Skills to move from product manager to Chief Product Officer
Today we are talking about the role of CPO, Chief Product Officer, and the skills and capabilities that help you move from product roles to a CPO role.
Joining us is Rick Kelly, who is the CPO at Fuel Cycle. They’ve developed an insights platform to facilitate collaboration between market researchers, UX professionals, marketing managers, and product leaders.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[6:11] What technical skills have you found helpful for your CPO role?
Product is the most fun role you can have because it sits in the nexus of pretty much everything. You have to understand finance, technology, and customers. On the technical side, for me it’s been learning by hook or by crook. Something comes up at a meeting and I don’t understand the newest database structure, and I have to dig deep and learn. My background was customer-facing, so I had to be self-taught and learn to communicate in a way developers would align with, understand, and respect. Speaking the language of development and being fluent and conversant are requirements for product leadership. It’s like learning another language—you have to be persistent and patient and spend a lot of time on YouTube listening to the latest talks on technology.
[8:14] What do you mean by having the respect of the developers?
You need to have the collaboration and respect of all kinds of departments. Whether it’s developers or your finance team, they need to know you’re willing to listen and be conversant in their field. My finance team and developers want to know I’m going to listen to them and trust them, and they’ll respect the decisions we make together. Product management is about efficient value delivery. Maintaining collaboration across teams requires that you as a product manager are conversant in other team members’ fields.
Have sessions where you ask somebody to explain something is important. I don’t know everything, and I wouldn’t expect myself or any other product manager to be perfectly knowledgeable about all things technical. Asking honest questions is really important. There are junior developers who know a lot more than I do about the latest front-end framework, and and asking them to explain it to me engenders trust.
[11:49] How did your customer interaction skills help you along your journey to CPO?
The role of a product leader is value delivery. The goal of product management is to build things people will pay for. Understanding what people are willing to pay for is an absolute requirement for building a successful product. Understanding customer needs and knowing how to speak to them and elicit their needs to identify what’s truly valuable to them is an absolute requirement for anyone in a customer success or product management role. I map our platform’s value to customer needs and bridge the gap between the two.
[13:10] What kinds of customer interactions were you having as an account manager?
In many cases, customer success team members are compensated and evaluated based on their ability to review accounts, and that’s something product leaders should care a lot about. They have to be revenue-focused and find ways to deliver value. Product management is about making the right trade-offs to deliver valuable growth to the business. The biggest rate-limiter to growth is how well you understand customer needs.
[17:00] What’s your perspective on emphasizing value to the customer or value to the organization?
Solving customer problems is the most important thing. Monetization and the ability to grow follows that. Individual PMs need to be laser-focused on delivering customer value. As people grow in their careers, they have to be increasingly concerned about how the organization grows, monetization, and delivering value to shareholders. Having a strong alignment with the revenue side of the organization and with developers, finance teams, and marketing teams is critical for someone in a senior product role. They need a more holistic view on the business. One of our core values is “Team before self.” Senior leaders have to look at the value to the business, not just to their department or team.
[18:49] What management skills have you found most helpful?
I love to use the example from the book Ender’s Game. Ender becomes successful by learning that allowing his teams to be autonomous and make decisions independently is what ends up being successful in the long run. I prefer to give people high autonomy so they can independently make decisions that are in alignment with the organization’s goals and mission. If you articulate a clear strategy and roll it down to your team members and have clear alignment on your objectives, your team will be able to make good decisions that lead to positive outcomes without a manager becoming a bottleneck in the organization.
[20:36] Have you struggled with micromanaging teams?
Yes, I still struggle with it. There is a time for micromanaging, when there stakes are high and it’s important to be in the details. However, managers who are great on their own can end up becoming a bottleneck because they feel they have to control every single decision. Identifying areas where you need to be the one making the decision and where you can grant autonomy is important. That changes from organization to organization and from team to team. You have to know your organization and your ability to grant that autonomy.
[22:49] What have you found most challenging about being a CPO?
A lot of it is identifying ways to not be a bottleneck. That means you have to recruit the right resources, attract the right talent, and unbottleneck your organization. As an organization grows there’s more complexity that comes into it. Having strong alignment with other stakeholders and executives becomes more and more important as you grow because the decisions you make impact more people. That’s a lot to manage and learn, and you can’t do things on your own. You have to create alignment and understanding. Put simple messages on repeat in order to make the organization successful.
[24:10] What do you like most about the role?
It’s fun to have a big impact. There are a lot of companies and people I influence. I get to learn constantly. I see all sorts of new information. It’s very engaging and gets to be more fun than sitting still. Every few months I look back and see I’ve come a long way in the past six months.
[25:09] How do you keep learning?
There’s a natural curiosity a lot of successful product people have. That innate curiosity drives a willingness to learn and explore different ideas. I’m a regular reader of Stratechery, which is about the strategy of technology. I read a lot, listen to lots of audio books, and listen to things outside product management and technology to just keep learning.
Action Guide: Put the information Rick shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
“Strategy is a commodity. Execution is an art.” – Peter Drucker
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.