“Having a qualified Chief Product Officer that is able to address real-time business challenges, be a change agent and role model, speak the language of finance to peers in the C-Suite, and lead their team through execution results in hyper-growth and profitability for companies, especially during the ScaleUp phase.”
Around 2013, SaaS ScaleUp expert Shelley Perry began to notice a product-focused executive role popping up in the C-suites of hyper-growth consumer companies. In one of those “risky” career moves, she decided to hedge her bets and go all-in as Chief Product Officer — a position that was then relatively unknown.
“When I got the title of CPO,” she said, “I remember thinking, what is this strange title and what is it going to do to my career?”
Quite a bit, it turns out. In the past several years, Shelley has worked with investment firms like Insight Partners to maximize return on their software-sector investments. There, she was an advocate for bringing Chief Product Officers on board to portfolio companies at the right time. Not only that, she launched an in-company accelerator program to recruit and groom candidates for the role.
These days, Shelley is focused on training and empowering a larger community of product leaders to assume the CPO and Board Director roles, especially women. So many product people have never received the mentorship or education they need to become an executive, and it is often difficult for companies to find qualified candidates. According to her, the profession needs to “ScaleUp,” or it will be replaced by competing C-suite roles.
Shelley has made it her mission to elevate the profession and make sure that Chief Product Officers make their mark. Read on to learn more about why ScaleUp companies need a CPO, the skills required to excel as a CPO, and Shelley’s advice to product leaders aspiring to this increasingly popular role.
Hyper-growth companies: Where CPOs make a real impact
“ScaleUps need a qualified CPO to unlock profit and sustain high growth…there would be more hyper-growth companies if they had qualified Chief Product Officers.”
As a former Operating Partner at Insight Partners, Shelley advised ScaleUp companies — companies that had hit product/market fit but weren’t unicorns (yet). A key area of focus for her was to staff these companies with a Chief Product Officer.
“ScaleUps need a qualified CPO to unlock profit and sustain high growth,” Shelley says, “there would be more hyper-growth companies if they had qualified Chief Product Officers.”
Shelley speaks from experience. “In my early days with Insight, many ScaleUp CEOs didn’t believe that such a person existed. That’s when I decided to show rather than tell. After I stepped into several companies as an interim CPO, they finally got what I was talking about. Results matter.”
So, why is it so important for ScaleUp companies to hire a CPO? First, let’s take a step back and look at what makes a company a ScaleUp. According to Shelley, it’s one that:
- Is growing quickly after initial product market/fit with one product;
- Needs help growing the product into a portfolio methodically;
- Is adding automation to optimize process and scale;
- Is evolving from “all-rounders,” or generalists, to specialized roles; and
- Is moving from a team-focused approach to a leverage-focused approach
That movement from team to leverage is the key reason why a CPO is so essential at this stage. “You need to make that change, but you need to make it at the right pace,” Shelley said. “If you don’t move toward leverage fast enough, your EBITDA and cost base will go up. But, if you move too fast, you won’t be able to respond in a timely way, and all your non-product teams will be waiting on you to release something. “
In this sort of environment, CPOs are leaders who can both pace and embrace the change. “Qualified Chief Product Officers offer so much more than good product management — they are respected change agents that unify and push the company and its customers to the next level of growth.”
“Qualified Chief Product Officers offer so much more than good product management — they are respected change agents that unify and push the company and its customers to the next level of growth.”
Though Shelley successfully convinced ScaleUp CEOs of the need for a CPO, she started to realize that many product people couldn’t hold their own in a C-level boardroom. “They come from a different background,” Shelley says. “And they weren’t speaking the same language.”
During her time at Insight, Shelley built the Product Center of Excellence and helped launch the CPO Accelerator to recruit and coach first time Chief Product Officers. Shelley has worked with hundreds of CEOs to identify the best CPO profiles to round out a C-suite.
Outside of Insight Partners, Shelley founded crowdsourced collective Path to CPO — a solution to the scarcity of CPO training and a way to help current product people understand what it takes to be a Chief Product Officer. There, she shares her hard-earned knowledge and leverages her network of current and former CPOs to push forward the next generation of product leaders.
What makes a good CPO?
“CPOs are responsible for prioritizing the needs of all stakeholders, managing change, focusing the product roadmap, and providing long-term value to customers and the business. What that means changes every day.”
CPOs drive the entire product lifecycle from vision-setting to launch. But more than anything, CPOs do the job of any C-level executive — they understand every aspect of the business and use that understanding to drive company-wide impact. Like a CMO is to marketing or a CFO is to finance, a CPO is to product. CPOs are responsible for prioritizing the needs of all stakeholders, managing change, focusing the product roadmap, and providing long-term value to customers and the business. What that means changes every day.
“The best part about a ScaleUp CPO role is that it is different every single day. And if you’re doing the same thing every day, you’re probably not a great CPO.”
If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. But it’s also all centered around one skillset — using data. “The key to being a good CPO lies in the ability to find, use, and accept data. You can’t take orders from the market or sales only. You have to take orders from the data.”
“The key to being a good CPO lies in the ability to find, use, and accept data. You can’t take orders from the market or sales only. You have to take orders from the data.”
“There’s a huge amount of data available to you as a product person to back up what you’re saying,” Shelley continues, “whether it’s for where the product is going or how much money you have to allocate. Instinct only gets you so far. You need a way to support your gut feelings — a reason to hold on in the face of pushback.”
And there will be pushback. However, a good Chief Product Officer knows how to leverage data and turn it into influence. “As a CPO, influence is your power versus organizational authority,” Shelley laughs ironically. “You need to influence customers to come on the journey. You need to influence people to want to work for the company. At the ScaleUp stage, everyone is buying into you, not the brand name. You need to have confidence in your decisions along with the data to back them up when the time comes.”
“You have to be passionate about a direction and take a stance. But you have to be willing to let go of your stance if the data doesn’t support it. And you have to do all that without alienating any stakeholders.”
You also need to be able to communicate the reasoning behind those decisions to the C-suite, which requires speaking the language of finance. “You need to take what you’re trying to do with the product and convey it to stakeholders in the language they understand. You don’t have to know all the details, but you certainly have to know enough about the financials to make your case,” Shelley said. “This is especially important advice for women aspiring to be CPOs. I’ve met many women who shy away from dealing with the financials.”
Women, it’s time to reach for the C-suite
“The CPO role has exploded, and there’s a deficit of talent right now. It’s truly a universal playing field. While I don’t see many women stepping up currently, it’s a great opportunity for them to get into the C-suite and Board roles. And we certainly need more diversity there. So come on, women, grab it!”
In September 2018, Shelley discovered a conference that fed her passion for helping women become better executives and product leaders — Women in Product. “I wanted to learn how I could help more women become Chief Product Officers,” Shelley said.
According to Shelley, the secret lies in having the confidence to reach for leadership roles. Men who hit 7 out of 10 requirements for a position will step up and say, “I’m going to go after this.” But a woman who only meets 7 out of 10 requirements will say, “I’m not qualified. I shouldn’t even try.”
“I tell women that if they don’t raise their hands, men will. And those men will get the job even if they’re not any more qualified,” Shelley said. “As a woman, if you have some skills and are willing to learn the rest, you need to try.”
“And you need to stay focused on what you do have,” Shelley continues. “Instead of seeing a list of qualifications and saying I don’t have 10, say the 7 you do have. And say those with a vengeance.”
“Instead of seeing a list of qualifications and saying I don’t have 10, say the 7 you do have. And say those with a vengeance.”
Regardless of gender, every ScaleUp SaaS company needs a CPO to maximize growth and profit
The C-suite is a team sport, and the Chief Product Officer provides a much-needed bridge between different departments so the product gets out and top-line revenue goes up.
“Product is the glue across departments, helping to fill in the gaps with software, processes, and hands-on work. This is true across marketing, finance, customer success, and, perhaps most importantly, the C-suite. Product is often the only function in a software company that pulls all the information together to create a prioritization process for decision-making. And they do it in a way that maximizes stakeholder interests. This skill and leadership needs a seat at the table.”
“The hard part about the CPO role is that you are the glue until you don’t have to be. You fill in whatever the need is, and you often don’t get any credit for it. When product is having the most impact, it’s often unnoticed — learn to be ok with that, but reap the rewards of the company returns.”
When asked about the one piece of advice she has for aspiring product leaders, here’s what Shelley had to say: “Invest in yourself to rise to the challenge. Stop complaining that you aren’t at the table and earn your right to be at the table.”
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