The Rise of the Chief Product Officer: Attracting and Retaining Product Talent

Technology and InnovationCustomer Activation and GrowthDigital TransformationInnovation, Research, and DevelopmentTechnology, Data, and Digital OfficersExecutive Search
min Article
Sean Roberts
June 25, 2020
7 min
Technology and InnovationCustomer Activation and GrowthDigital TransformationInnovation, Research, and DevelopmentTechnology, Data, and Digital OfficersExecutive Search
When we asked product leaders what attracted them to a new organization, their answers revolved around the impact they could make.


Adapting to constant innovation and transformation has become the only way to compete in a rapidly disrupting market landscape

Every company must think and act like a technology company to remain relevant in the current competitive landscape.

We are in the age of the empowered customer. In both B2C and B2B alike, the customer is more empowered than ever before, with more data (both performance and social) to support their decision making, and lower barriers to switching loyalties. For leaders, this has created an imperative to structure and build organizations which can listen to customers and respond at speed. The cost of inaction is irrelevance.

Technology has become central to remaining competitive, both to enable the iterative cycles required to constantly optimize products, but also as a stimulus for demand. In both our client interactions and in conversations with top product leaders, we’ve seen a rising need for chief product officers (CPOs) who are tech savvy, commercial and customer-focused.

The most advanced companies are developing platform offerings, becoming convenors of eco-systems and gaining invaluable insights in doing so. The product function has been at the eye of this storm, accelerating new approaches to the market and lubricating customer-focused conversations across diverse functions, from marketing and technology to the lines of business. As a result, product has been given an increasingly loud voice with a seat at the top table, and the remit to actively drive change and revenue growth. In building product functions, companies are creating a stabilising connective tissue between technology and the customer, allowing them to create new digital propositions, ways of working and to develop partnerships with technology organizations to broaden their reach.

The most advanced companies are developing platform offerings, becoming convenors of eco-systems and gaining invaluable insights in doing so.

How to hire a CPO

Compensation is not the only way to attract and retain top talent; organizations must sell their vision and culture to enter the competitive product landscape

Talent in technology roles is fiercely fought over, and product talent is no exception.

When we asked product leaders what would most attract them to a new organization, their answers largely revolved around how much impact they could make, and how much autonomy they would have. They wanted to hear what the company mission was and how they would be empowered to make it successful. They also wanted transparency, to hear from current executives about the challenges as well as the opportunities in charting the organization’s future direction. Their sense of mission is strong: many of our interviewees spoke about their unwillingness to leave roles mid project cycle as they had developed a unique sense of ownership for the product. All of their answers spoke to a passion for the end-user – the customer.

Sell me your vision

Product engineers are able to recognize when something is outdated – even before it really is. They will want to do something new and not just clean up a mess. This said, product talent will accept that an organization may not yet have scaled or is just starting on a transformation journey. Whichever the story, an organization should sell its future vision.

What makes you different?

Taking someone out of a project mid-role takes some convincing. Every job offer says the company is data driven, customer and employee centric, has large impact etc. – so for those trying to hire, it is essential to work out what your organization’s differentiator is. Key points include how your culture is aligned to the speed and innovation of a product function and how it supports continuous learning.

What will my personal impact be? 

Product and software talent will want to understand how much impact and autonomy they will have in the company. This is where an early-stage organization can shine. The Amazons and Apples are not necessarily always the most attractive, because although they have top-notch reputations, there is a concern about the extent of individual impact possible.

Where does product sit?

Where the product function sits often shows the organization’s commitment to the product strategy. The best place will differ and will be affected by the archetype and the business. However, most commonly, a CPO will want a seat alongside a chief technology officer, where both are equals and can create a healthy tension.

How will you ensure that I succeed? 

Make sure you sell a CPO candidate on their own development and explain that they will have a diverse range of opportunities in the role. The most successful organizations allow an annual training budget, time to keep up to date with technological trends, and time to build close contacts in the wider product community.

What is the organization's social purpose? 

For example, are you broadening access to services by democratizing a product? Being able to explain the social purpose of the company doesn’t just land well with product talent, but with customers too. Product functions can then partner with marketing on how best to integrate the message for maximum market impact.

What are the challenges? 

Being open and honest about limitations is beneficial – address the elephant in the room straight away. For example, if you are trying to disrupt an industry but are a non-tech traditional organization, how will you overcome this? Specifically, talent will want to know:

  • Investment. Money is commitment, so how is the organization investing in this vision?

  • Organizational barriers. What are they, structurally and culturally?

  • Timeline. When do you want this investment and work to be realized? What is the time to completion?

Talent acquisition is one of the biggest challenges; there is a shortage in supply. First, you are usually taking someone out of a project mid-role, which takes some convincing. What is your differentiator? Sell the vision and big-picture of your company. Secondly, there is no cookbook for hiring, but being open and honest about the limitations and opportunities early is beneficial. Thirdly, I would want to know: “How much impact as an individual am I going to have in the company I am joining?
Ron Gura 

How conducive is our company culture to innovation and transformation? 

Product is one of the rare fields where diversity in career background is a huge advantage – that is, coming from a non-traditional background, either not marketing or not technology. It’s about making it exciting to those individuals, and helping them understand what you’re going to do for them and having the environment where you can build their capabilities
Brian Harris

Technology-first product talent will need help integrating into a non-technology organization.

Talent coming from tech-first organizations into non-tech companies will quickly learn that there are unfamiliar sets of stakeholders pulling the levers of the business. Even when talent comes from a similar organization, the product function itself can vary quite a bit, with a large diversity of skill sets and backgrounds.

The most successful integrations occur when the hiring organization consciously considers how to give new product talent a mix of vertical expertise and stakeholder exposure, helping them adapt to the business language of those less technologically versed. The introduction of product talent into a non-tech company may also be an opportunity to ask the question: how conducive is our company culture to innovation and transformation? Product talent will want to see evidence that your company is able to innovate or act in a more agile manner throughout the interview process – speedy decision-making and swift feedback will show commitment to change and relative pace.

The product role affects change step-by-step through influence - leveraging trust and good relationships. Acting as an imperial empire-builder from day one will not work.
Johannes Bruder

When deciding which talent pools to pursue, it’s worth thinking about how realistic it is to transition the product talent into the organization. If you are a traditional automotive manufacturer, it may be tricky to integrate and retain talent from Google, for example. As such, it may be better to look in more comparable organization structures for talent.

When a CPO joins a legacy organization, quite often, most other people will not have worked with a product team or a senior product leader. This can be really tough on a CPO. To ease the introduction of a new role, the CEO should make the remit clear within the organization, bedding it in with the rest of the exec team. Most difficulties arise because the role is not quite understood and roles and responsibilities are too blurry.
Tanya Cordrey

Framework for discussion

Current situation 

  • Is the product new to the market?

  • Is there product buy-in from the top team?

  • Is product development core to the business strategy?

  • Is product more aligned to marketing, or technology, or a business unit?

Product capability

  • How sophisticated is the product function?

  • What are the processes/structure in place – e.g. waterfall, agile, full-stack tribes and squads?

  • Is the product team aligned to the business strategy?

  • Is the product function continuously iterating and innovating?

  • Is there a talent pipeline for the product function? Is the Product leader engaged in succession planning?

Future priorities

  • Transform, grow, or innovate?

  • Are you looking to attract product talent with a new leader?

  • Are you looking to attract investment?

  • Are you looking to extend or consolidate your existing product portfolio?

  • Are you looking to reposition your existing products?

  • Growth through M&A and inorganic growth, or by farming the existing products?

  • Which of geographic expansion, diversification, consolidation, and targeting new demographics best describes you aim?

Additional Authors

George Head is a Knowledge Associate for the Technology Officers Practice, based in London. Working broadly across the technology sector, George is focused on identifying emerging trends and codifying the priorities outlined by our clients.


We would like to thank all of our participants for their insights and time.

  • Ron Gura, SVP Product, WeWork

  • Markus Pultweiser, Chief Digital Officer, Deutsche Bank

  • Kriti Sharma, VP Product, GfK

  • Martin Eriksson, Co-Founder, Mind the Product; Chief Product Officer in Residence, EQT Ventures

  • Johannes Bruder, Chief Product Officer, Delivery Hero

  • Tanya Cordrey, Founder, Granary Square; Partner, AFK Partners

  • Brian Harris, SVP Product, Nets Group

  • Ben Fox, Chief Product Officer, AdTech, Verizon Media

  • Josh Crossick, Chief Product Officer, letgo

  • David Katz, Chief Product Officer, Afterpay

  • David Cramer, CEO, Software and Data, CPA Global