This is the second in a series of eight articles on CPO Solutions. Why? Over the past year Products That Count has been investigating the role of the Chief Product Officer. That investigation has included original research by our own CPO, Renée Niemi, resulting in the white paper “The Rise of the Chief Product Officer: Study of the Most Important Role in Business.” We also recently published an eBook on “The State of the Chief Product Officer in 2022.” That latter work focused on the eight top challenges facing the CPO of today, one of which is talent.

Stay tuned to Products That Count for more CPO-related content, including the rest of this series on CPO Solutions.

Make talent your #1 priority

There’s no hiding from the fact that talent is a major challenge for CPOs. It includes hiring the right people, as well as keeping them. Solving for the talent challenge takes focused effort and attention. 

When Scott Williamson became Chief Product Officer at GitLab, there were fifteen PMs on the team. Due to the company’s rapid growth, Scott was tasked with tripling the team within two quarters. Ultimately, he quadrupled it. Here, he shares best practices on how to succeed with hiring great talent in a competitive job market. This included spending about 10 hours per week just on hiring.

Scott says, “The only way to achieve your talent-hiring goal is to make it your number one priority. Make sure that the people in interview teams have clear roles that don’t overlap. And make sure job descriptions are excellent. And that the recruiter and sourcer are of the same mind about what we are looking for. Have weekly syncs to debug the process and identify bottlenecks. 

“It’s competitive out there. You have to optimize for a great candidate experience. And make sure the bar is high, because product management is so important. There’s so much leverage in getting the right person in the role. And you get crushed when you have the wrong person. In product, it’s especially important to hire well.”

Action item: Prioritize talent by spending a set number of hours each week on it, and properly setting up your talent funnel.

Scott also asks his PMs to use a Career Development Framework outlining expectations at each role. He says that the framework “gives a PM a chance to check in on how am I doing against expectations broadly? What do I need to be working on to meet expectations at this level, or move to the next level? That’s been a huge retention tool because people feel like they’re receiving coaching. They can see themselves advancing and moving their skills forward. They know what’s expected at the next level.”

This sentiment is shared by Autodesk EVP of AEC Design Amy Bunszel. According to Amy, shifting the culture requires a proper Northstar vision. In other words, a top-level goal that the whole organization works towards together, in all their projects. 

As Amy explains, “I feel very strongly that if you have a Northstar that people can get behind and are excited about and passionate about – your team, but also your customers – you will get through massive amounts of change much better. There’s always going to be some disruption. Nobody enjoys disruption. But if people know that where you’re going, you have their best interest in mind, and they can really rally behind that vision and that Northstar, it is so much easier. It’s still going to be challenging, but it is so much easier.”

Train the skills you need: The Product Academy at Nubank

What if your challenge is finding the people you need in the available hiring pool? For Jag Duggal, Chief Product Officer at the Brazilian fintech Nubank, the solution was pretty clear: hire for potential, train the skills. Thus Nubank’s Product Academy was born. 

Modeled in part on similar training programs at Google and Facebook, the Product Academy was designed to do a few things. First, it aligns PMs to the way Nubank thinks about product development and strategy. Modules are tailored to PMs at all levels of the organization. These are designed for cross-training and clarification of what makes a great PM specifically at Nubank. The decision to invest in this level of training grew out of necessity as well as Jag’s evolving philosophy on PMs.

“First, similar to engineering, product management requires a set of technical skills that are just not produced in the volume, globally, that the demand is there for. Second, what we mean by product management is a pretty diverse thing, and not well defined. If you expect every PM to have a computer science degree, and also all the other things you need a product manager to be great at, you’re inherently limiting the pool.

“I used to believe that product managers were born. My mindset is now less that they are born, by virtue of IQ points, and education, and exactly what they studied. It is more shaped by the fact that PMs are built. Not that that other stuff isn’t important. We need really sharp people for this job. But it can be trained with high expectations, and certain personal characteristics with a desire to learn. And with the investment in the curriculum to show them what great is, so they can reach for it.”

The future of talent: specialization or generalist?

Nubank isn’t the only company looking for PMs with a general set of traits. Next Insurance CPO Effi Fuks Leichtag is chiefly looking for problem solvers. For Effi, the general qualities of product management are more important than keeping up with the increasing sub-divisions of talent.

“One thing I’ve observed since I became a PM is an over-specialization of the product identity. You now have people who are growth PMs, and you have people who are core PMs. You have PMs who are going through their third company or job, just doing, let’s say, customer service. So people are building domain expertise on best practices, technologies, or stacks. They’re bringing a lot of information. I’m not necessarily a fan of that. 

“I still believe in the power of the ubiquitous PM, a person who can take an abstract of an opportunity or a problem and transfer that into action. But I do foresee – just because of the nature of growth of the profession, and many people in that position, and everything becoming tech – more and more sub-professions within the product management world. Project managers, product owners, domain expertise, fintech versus consumer. 

“So I think we’re going to keep seeing this breakdown of professions. And I still believe that the future belongs to the ubiquitous PMs, the ones who can zoom out beyond those nuances and solve problems.”

Summing up

In the end, there is no single or simple solution for the challenges pertaining to product talent. And no solution is permanent, either. Just as product-market fit moves as soon as you attain it, building a great product team does not mean it will remain. Whether you call it the Great Resignation or simply new structural realities post-COVID, keeping great talent may be harder than ever.

The above insights from these great CPOs can help. Like Scott Williamson says, if talent is important then you need to make it your top priority. And when hiring, you may be best served not looking for specialists, but rather good generalists, as Effi Fuks Leichtag says. That approach fits with Jag Duggal’s idea of hiring for traits and then making a serious investment in training the necessary skills. A benefit here is looking more generally widens the pool of potential talent.

Stay tuned for part three in this series, in which we take a look at the Chief Product Officer’s role in measuring progress. Coming soon.

About the speaker
Renee Niemi Products That Count, CPO Member
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