Technology

“The Customer-First Organization”: The Rise of the Chief Product Officer

Archetypes of Product Leaders



Adapting to constant innovation and transformation has become the only way to compete in rapidly disrupting markets

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, and 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 ECOSYSTEMS AND GAINING INVALUABLE INSIGHTS IN DOING SO.

Organizations are focusing too much on hiring an all-in-one product leader and instead need to focus on hiring a balanced team

Product functions are broadly made up of three types of talent – all of which are needed for success

A common mistake is believing that an innovative software engineer will be the sole answer to all transformation problems. The Product function is complex, and trying to subsume the ability to innovate, scale, and optimize a product under one technical, project-managing wizard is unlikely to yield results. Simon Wardley originally used the three main archetypes ‘Pioneer, Settler, and Town-Planner’ to describe strategy profiles, but these were adopted by Jonathan Golden to build the product function in Airbnb. Extrapolating from these, we have created three new profiles that we believe best represent the market talent landscape: Innovator, Optimizer and Scaler. It is worth mentioning that the profiles below have been exaggerated for illustration purposes, and in reality, there will be much overlap afforded through experience and need.

The Innovator is the painter of the product vision, identifying a market need and formulating a solution. Innovators are the cornerstone in a new product function or start-up. The Optimizer comes in at a later stage to move the product into the market, test for impact and help speed up the iteration processes. The Scaler becomes important in mature product functions and multi-product environments to scale production and achieve sustainable growth. These three distinct types together create balance between innovation, commerciality, and the customer. Although all three are needed to find a path to solution, their relative weight may vary depending on the scale of the organization.

PHASING OF HIRING PRODUCT TALENT: Scalar, Optimizer, Innovator

It’s always more about the team than the individual. Sure, maybe you need a base hierarchy -- for coaching purposes more than anything -- but product at its heart is always about collaboration among equals bringing different strengths to the table.

– Martin Eriksson
The Innovator

The Innovator is responsible for planning and undertaking ‘sprints,’ enabling business units to create new products and revenue streams. With an entrepreneurial mindset, they will use a hypothesis-led approach to build and iterate a new product. Innovators will place resources into areas of the business that are most in need. They are uniquely placed to avoid the restraints of customer impact and scalability; as such, failure is accepted as part of evolution. They are equally required and common in all product functions, from start-up to corporate.

Background and trade-offs: Innovators are likely to be entrepreneurial and may have a commercial background or deep technology and engineering expertise. Despite their ability to articulate a vision, it is unlikely that this profile will have the ability or the appetite to manage at scale. They may have a string of failed start-ups in their past, but this should not be a reason to dismiss them.

The Optimizer

The Optimizer often carries the title ‘product manager,’ and is the profile that most commonly acts as leader of the entire product function. They understand the importance of measuring customer impact by staying close to customer needs, and feedback, and iterating products as necessary. The Optimizer is hugely data and analytics-oriented, and will use extensive, constant AB testing to perfect the product. The role lends itself to businesses that are beyond the start-up stage and are working towards multi-product offerings and organic growth.

Background and trade-offs: Optimizers most often have data, product, or business backgrounds, and are typically less technical -- but more customer-obsessed -- than their Innovator and Scaler counterparts. Their stakeholder and project management skills will bring all the pieces of the product puzzle together, which more than makes up for their lack of technical depth. They may not be particularly innovative but will have the ability to fertilize ground and enable innovation within the product function. Their ability to manage and develop people will also prove important for the business.

The Scaler

The Scaler is brought in to future-proof and grow a business’ products and platforms efficiently, typically (but not always) enabled by their depth of engineering expertise. As such, this person will bring a vision and seek to accommodate the various directions in which the business strategy might expand. Their methods of scaling the business can take the form of partnerships, acquisitions, or organic growth, always aiming towards an agreed business target. The role is mainly found in businesses who have developed a product they are happy with, and who are now looking to get into multiple-markets and scale.

Background and trade-offs: Technology or technology consulting are at the heart of the Scaler’s experience, with an ability to translate between the business strategy and the technology capabilities. Scalers may not appear high-energy or innovative at first blush but will excel at solving large, complex product puzzles by connecting them to commercial goals and the overall strategic vision of the business.

Framework for discussion

The ideal product leader comes in different varieties depending on your business, your strategy, and the maturity of your product function. The following set of diagnostic questions can help inform and frame your thinking around the most appropriate talent for your needs.

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?
  • Who does the product function report to?
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?

Authors

Veena Marr
Veena Marr is a member of the firm’s Global Technology Sector and Customer Activation and Growth Practice. Based in London, Veena leverages a digital and legal background to guide clients through times of transformation, expansion and innovation. Veena brings her extensive experience in partnering with Product functions to help clients assess, develop and hire exceptional Product leaders.
Sean Roberts
Sean Roberts is a member of the Technology Sector and is responsible for the Technology team in London. With a focus on fast moving technologies including Cloud, Security, Data and AI, and with expertise in Software, Connectivity and Business and Professional Services, Sean advises, recruits and helps develop outstanding leaders for companies in growth and transformation.
George Head
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.

Participants

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
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“The Customer-First Organization”: The Rise of the Chief Product Officer