There are, naturally, a set of traits that all C-Level should possess: leadership, passion for the product and company, and intellectual horsepower amongst others.
Within product, there are specific qualities that are required such as ‘knowing the customer needs’. But what are slightly more niche things that really set apart the CPOs who’re shifting the dial for the businesses that they’re in?
First of all, I don’t have the answer to this question. But, I’ve been super lucky to have spoken to a large number of incredibly talented people – of all levels of experience – since I started here at Notion. I’ve asked a lot of them ‘What makes a great CPO?’. Here are some of the responses I’ve had….
Ability to set boundaries…
A theme that’s come up in my conversations on this topic is that great CPOs and Product Managers have the ability to push back, to set boundaries, and to be prepared to take the ensuing flak so that their team can focus on the things that are of highest priority without distraction.
It’s hard to do: nobody likes to be told ‘no’, possibly least of all founders. But great CPOs know that the difficulty in saying ‘no’ is far less difficult than saying ‘yes’, when the former results in an hour of tension and the latter results in a distraction that could derail the next 3 months of work.
As one Product Manager from our portfolio put it ‘Our CPO is basically a human shield’. He’ll protect the product team from surrounding noise so that they can focus on doing high quality, highly prioritised work. He’s willing to be unpopular in the short term, to gain amazing results in the medium term.
…to focus on the things that really matter, and to stay clear on the direction
One of the amazing things about working in hyper-growth startups is the amount of ideas that get thrown around. One of the very difficult things about working in hyper-growth startups is the amount of ideas that get thrown around. In brief: great teams are made up of great people, great people are passionate, passionate people have thousands of ideas, and it’s impossible to implement thousands of ideas a month even when the majority of them are solid.
Managing expectations about which ideas make the grade to be put in the roadmap, and which don’t, can be challenging…. Particularly when they’re all great ideas being generated by smart people.
How do great CPOs and PMs manage this? I spoke one PM who mentioned that he’d spent some time telling people ‘yes, I will definitely get on to the change you requested…eventually’, whilst being safe in the knowledge that it would never become a priority.
He switched to saying ‘this is not a priority, sorry, it will never get done because it focusses on X direction and we are going in direction Y’ which, surprisingly to me, had a much better effect on his stakeholders. Previously, these people had waited months for their change to be implemented whilst thinking of which further product changes they could ask for as a natural lead on from the original change request. What started out as ‘One change that will be done in a month’ then became ‘When my original change is implemented I can add another change that will lead to another change… etc’ over a period of up to 6 months.
When the PM in question was straight off the bat with them, they understood that their priority was not aligned with the wider business so quickly changed direction to suit, avoiding months of disappointed and wasted time and effort.
Others took a slightly more brutal approach to this by saying:
‘Sure. I’ll put the product change you requested on the list that I like to call ‘I will never do this’’
I laughed, but I’m 95% confident that it wasn’t a joke.
What made it possible for these Product Managers to have the confidence to push back? It was that the CPO was super clear about where the product roadmap was going. The CPO’s clear and unwavering vision for the next month or two gave the PMs the gravity they needed to prioritise the right ideas with confidence.
Building for the future
‘When do CPOs start building teams after the latest round has been closed?’, I asked. ‘About a year before the latest round was started’ was what I got back. Not to suggest that people are out there hiring furiously with money that they don’t have, but great CPOs seemed to see future raises as a massive distraction that was not their responsibility.
They acted as if the money was coming, so that when it did eventuate they didn’t feel an upward surge of destabilising (positive) energy and changing priorities amongst the team. They focussed on building the best products with the best teams of people; they knew that their part in the raise was not to write a deck showing the perfect hockey stick trajectory, but to build a product that would speak for itself when the pitching started.
If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself – Henry Ford
Posted by Maddy Cross, Head of Talent at Notion Capital.