you’ll almost certainly now be managing people who used to be your peers.

As I’ve discussed before, product leaders have an outsized influence on the rest of their team. This will be especially the case when you step up to a CPO or VP Product role. The way you conduct yourself sets the template for the team’s behaviour (good and bad alike), so I would encourage you to be even more conscious of both what you do and how it is perceived than you had been in the past.



Time horizons

We often say that product managers should be dividing their thinking between the long- and short-term actions. This continues to be the case when you step into a product leadership role, just more so.

Before you’d perhaps have been thinking in a quarterly or 6-monthly cadence, perhaps a year or two ahead. As a CPO or VP Product you’ll be thinking in different rhythms and over a longer timespan. You might be looking at cycle times dictated by the market or how the organisation as a whole operates. Youll probably be considering not just the next release of a product, but the next product entirely.

Where does the company need to be in 3-5 years? How will the product portfolio, the product team, and the processes around the products need to change over time to achieve that?

With these broad goals in mind, how will your product teams help you to break them down into smaller, shorter timescale goals (and make them happen)?

Bringing context

Regardless of your level of seniority, an important aspect of a product manager’s role is always to bring context to their team (or to bring their team to the context if you’re embracing the concept of user research as a team sport). Arguably all that changes as you move up the levels of seniority is the breadth and depth of information you can now share with your team.

You will have capable, clever people on your teams. So when context is lacking or woolly they’ll take their best guess at what they need to achieve with their products for both their users and the organisation. And while what they will do may well be objectively good in its own right, their overall direction may not necessarily be aligned with where the organisation needs to go.

As CPO, one of the most important things you can do is to convey clearly what the company and product team as a whole needs to achieve, why it’s important, and the broad, high-level things that need to happen to achieve those goals. You want that top-to-bottom alignment.

Bigger stakes

You’ll still making informed bets on the moves you need to make, and now those bets have bigger stakes, risks and potential rewards.

However you also have strength in numbers. You can mobilise a larger, multi-skilled group of people to work on those bets with you. It will be crucial to work with your product team to break down those big bets into smaller, less risky ones through their experiments and learning.

To maintain focus, it will be especially important for you to communicate clearly and succinctly the goal(s) and strategy for the product portfolio, and to ensure everyone is aligned with it. This will mean repeating yourself far more than you’ll think is necessary.

Relationship with peers

In addition to your own team, you should be also able to influence your peers in other departments to coordinate your activity across the whole company.

You’re still working with a multi-disciplinary team, only now they’re the senior leadership team, so C-suite and departmental heads. Together you have the responsibility to move the company to where it wants to go. This means coordinated effort, not siloed initiatives.

What you learn from your bigger experiments will also have wider applicability and value. And the value you can create for your peers will only increase their willingness to play nicely with you and your team.

As a CPO or VP Product, it should be obvious to you how the product portfolio is intertwined with the activities of most, if not all the other disciplines in the organisation. One of the very first things you probably learned was how product managers have to be able to balance the needs of users with the needs of the business.

Having responsibility for the whole product portfolio will hopefully allow you to see this balance in perspective, rather than only certain aspects of it. How does each department support the success of product and vice versa? When viewing the organisation as an interconnected system in this way, which aspects could be improved to the mutual benefit of users and the business?

Depending on the context and how well established product management is within the organisation, you may encounter peers who act more like stakeholders. If product leadership was previously absent or passive, don’t be surprised if everyone’s expecting to continue dictating what they want the product team to build for them.

Approachability

If you are promoted internally, there is a risk that the people in your team may start behaving differently around you because of your seniority. One way this can manifest when people are no longer willing to speak freely in meetings with you present. This can be a reflection of how psychologically safe your team feels.

The psychological safety of your team is your responsibility to establish and maintain. You want your team to be feel comfortable to ask you for help, challenge things, or defend their ideas, even if you’re not (yet) convinced — providing they do so constructively.

Again there’s a careful balance to strike. The day-to-day minutiae should be going to your Head of Product, however you still want to continue to gain situational awareness first-hand as efficiently as possible. Make a point of attending any get-together where a product team is showing what they’ve built, launched or learned. It’s soul-crushing for teams to feel that senior management (i.e. you) don’t care about their hard work and achievements.

Depending on your relationship with the team, be conscious of questions you ask or comments you make. You don’t want to kick off a panicked redesign (for example) because of a throwaway comment that was interpreted as a direct order.

Final thoughts

Moving up to a CPO or VP Product role doesn’t so much change what you do and how you do it, rather it amplifies everything. To be the person ultimately responsible for all people and things product in your organisation can be liberating and terrifying in equal measure.

Above all, remember that your effectiveness is governed by your team, who act as a force multiplier. When they’re working well together and with the rest of the organisation, they’re a force to be reckoned with. Help them to succeed by giving them the context, support, space, top cover and strategic direction they need.

Further reading

PRODUCTHEAD: Better teams need better leaders – I Manage Products

PRODUCTHEAD: Becoming a product leader – I Manage Products

[VIDEO] “The Product of You: Taking the next step in your career to product leadership” – Melissa Perri, Mind The Product (20 March 2020, retrieved 10 April 2024)

[VIDEO] “Where does product fit? What’s being a CPO really like? Dave Wascha tells all“, panel discussion, Mind The Product (4 November 2024, retrieved 10 April 2024)

Permission to stay focused“, Rich Mironov, Mironov Consulting (28 February 2024, retrieved 10 April 2024)

Loneliness in the C-Suite: A closer look at the CPO landscape“, Louron Pratt, Mind The Product (7 February 2024, retrieved 10 April 2024)

A VP product’s checklist“, Rich Mironov, Mironov Consulting (26 January 2016, retrieved 10 April 2024)


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Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a product management and leadership coach, product leader and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.

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