What Does It Take to Become a Chief Product Officer (CPO)?

Two product team leaders describe how the industry has changed during their careers, and what it takes to lead.
Quinten Dol
December 18, 2020
Updated: March 2, 2021
Quinten Dol
December 18, 2020
Updated: March 2, 2021

To do the job successfully, Joseph Ambeault believes product team leaders must be “masters of influence.”

“We are accountable for everything about our product,” he said in an interview with Built In. “But we’re responsible for delivering very little of it.”

Ambeault knows a thing or two about product leadership. He is vice president of product at Codecademy, an online platform that educates users on how to write and ship code, where he helps his team gather, validate and prioritize the issues that need attention. Leading product teams at Codecademy also involves overseeing documentation processes, he said, as well as hiring, developing and retaining individual members of his team. Ambeault is also charged with managing relationships across the organization — an increasingly key piece of his day-to-day work.

Product teams are the banner child for an industry obsessed with breaking down silos, stimulating cross-functional collaboration, and constantly iterating. And those characteristics apply to the role itself, too. As Ambeault put it, “everything was Waterfall” when he first started out in product management. “Requirements were thrown over the wall to engineering, sales and marketing teams. Agile, Lean and DevOps were not commonplace.”

Over the last 20 years, product development teams have shifted their focus from the product itself to the customer. That’s according to Adam Zarlengo, who currently serves as chief product officer for personal finance firm Happy Money.

“Rather than specifying and designing larger feature sets and enduring longer build cycles, it’s about customer development, setting and validating hypotheses and making fast iterative loops,” said Zarlengo. “You have to have much more customer empathy, speed, measurement and overall focus on experience.”

What does it take to lead product teams in 2021? Is technical expertise still a requirement? And what can ambitious product managers do now to position themselves as future team leaders? We pulled up with Ambeault and Zarlengo and picked their brains to find out.

CPO Breakdown

According to Glassdoor, the average chief product officer makes more than $196,000. PayScale says the average CPO has around 10 years of experience in product management, and an academic background in “business administration, economics, product management, marketing, technology, advertising, psychology or engineering.”

 

Some technical background is a good foundation...

chief product officer happy money
Happy Money

Zarlengo: “My professional background is primarily in product management. My undergrad was in mechanical engineering and coming out of business school, I took a job as a product manager.”

Ambeault: “I started my career in technical roles, developing software, engineering networks and building data centers. I’ve always been passionate about building, and having hands-on, foundational tech experience was important when making the transition to product management.”

 

...but exposure to all facets of a business helps distinguish future product leaders.

Zarlengo: “I continued to work across different products, environments and company scale — a startup, a large public company and my own startup — that provided me with a diverse set of skills and the ability to understand product through different stages of a company, consumer needs, monetization models and organizational functions.”

ambeault
Codecademy

Ambeault: “While my tech background launched me into product management, it was exposure to other departments that shaped me into a product leader. I learned marketing and sales in my first product management role at a B2B technology company, and then learned finance and legal in my first executive role working in direct-to-consumer. To be an effective product leader, you need to speak the language of every function of the business.”

 

A holistic vision is key...

Zarlengo: “Product is in a unique position in that we not only need a deep understanding of consumer needs and the marketplace, but all functions of the organization — marketing, sales, engineering, finance, legal and so on. We have to develop a holistic understanding across many areas and be able to create clear pictures for consumers and internal teams, whether through the experience, written, visual or verbal communication to inspire.”

 

...and so is communication.

Ambeault: “Product leaders need to be masters of influence — we are accountable for everything about our product, but we’re responsible for delivering very little of it. We depend on every other function to produce a great customer experience, which requires communication, transparency and — above all else — extreme empathy for fellow employees. It is all about building trust and camaraderie with people who often don’t report to you — and who likely have different points of views — and getting them excited about the direction and journey you’re on together.”

Tracking Tech Trends

  • When forecasting future product team initiatives for Happy Money, Zarlengo tracks how digitization is rapidly changing both the financial services industry and the future of the workplace.
  • At Codecademy, Ambeault pays close attention to AI and machine learning. The goal is to automate more of his team’s operations and use technology to predict the impact of different product decisions.

 

How to move into a product leadership position

Zarlengo: “I would focus on a few things. First is the ability to understand and synthesize customer needs and business needs, and then to create and articulate a strategy to solve them. Secondly, develop the ability to collaborate and communicate effectively with peers to inspire and align around a direction and move forward together. Finally, develop strong empathy for consumers and stakeholders.”

Ambeault: “There’s an opportunity to demonstrate leadership at every level of a company. With product management, you’ll often be promoted to a job you’re already doing, so it’s never too early to start acting like a leader. During my career, I’ve learned to say what I’ll do and do what I say, share my knowledge with others — including the successes and failures — and worry about the big picture, not just the work in front of me.”

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