In the evolving landscape of tech leadership, hiring a Chief Product Officer (CPO) is considered by some to be one of the most important strategic moves to significantly impact a company's growth trajectory.
To shed light on this crucial decision-making process, we spoke with David Chiang, a Bay Area Chief Product Officer with a wealth of experience gathered from product leadership roles at TextNow, Splunk, and Facebook.
David's insights stem from a rich background in tech leadership, making him a trusted guide for those navigating the complexities of building out a robust product team. With a keen eye for product strategy, he offers invaluable advice for CEOs and Founders venturing into the pivotal decision of hiring a CPO.
What advice do you have for a CEO or first-time Founder on hiring a Chief Product Officer?
The first thing that they need to understand is ‘The Why.’ Why have they decided to hire a CPO? And what are the gaps you are trying to close with this CPO hire? Are you looking to build out a product strategy? Do you need to achieve product-market fit? A better product? Roadmapping?
Understanding 'The Why' enables a Founder/CEO to evaluate whether the company's next product leader needs to be someone at the CPO level or if they aren’t ready to hand over the product strategy, the hire might be someone within the product org who could step up.
Talk about the CEO/CPO relationship
The relationship between a Founder/CEO and an incoming CPO is key. Where will the responsibilities be handed off? Where are they likely to converge? This will help ensure the success of the new CPO and their journey into a company beyond the 30, 60, 90-day plan and set the organization up for success for the next 1.5 to 3 years. Going even deeper, a CEO should align what a new CPO will accomplish from a business perspective (e.g. OKRs) and allow them to run.
The relationship between the CEO and the CPO is critical to get right to ensure a successful hiring outcome. When the relationship is strong, both leaders share a clear vision that is rooted in clarity, trust, & transparency. You'll be two sides of the same coin in every way. When you don't have that clarity, things become more murky and gray, collisions and conflicts will likely arise. That will ultimately create difficult areas to address downstream. It's crucial to define swimlanes and allow each other to drive towards success through their path while building trust along the way.
Where is there likely to be friction when a new CPO joins a company?
Product Strategy: there are going to be different perspectives for the product strategy that exists between the CEO and a CPO. For the CEO and Founder, one of the most difficult product strategy decisions that may need to be made is, when do you change the focus?
It's often easier for a new CPO to come in and evaluate a product and business from its core metrics perspective than to have the Founder/CEO make a tough strategy decision because, for them, it's personal. When you have that scenario with two differing points of view, friction is bound to arise.
How should a Founder/CEO think about nuances between a VP Product and a CPO-level candidate?
A lot depends on the stage of the company the candidate came from. Are they coming from a larger organization or a startup? Most VP Products may only be responsible for the product organization, while a CPO will likely be responsible for a broader business strategy role.
In the traditional definition of product, I've seen traditional Product VPs build out for a particular product or product suite. But the broader viewpoint of a CPO-level hire is that they add value in the "outer edges," helping sales and marketing while working with other cross-functional leaders to understand go-to-market fit and strategies.
A CPO "works in the gray" and brings that "noise to the signal" and back into the core product in terms of what to build to ensure value is delivered to customers and users.
When there are issues in an organization with execution (for example, a process or a people change that needs to happen organizationally), not all product leaders have the experience in terms of what needs to happen and when and how to make those changes.
A CPO would typically be experienced in identifying gaps or opportunities and be able to execute against them, whether that means streamlining operations, reimagining business processes, or adding a layer of process if more is needed.
Tying it all back to financial metrics, whether it's the top line you're trying to drive against, or whether you're trying to drive efficiencies on Opex or Capex or just even headcount. Those are the areas around the outer rings, outside of the core product responsibilities, that a CPO would help manage and administer.
What advice do you have for product leaders who want to leave a BIG TECH brand (like Meta or Google) to work for a founder-led startup? What are the things that they need to either be cautious of or recognize to be able to drive success?
Product leaders who work for big tech companies understand what it takes to "just build," and therefore, they know how to apply frameworks and structures well. Many have experienced hockey stick growth at scale.
But those leaders need to realize that the growth happened within the context of a broader and bigger machine. The machine may have been the platform itself or a playbook that's been reproduced because it has seen continually repeated successes.
When you are hired into a new organization as a product leader, it's essential to take some of the core foundations that you've learned from your previous experiences at those large-scaling businesses, and then understand which ones to apply to your new organization (and how best to apply them).
No two companies are the same. It's crucial to understand the landscape of the employer as well as the leadership and have a 360-degree view before you apply the foundations that you've learned of what it took to scale. You will need to adapt. I've experienced that myself. You can't be the "bull in a china shop." Just because something worked at a big tech company doesn’t guarantee it will work at a startup you join.
Thank you to David Chiang for sharing his insights and lessons. We hope this article can be a compass for Founders looking to hire a product leader and steer their companies toward innovation and growth.