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Why do CPOs have the highest turnover in the C-Suite?

by CJ Daniel-Nield11 June 2023 4 Min Read

Who doesn’t occasionally feel lonely in their job? Turns out, if you’ve been feeling the blues at your desk recently, chances are your Chief Product Officer has got it worse.

After surveying the LinkedIn profiles of 1000 CPOs, we found the average CPO tenure is 2.6 years. That’s significantly shorter than other C-Suite roles: a study from Datarails found that the average CEO tenure is 3.9 years and it’s 4.6 years for a CTO.

So why are CPOs leaving the job so soon after they’re hired?

We spoke to CPOs at leading UK organisations to hear the challenges facing the top product role – and we heard that loneliness was a big factor. 60% of the CPOs we spoke to highlighted loneliness as a common aspect of the job.

So what’s that about? And why should you care? Because if your CPO is leaving after 2 years, chances are you’re not getting product right at your organisation.

It’s lonely fighting the good product fight

When CPOs talk about feeling lonely, they don’t mean a lack of work friends or chats around the water cooler.

They’re talking about the loneliness of having to champion product in a large organisation – and often being the only person doing it.

One CPO from a leading high-street fashion retailer said: “When people don’t understand what product is in a bigger organisation, you spend a lot of your time bringing people on the journey. It’s why you end up having this divide”.

"If you're on your own and you're the only person preaching product, you can end up feeling really lonely and questioning yourself: am I going crazy?! One person isn't enough to change the tide”

CPO from a High Street Fashion Retailer

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.

A CPO at a high street retailer shared their experience coming up against the CEO: “I was the only product person which is a very lonely place to be. Especially when your boss is a salesman: we had very different views on product. He wanted to sell the thing then build it… so I ended up leaving”.

“I was the only product person which is a very lonely place to be. We had very different views on product… so I ended up leaving”.

By its nature, the role of the CPO is to challenge the core business strategy, and as a result, the decisions made by the rest of the C-Suite. In this way, product is unlike any other business unit, and it’s understandable why it’s hard to get the rest of the leadership team on board.

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

One point of contention that came up a lot in our research was the natural conflict between the Chief Technology Officer and the CPO. As the CPO of a global Fintech summarised it: “The CPO is responsible for ideation and the commercialisation of the products. The CTO has to execute it”.

The tension between BAU and new product innovation is a key constraint that most large businesses are dealing with when trying to execute a successful product strategy.

Failure to meet high expectations

Another key reason why CPOs are leaving after only a couple of years is the high expectations for the role.

A business will often bring in a CPO to turn around a failing ship: perhaps they have a bad reputation on Glassdoor, and employees are leaving because of a legacy culture and slow processes.

The PR-able nature of the CPO role – especially in this economic climate – means CPOs often feel like they’re under scrutiny. Plus, it’s another distraction from actually getting product done in the business, which is what your CPO really joined to do, not post on Linkedin and join panels about being a tech business.

"I had that real lightbulb moment of: ‘Oh I'm not doing product, I'm doing transformation'"

There's also the problem of transformation vs. product. Many businesses are still stuck trying to implement digital transformation and agile processes, rather than get on with product innovation. As one CPO we spoke to put it: “I had that real lightbulb moment of: ‘Oh I'm not doing product, I'm doing transformation'”.

All in all, it’s clear from our research that CPOs feel lonely because they’re rarely working on what they were hired to do: good product. Either the business is expecting them to turn around a sinking ship, convince reluctant stakeholders or battle out business priorities with the rest of the C-Suite.

If your business is still stuck doing digital transformation instead of product innovation - optimising your existing products and following a customer-focused product vision - then you’re already falling behind your competition. Look to legacy organisations like Lego, Boots and BT who are leading the way when it comes to embedding a product mindset and innovating through product.

Getting product right at large organisations is hard. We’re on a mission to change that, so we’re speaking to senior leaders from large organisations like Lego, John Lewis and Barclays to dig into the challenges of implementing product within the unique constraints of their businesses.

Got a story to tell? We want to hear from you. Reach out to CJ for a chat:

I’m CJ, co-founder of Planes and in charge of all things strategy and growth. Coming from the world of startups, I want everything done 10x quicker than humanely possible—and I love my team for trying.
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