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Chief Product Officer Or Chief Product Everything

The title of leader is universally enticing to a particular type of person. And while most appreciate that the practice of leadership is difficult, that doesn’t diminish the appeal of status and power.

The role of Chief Product Officer is viewed by many in Product Management as the top of the Product job hierarchy. And it’s a role that’s on the rise in Australia, according to Which-50 Media, a leadership publication.

Which-50 Media summarises the role aptly:

It is a role that has a mandate to ensure optimal customer experience and product journeys, but equally to look globally at the competition, to research what global market leaders are doing well, analyse market trends, distil down their customers behaviour in order to delight them, and ultimately build that into the overall business strategy.

Reluctant leader

Sometimes, I’m a reluctant leader. In my role as Principal Consultant of Brainmates, I oftentimes step into a room and need to quickly establish trust amongst a diverse group comprising of multiple teams. I need to make decisions on the fly with incomplete information, initiate difficult conversations, or intuit what the deeper issues are, before testing these with a team.

When I feel I need to (and can), I step out of my metaphorical leadership suit and stop being a leader for a moment. Why? Because leadership is so damn tough. It’s constant. You have to earn the title of leader every day.

Being a leader requires skills that buck up against our ego. It requires us to push past our natural instincts.

An article by Inc in 2017, entitled The Brutal Truth About Why Being A Leader Is So Harddescribes it beautifully.

You, as a leader, have to take a step back from your impulsive, emotional reactions, and instead operate from a place of calm understanding. And that’s a skill that isn’t taught in school or afterschool clubs, or even on sports teams.

Leadership means downplaying our need to be right and our desire to defend ourselves and our opinions.

It means taking calculated risks, and bravely making the right, sometimes unpopular, decisions. It means ‘up-playing’ our listening and coaching skills, creating safe spaces for people to perform, engaging people who show disdain for our opinion, shielding people from uncertainty, making timely, difficult decisions, and stepping away from the limelight.

As humans, we all come with insecurities that manifest in the workplace in interesting ways. As a leader, we must overcome these insecurities, and step up, ready or not, to bat.

As Kobe Bryant says,

 I have self-doubt. I have insecurity. I have fear of failure. I have nights when I show up at the arena and I’m like, ‘My back hurts, my feet hurt, my knees hurt. I don’t have it. I just want to chill.’ We all have self-doubt. You don’t deny it, but you also don’t capitulate to it. You embrace i t.

What it takes to become a product leader

Whilst the Chief Product Officer role is on the rise in Australia, from my observations, it often takes folks who are transitioning into the role a while to figure out what’s required to be a leader of Product People. There’s plenty you’ll need to stop doing as well as start doing.

As Chief Product Officer in medium-to-large companies:

STOP doing the job of a Product Manager. Your job is not to be the best Product Manager in the company.

START by clearly defining team roles and responsibilities so that people know what’s expected of them, and feel safe doing their jobs.

Google’s Project Aristotle is a good reminder that team structure and clarity is super important to a well-functioning team.

During its two-year study, I learned that,

 Individuals need an understanding of their job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations and the consequences of one’s performance .

STOP obsessing over feature design and development. Your job is not to make the product.

START creating sufficient processes so that your team can repeatedly and autonomously discover customer problems, identify opportunities and create new products and features. Create a process where teams work cross-functionally and collaborate earlier on, to dismantle silos and avoid delegation without responsibility. Create an environment that enables your team to learn. This comes in a multitude of forms, but more importantly, the CPO is tasked with creating a culture of regular learning.

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast And Slow states,

 Acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions.

STOP relying on requests from your peers or CEO to your product team. Your job is not to keep your Executive committee happy.

START by seeking, understanding and oftentimes articulating the company objectives. Then, obsessively develop the path forward. Whether you’re developing a Vision or Strategy or both, pursue opportunities to repeatedly share it far and wide.

Michael Cohan, CPO of Zoopla, says one of the hardest things about the job is:

 Helping people understand what we’re trying to do and aligning them to our goals, at all levels of the organisation. Ensuring that we have a vision that people understand and buy into and therefore feel completely motivated to work hard to achieve.

STOP communicating every thought or minute idea you have about the product. Your job is not to micro-manage your product or your people.

START asking questions about your customers and their problems. Be hyper-vigilant about customer outcomes and, consequently, business results.

STOP saving the company’s product world single-handedly. Your job is not to sweep in like the superhero.

START by learning about the company’s product organization. Harness the collective intelligence in the team. Review its tools and practices, as well as the types of product skills in the team. Analyze what’s missing before making any change.

This advice is common sense. But in practice, it’s difficult to do.


Because leadership is so damn tough.

Photo Credit:Brooke Lark from Unsplash
About author

In 2004, Adrienne Tan co-founded Brainmates with Nick Coster. As the Brainmates CEO, Adrienne draws on 20 years of senior Product Management experience gained at The Microsoft Network, Telstra BigPond and AUSTAR. Adrienne has a Masters of Economics (Social Science) with distinction from The University of Sydney. She majored in Industrial Relations in her undergraduate degree. Her other academic pursuits include lecturing at the University of Technology Sydney in Information and Interaction Design and co-authoring a chapter in the book Digital Experience Design. Adrienne recently contributed to two Product Management books; 42 Rules of Product Management and the 42 Rules of Product Marketing.