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GuidesProduct developmentWhat is a chief product officer (CPO)?

What is a chief product officer (CPO)?

Last updated

29 March 2023

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Dovetail Editorial Team

From tech companies to media agencies, companies across the US are adding the chief product officer (CPO) role to their corporate structure, and it's easy to see why. Customers' expectations are constantly evolving, meaning subpar digital product experiences no longer cut it. 

CPOs ensure a product delivers beyond its promise, both from a revenue and customers' standpoint. That's the kind of skillset and insight modern companies need to remain profitable and keep their customers happy throughout.

But what exactly does a CPO do? Whether you're on the lookout for a new CPO for your company or aspire to be a CPO yourself, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the role of the chief product officer.

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What is a chief product officer?

A chief product officer, or CPO in short, is the highest product-related position in a company. Also called "head of product" or "VP of product" (vice president) in some companies, the CPO is to the business's product what the CTO is to technology. They focus on aligning the product strategy with the strategy and vision of all other parts of the business. Usually, the CTO reports to the CEO.

In other words, the CPO is responsible for the entire product side of the business. As the ultimate head of the product team, their job is to ensure the company makes products that fit a specific need in the market and deliver sustainable value to the business.

What are a chief product officer’s responsibilities?

In general, a chief product officer will:

Provide strategic leadership

A CPO's chief responsibility is to manage and oversee the entire product organization, including the cross-functional teams involved. Specifically, they communicate and articulate the strategy, vision, and goals of the product to product leads and teams from other functional departments. 

Work on the strategic vision of the product

The CPO is also responsible for the "what" and "why" of the product. They will explain a business case for specific initiatives and features to help the C-suite understand why they're building them. Ultimately, the CPO must make sure the product they're developing aligns perfectly with the company's vision and business goals.

Stay on top of customers' needs and problems

CPOs must deeply understand customers' desires, needs, and problems. The continuous customer research and product analysis that CPOs conduct is necessary for: 

  • Developing great product experiences 

  • Identifying ideal marketing positioning

  • Planning future product initiatives

Without this due diligence, it’s difficult to achieve product success, especially in overly competitive markets.

Make data-driven decisions

The CPO must always make objective decisions based on solid data and facts. As the leader of product, they have no room for guesswork or trial-and-error. A CPO worth their salt will define, oversee, and continually track metrics related to product performance. These metrics include (but are not limited to):

  • Trial-to-paid conversion rate

  • Profits and revenue

  • Retention and churn rate

  • Product engagement 

Handle product marketing and evangelism

Seasoned CPOs aren't just effective leaders. They're excellent product marketers and evangelists as well, passionately advocating for products and bringing them to market without hiccups. They spread the good news about the product, often in liaison with other product leaders.

Participate in product development and growth

Rather than staying on the sidelines, savvy CPOs partner with the chief technology officer (CTO) to organize, motivate, and oversee product development teams to ensure the product's strategy comes to life as planned. Beyond that, they team up with the chief marketing officer (CMO) to fine-tune and boost marketing efforts.

Bring new team members on board

Just because CPOs are high-ranking executives doesn't mean they can't participate in decisions surrounding the hiring of product employees. On the contrary, they take a front-row seat in interviews and the hiring process in general, ensuring that only the best candidates get over the line. They know too well that a product is only as good as the team behind it.

Chief product officer vs. chief technology officer

It's easy to confuse the CPO and CTO roles. After all, the two share the same goal—to develop and deliver the best possible experiences for customers while driving maximum business value.

However, how these two roles arrive at that goal is quite different. Let's break it down further.

Strategy

The CPO is responsible for the "why" of the product—the strategic approach to what the team will build. 

The CTO is responsible for the "how" of the product—the strategic approach to development, implementation, and delivery. 

Innovation

The CPO studies customers and the market and looks for what direction the product can and should take going forward. This doesn't mean pushing for whatever is technologically viable. It means honoring the product strategy and vision while also looking at new approaches to delivering value to customers.

The CTO relies on the CPO's understanding of customers and the market as a whole to deliver value through technology.

Metrics

The CPO views merits from a product experience standpoint. They track a wide variety of product KPIs to measure how well the company is fulfilling customers' needs and expectations. 

The CTO views merits from a product performance standpoint. They want to know how well the product does what it's supposed to do.

Ultimately, the CPO and the CTO should work in close collaboration and align around the same company vision to deliver the best product experiences for their customers.

What is the difference between chief product officers and other product leaders?

The CPO leads all the activities that help a company build and maintain great products. In short, they oversee the entire product portfolio. The departments they manage are many and varied, from design and product management to user experience (UX) research and product analytics

So, by default, the CPO ranks above all other leaders in the product hierarchy.

Some key leaders that the CPO supervises include:

  • Director of UX

  • Head of product analytics

  • Director of product marketing

  • Director of product management

The CPO must ensure that these department heads execute their roles efficiently and in alignment with the company's strategy and vision. They also serve as an important mentor for all product leaders and influence the product organization's day-to-day dynamics.

Do all organizations need a CPO?

The short answer is yes!

Every organization looking to build superb products that deliver great business value needs an individual who can make essential decisions around that aspect. In the age of digital transformation, it's important to have someone who can ensure the company's product strategy and business strategy align seamlessly at every level and across all departments.

How to become a chief product officer

Just as with any other leadership role, it's unlikely that anyone would simply step into the role of the chief product officer right away. Instead, the most common trajectory for a CPO aligns well with the overall product career path.

Most CPO positions require that candidates have at least a bachelor's degree in business administration, product management, marketing, technology, or other related fields. However, more competitive positions will look for candidates with additional education, like an MBA degree, an additional business certification, or other relevant master's degrees or certifications.

Since the role of the CPO comes with a lot of responsibility, the chief product officer job description usually requires at least ten years of experience in product management, product analytics, or a related field. Potential employers will especially want to see the effects of the candidate's product management efforts—for instance, if their product acumen increased sales. Additionally, an ideal candidate has deep knowledge and experience in other relevant fields, including communications, marketing, and technology.

In most cases, the chief product officer is a role that evolves over time, with the individual generally starting their career as an associate product manager or other related entry-level roles. From there, with time and experience, an individual can progress to the product manager position and later to the senior manager slot. Then, with the right qualifications, the individual can move to the role of director of product. Finally, this leads to the role of CPO, the head of the product department.

Skills for chief product officers

A chief product officer needs to possess several essential skills:

  • Leadership skills. They should rally the employees and product heads below them and get the best out of everyone they work with.

  • Analytical skills. The CPO requires deep knowledge and insights of product analytics as well as top-notch research skills to evaluate product performance, customer experience, and growth opportunities.

  • Empathy. They need to step into the customer's shoes and understand their emotions in relation to the product and the problem it's meant to solve.

  • Communication skills. They should be the best communicator in the department and comfortably convey information to everyone in a way they understand.

  • Strategic thinking. At any given time, they should know what new product to roll out and how to maneuver and oversee the design and development process.

  • Business skills. They must have an adept understanding of how businesses work and what the product team can do to help the business succeed as a whole.

  • A keen eye for detail. A CPO is extremely focused and grounded. They must ensure the entire product development process is running smoothly at all times.

Average salary for chief product officers

According to Glassdoor, the average chief product officer’s salary is $299,908 per year. Out of that average salary, the base pay is $187,892, and the additional pay accounts for almost $112,006.

FAQs

What does a chief product officer do?

A chief product officer (CPO) oversees an organization's entire product portfolio while achieving the company's vision and mission and driving sustainable business outcomes.

What is the difference between a CPO and a VP of product?

In smaller companies, the CPO and VP of product are one and the same thing. In larger companies, however, the two roles are different and well-defined. While the VP of product is responsible for overseeing the work of senior product managers and their teams, the CPO ensures that the product team and product strategy fit into the overall strategy and vision of the business as a whole. VP of product ranks slightly lower than CPO on the ladder.

What is the difference between a CPO and a CMO?

The chief product officer (CPO) leads all the product development activities of an organization, while the chief marketing officer (CMO) is in charge of marketing those products. The two individuals often work as a team to elevate the product experience and ensure they align on the same company vision and strategy.

Is CPO an executive role?

Yes. The chief product officer is an important part of the executive team, alongside positions such as the CEO, CTO, CFO, COO, CMO, and others.

What is the average age of a chief product officer?

The average age of chief product officers in the US is 40+ years.

What is the career path of a chief product officer?

The path to becoming a CPO is long and involves many years of education and experience. CPOs usually have bachelor's or master's degrees in business administration, product management, or other related fields. Working through roles such as entry-level associate product manager, product manager, senior product manager and director of product, in that order, is the surest way to become a chief product officer.

What is a CPO salary?

On average, chief product officers take home around $299,908 per year.

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