Why do Chief Product Officers last such a short time?

It's the job with the highest turnover. But why?
CJ Daniel-Nield
CPO debates with colleagues

Chief Product Officers (CPOs) are increasingly being given a seat at the C-Suite table. Meaning more power for the people in these positions. Officially the role involves overseeing a business's product strategy. In reality, this often means challenging the business’s core strategy, and as a result, the decisions made by the rest of the C-Suite. Not a naturally comfortable position to be in.

Given the nature of the role, it is unsurprising that our latest research showed CPOs are leaving the job quicker than their colleagues. Of the 1000 CPOs we surveyed, the average tenure was only 2.6 years, which is significantly shorter than other C-Suite roles. For comparison, astudy from Datarails found the average CEO tenure is 3.9 years, while Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) stay in post for 4.6 years on average.

With CPO tenures so short, companies are not able to do product as effectively. This should set alarm bells ringing, particularly for businesses where product innovation is a priority.

It’s lonely fighting the good product fight

CPOs at leading UK organisations are increasingly speaking out about the challenges facing the top product role, notably of those we spoke to 60% cited loneliness as being part of the job.

One reason CPOs are feeling lonely is likely due to a lack of understanding from businesses about what product is. One CPO from a leading high-street fashion brand described how CPOs have to become storytellers, tasked with bringing people along with them, which often results in divisions within the C-Suite.

The job of persuading people can create a lonely environment if a CPO is the only person preaching product in an organisation. It can lead to them questioning themselves and struggling to change a business as needed, particularly if there isn’t support from other C-Suite members.

CPO vs. the rest of the C-Suite

Not only are CPOs often the only person in the C-Suite responsible for product, but they also have their own unique set of priorities – and as a result, clashes can occur.

One point of contention is the natural conflict between the CTO and the CPO. Often a CPO is responsible for the ideation and commercialisation of the product, whereas the CTO must oversee the execution. A tension between business as usual and new product innovation can halt a CPO's ability to execute a successful product strategy.

Conflict can increase further if a CEO is entirely sales focused. CPOs in leading organisations have spoken about the difficulties of working in a business where the CEO wants to sell the product before building it. Situations like this often result in the CPO leaving.

Ben Elliott, Co-Founder of tech recruitment agency Found by Few, told us that CPOs often get fired when these disagreements rise to the surface: “If there’s conflict with other C-Suite, they’re the first to go”.

Failure to meet high expectations

Quite often, a business will bring in a CPO to turn around a failing ship. In some instances they can be seen as a potential solution to a bad reputation on Glassdoor – if employees are leaving due to legacy culture and slow processes a CPO appointment makes for good PR. But that in turn leaves CPOs feeling like they’re under scrutiny.

There’s also the problem of transformation vs. product. Many businesses are still stuck trying to implement digital transformation and agile processes, rather than pushing on with product innovation. As one CPO put it: “I had that real lightbulb moment of: ‘Oh I’m not doing product, I’m doing transformation”. Due to a lack of understanding of product, CPOs can sometimes have unfair expectations put on them that don’t necessarily match their skill sets.

CPOs want to create good products

CPOs leave after two years because they’re left managing internal politics instead of doing product. The business either expects them to turn around a sinking ship, convince reluctant stakeholders or battle out business priorities with the rest of the C-Suite.

If a business is still stuck trying to digitally transform instead of focusing on product innovation, optimising existing products and following a customer-focused product vision, then it is already falling behind the competition.

Look to legacy organisations like Lego, Boots and BT, all of whom are leading the way when it comes to embedding a product mindset and innovating through product. Taking this approach, and ensuring your CPO is empowered to deliver, is crucial to the commercial success of a wide variety of businesses.

The first step? Try making your working environment more pleasant for your CPO. The longer they stay in post, and the better supported they are, the more likely your business will benefit from product innovation.

CJ is the Founder and CEO of Planes, a digital product studio in London launching product businesses for startups, scaleups and large organisations. CJ started Planes with a simple belief: every successful business starts with an experiment. Since then, Planes has partnered with organisations including Skin Rocks, to launch their App of the Day industry-first skincare app by Caroline Hirons. Alongside his role at Planes, CJ is an advisor for startups and an occasional angel investor.

Written by
CJ Daniel-Nield
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August 25, 2023