What it means to lead as a B2B chief product officer

b2b chief product officer
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Although he immediately apologized for being five minutes late to our call, Neal Gottsacker had a good excuse: he was finishing up the kind of conversation that’s critically important between a chief product officer and their counterparts in marketing.

“I was just meeting with our CMO. We just spent the last five minutes talking about roles and responsibilities — who is responsible for certain areas of product management versus product marketing, for example,” Gottsacker, chief product officer for Bellevue, Wash.-based workflow software firm Nintex explained. “It’s not about me building my own little kingdom, but how do we collaborate. To do this right, there’s more than enough work to go around.”

The work chief product officers are starting to do, however, helps explain why the role is becoming common across startups and large enterprises alike. Its importance was underscored, for example, when the recent departure of Facebook’s product leader made international headlines. In the aftermath of the terrorist shooting in New Zealand, meanwhile, YouTube’s chief product officer became a key spokesperson to explain why video footage about the attack kept popping up online.

In most cases, however, the chief product officer (CPO) function is a natural evolution of company growth, according to Moharyar Ali, who leads a Toronto-based firm called ProductFaculty that offers training and education in this space. A founder might have initially created an application and formed a company around it, for example, but that’s only the beginning. 

“What happens is that — especially in the B2B martech space — you’ve got more than 5,000 players, and it’s hard to distinguish player A from player B,” he said. “There are just so many products coming into market. The founder’s job evolves to become more than product, but to define what comes next, you need a CPO role to help continuously invent.”

At Nintex, Gottsacker said his job will involve much more than simply determining features and pricing. Having led his own business along with product-related roles at companies like HP Enterprise (HPE), he said a good CPO is someone who tends to deal with challenges that don’t always have clear-cut answers.

“What you’re seeing is that CPOs are moving into more senior positions to really address how everything to do with the product can encompass things that are related to the overall business strategy,” he said. “It’s not just looking at technology, but what are the ecosystems we want to play in?”

Nick Meyer, who recently became chief product officer at Cambridge, Mass.-based Relativity6, noted that many B2B products have also increased in complexity, particularly as technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) have entered the mix.

“No one actually knows how to use this stuff,” he said. “You’ve got the small startups that are innovating around technology but don’t have the business and sales experience on how to educate customers, to maneuver and work within them.”

Relativity6, for example, uses AI to help marketers “reactivate” lapsed customers. Myer, a former lecturer at MIT where the firm was born, said his mandate includes working side-by-side with the CEO in “operationalizing” technology, working on the front lines with buyers on new processes and workflows.

“If you’re selling the CEO or the GM or an SVP with a $50M P&L, you need to be talking leader to leader, but you also need to have the experience as a CPO to go in and talk directly to the sales people or the people using your product,” he said. “If not, you can get the deal done, but you deliver a poor product.”

Given that buyer personas can be very complicated, CPOs will likely continue to learn heavily on their CMO counterparts in some cases, Ali said, but the crux of the job comes from recognizing not only what drives adoption but how to demonstrate value and avoid the costs of having a customer switch.

“For B2B products, the higher the price of the product, the more product requirements are buyer-driven as opposed to user driven,” he said. “If they’re spending $300K they want to see a return, as opposed to how easy it is to use.”

While tools are emerging to help CPOs with things like developing a product roadmap — Gottsacker is looking at extending the use of Aha! at Nintex — Meyer suggested no one’s come up with anything that can beat primary research.

“I don’t like to introduce technology that makes us feel comfortable and that we know what we’re doing,” he said. “I would much more prefer to pick up the phone and call our customers, as opposed to having a tool in the way. “

He has a similar philosophy around the kind of talent he wants to attract to his team. Though he taught product management at MIT, his most sought-after skills revolve more around critical thinking.

“What I look for in a product manager is to ruthlessly prioritize and be very honest about what they do and do not know,” he said. “Figure out the most important thing to learn and then figure out the fastest way to go learn it.”

CPOs, meanwhile, will eventually be evaluated by how well they contribute to over-arching business metrics, just like any other C-Suite role, Gottsacker added. Organizations hiring or appointing one, however, should make sure they’re setting them up to be successful.

“Coming in, it’s one thing to give me a blank sheet of paper and say, ‘What’s our plan and product strategy?’ You may have no institutional knowledge, so you should offer some level of framing to start,” he said. “Even if you’ve never had a CPO, I can guarantee you product management is being done there somewhere.”

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Shane Schick
Shane Schick is the Editor-in-Chief of B2B News Network. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and was the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.