What is a Chief Product Officer (CPO)? + How to Become One 🚀

Love product planning, product launches, and everything in between? The Chief Product Officer role is for you! This dynamic, well-paid position is the hottest position in the boardroom right now.

We’re going to tell you exactly what you need to do to land it.

Becoming a CPO requires a few particular things:

  • In-depth knowledge of the entire product lifecycle
  • A strong grasp on your industry
  • The right degrees, skills, and levels of experience.

We cover all of that and more right here. By the time you’re through, you’ll know exactly where you stand and what moves you need to make next.

What Is a Chief Product Officer?

The CPO is the executive who oversees the product portfolio of a company. In other words, you’re the one leading all of the activities that help your company build and maintain great products. You’ll oversee activities such as discovery and conceptualization all the way to post-launch performance reviews.

CPOs are sometimes called by a few different names. In a smaller company or a startup, you might find the title labeled:

  • VP of Product
  • Head of Product (Management)
  • Director of Product (Management)
  • Director of Product Strategy
  • Product Design VP

In a larger company, however, these usually refer to different positions within the product management hierarchy. (Officially, the CPO isn’t a product manager, although product management may encompass some of your responsibilities.) We’ll look at this in detail below.

The CPO vs. CTO

Like we explored in our section on how to become a CTO, the CTO is responsible for making sure a company’s technology aligns with a company’s overall goals and mission. 

What happens when a company’s product is technology?

The line between product and technology is blurry. This is especially true when you start thinking about things like Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), but you’ll come across it anywhere companies use technology to enhance the customer experience. Think about it:

  • Cars feature sophisticated interfaces to aid in navigation and driving
  • Athletic clothing uses engineered synthetic fabrics to aid moisture wicking
  • Banks develop online services that let people invest their money themselves

In each case, the how, what, and why of a product have become intertwined. It’s not possible to separate the technology from the product. In these cases, the company has one of two choices:

  • The CPO works alongside the CTO to address the technological aspects of a product.
  • The CPO and CTO roles are merged. 

Yes, it’s possible to find Chief Product & Technology Officer roles out there now. Ramin Beheshti, the CPTO of Dow Jones, is one example.

Become a CPO and Secure a High-Powered, High-Earning Future

The CPO is zooming toward popularity as more companies realize the value of having on board an expert in products and customer experience. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, these professionals are experiencing a job growth rate of 20 percent (compared to just six percent of other top executives). 

Several major companies have hired their first CPOs recently. Overstock brought on a CPO in March 2020. A couple of months later, The Economist hired Deep Bagchee – the former VP of Product and Technology for CNBC.

Even the U.S. government is brought on a CPO for its Department of Health and Human Services.

If you’re thinking about making the jump to CPO, now’s a perfect time.

Here’s What You’ll Earn

According to Payscale, CPOs earn, on average, $183,724 per year, with the ability to earn as much as $291,000 for those with over twenty years of experience at the job. Glassdoor bumps those numbers a bit higher, noting an average of $193,636 annually, with top earners bringing in around $312,00 per year.

Payscale notes that it’s mostly experience that will impact your salary. Expect your salary to rise dramatically at about 10 years of experience at being a CPO. Likewise, 78 percent of your competition for the role will have 10 years of experience or more

What Does a Chief Product Officer Do?

Ever wonder why large brands ax seemingly popular products, or suddenly bring on new features for their services that you didn’t expect? Decisions like that are the result of the CPO’s work.

As a CPO, you’ll be responsible for making sure that every product a company has on the market is serving the overall company mission. If it’s not, you’ll be the one to identify what changes need to be made and implement a strategy to change them.

You might have your hands on a lot of different roles. On any given day, expect to find yourself:

  • Leading and supervising project management teams
  • Meeting with department heads or other top-level managers
  • Interviewing, recruiting, and supervising product employees or teams
  • Creating strategies, timelines, and processes for meeting product goals
  • Working with the COO or the CFO to streamline operations and budgets
  • Spearheading product development strategy
  • Conducting market or product research and analysis
  • Advising on marketing strategies

Understanding Product Team Organizational Structure

As a CPO, you’ll constitute the head of your company’s product team. Depending on your company’s specific hierarchy, that often means working with a series of professionals who lead the product and project management processes themselves. 

In a large company with extensive hierarchy, you’ll take on more of a guidance and advisory role to help teams understand how a product aligns with a company’s missions. Directly reporting to you will include positions such as the:

  • Director of Product Management
  • Director of User Experience
  • Head of Product Analytics
  • Head of Marketing

However, many smaller companies don’t use super hierarchical structures for their product development. Instead, they opt for a structure where a product manager heads smaller teams of developers. This boosts the overall autonomy of the team and makes it easier for the company to respond to rapid market changes. In this case, you’ll primarily interface with the product managers, who relay essential information to their developers.

How to Become a CPO: Skills, Education, Career Path

If you want to become a chief product officer, you’ll need to think carefully about the education you acquire and the career choices you make. The good news is that you have more freedom regarding things like the choice of your undergraduate degree. However, the actual career path for a CPO is a bit more well-defined than other executives. 

There are certain things you absolutely need to do. We’ll look at that next.

What Skills Do I Need to Become a CPO?

The skills you need to excel at this role fall into five distinct categories:

  • Leadership. Get used to leading teams because you’ll consistently do it. People will look to you for guidance and direction. We strongly recommend taking a course in Leadership Fundamentals if you haven’t already.
  • Management. You’ll work with an array of people every day. From managing project managers to mentoring employees, you’ll need a firm grasp on organizational behavior and how teams function.
  • Data analytics. Product analytics will guide many of the decisions you make regarding a company’s product portfolio. You’ll need to know how to research the right information to make informed decisions. Specific skills understanding one-variable statistics will aid you with this.
  • Product strategy. Integral to a successful product includes the ability to identify market and positioning opportunities. Expect to leverage skills like blue ocean strategy, which can help your organization sail into more profitable waters.
  • Marketing. As the CPO, you’ll market and evangelize products from concept to launch. This includes getting other board members to buy into ideas, discussing product potential with investors, and even exciting employees to turn them into product ambassadors. You may also provide input to the marketing department on campaigns, so make sure you’ve got marketing fundamentals down well. 

CPO Education & Degrees: Your Options

You’ll need a bachelor’s degree at the minimum to achieve the position of CPO. However, some 53 percent of CPOs have a master’s degree (another 7 percent have a doctorate), so you should consider going beyond the minimum to secure this job. 

We’ve found that CPOs tend to have a broader range of undergraduate degrees than other types of executives. Some options include:

  • Business administration
  • Economics
  • Information technology
  • Product management
  • Marketing and advertising
  • Psychology
  • Engineering

What’s the Best MBA for a CPO?

At the executive level, you’re going to make decisions that directly impact the course and performance of the business. Therefore, if you’re eyeing that advanced degree that over half of all CPOs have, consider an MBA. This will make sure you’ve got the perspective and tools you need to make smart, informed decisions.

There are a few different routes you can take. Here are a few considerations to help identify which is the best option for you: 

  • Traditional MBA. A traditional MBA occurs on campus and typically requires fulltime attendance. You’ll enjoy a rigorous, structured experience that lets you connect and network with peers. Likewise, traditional MBAs are well-regarded in the business world.
  • Online MBA. Many people turn to online MBAs because of their flexibility. This is ideal for self-motivated, working professionals who can’t or don’t want to stop working. Many online MBA programs have historically lacked the valuable benefits of a traditional MBA, such as the ability to network. However, that’s beginning to change, with more MBAs featuring career networks and other communities.
  • Executive MBA. An executive MBA is a specialized MBA program that focuses on the skills and knowledge individuals need who are specifically interested in gaining a position on a board. Typically, individuals who opt for this route are mid-career or experienced professionals who may already have some background in business but need to bolster it to be effective in the boardroom.

We’ve covered quite a bit on the advantages of online versus traditional MBAs, and what to consider when choosing between an EMBA and an MBA.

What Is the Career Path to Become a CPO?

Becoming a CPO doesn’t just happen overnight. In fact, we recommend that you pursue the job after you’ve got around 10 years of experience in product-related fields. To maximize your success, we recommend that you do two things:

  • Stay within an industry. While it’s okay to move around between companies, you’ll need to demonstrate industry knowledge. For example, consider Tamar Yehoshua, the current CPO of Slack. She’s worked with cloud services since 1997. Or, Aaron Kissel, the CPO of Politico, who earned his degree in Industrial and Labor Relations in 1993. 
  • Take on many product-related roles. The more knowledge you can demonstrate about the product lifecycle, the stronger candidate you will be. Consider Lisa Collier, the CPO of Under Armour, who has worked every position in clothing retail over the past 36 years.

Beyond that, here’s what your career path should look like:

1. Get a bachelor’s degree. We noted above that you’d got more freedom in this choice. If you already know what industry you want to work within, a technical degree is perfectly acceptable.

2. Get into a product-related role. There’s no substitute for work experience here. You should take on product development, product management, and similar roles. Each successive position should demonstrate more responsibility than the last. Expect this to take five to seven years.

3. Get your MBA. You can start on an MBA as soon as you finish your undergrad if you like. During this time, make a point of connecting with other professionals in your industry.

4. Continue to grow your network and seek additional opportunities. Once you’ve hit about ten years of experience, you’ll start to catch the eye of companies looking for a new CPO. Your professional network will come in handy.

Summary: Next Steps to Becoming a Great CPO

There’s no better time than right now to get started down the path to becoming a Chief Product Officer. This evolving, high-energy role is gaining importance as more companies realize the value of a product expert on the board. 

We’ve covered what a CPO does, what sorts of skills they have, and what sort of experienced, educated professionals you’re up against when you start seeking the role. Now you know where you stand and what you can do right now, no matter where you are in your career.