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Projects-to-Products: Chief Product Officer Characteristics

By Brian Nathanson posted Jan 29, 2020 09:32 AM

As I alluded to in my last post, there are certain key characteristics that mark a strong candidate for a Chief Product Officer role. You probably know someone in your organization that fits these criteria -- even though they might not have this role. I'd recommend trying to recruit them to do this job as it is crucial to making product management fly:

  1. In-depth knowledge of & passionate commitment to the product
    • CPOs gain some of their authority from being knowledgable about the product(s) that they guide. If the CPO has forgotten more about the product(s) than most people will ever know, you've got a good candidate -- and, while it should go without saying, the CPO should actually want to work with the product.
  2. Open-minded to various options but able to make decisions when necessary
    • CPOs need to be open to creative solutions and input from others but also need to know when it's time to make a decision and be comfortable with whatever decision is made. There comes a time when discussion is over and the plan is laid out -- even if it will change later on as we learn more. This allows you to get moving. 
  3. Able to think laterally – draw connections between events that other people may not realize
    • A key trait of successful CPOs is that they often think laterally in ways that other people that might be more step or process-focused do not. An example is something along the lines of "Wait...wouldn't the feature you're building also require some work from this other team working on this other feature? What's the status of that work?" In theory, you can have this type of dependency documented, but keeping it all in order in real-time is always a challenge. Talented CPOs are naturally wired to catch this type of activity.
  4. Enough technical knowledge to call out BS but not so much that they try to override the teams
    • It's a fine balancing act, but a good CPO knows just enough technically that they can ask challenging questions to keep the engineering/development managers honest about their assessment & estimate of work while also respecting the managers' opinion when something is too much to handle and we need to back off or find another approach.
  5. Empathizes with people to the point where they are the trusted authority
    • Finally, a strong CPO is trusted by all stakeholders, which means they have the ability to empathize with everyone's particular situation. Product Managers, Engineering Managers, and executives all have different particular points of emphasis -- even if they are all outwardly aligned -- and a good CPO can balance it all while keeping the ship moving forward.

So there you have it -- the 5 key characteristics of a strong CPO. ​Some of you might be saying that some of these traits (such as expert knowledge and empathy) are found in any good corporate leader and, while I would agree with that in principle, I would argue they are even more critical in this role because the CPO essentially serves as a foundational cornerstone​ of the whole product. They are the one person that everyone else listens to and respects even if they don't do that for anyone else. This power enables the CPO to overcome many obstacles and challenges to overall product success.

Do you know someone who is or would make a good CPO? Share additional characteristics you feel help the cause in the comments.