What makes a great Chief Product Officer? An interview with Bil Ahmed - Part 1

28 Aug 2019

What makes a great Chief Product Officer? An interview with Bil Ahmed - Part 1

In the first part of this interview with Bil Ahmed, multiple CPO in FinTech, Ed Glass, Principal in the Tech Practice at Odgers Berndtson, explores the evolving demands on the Chief Product Officer.

Ed Glass: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me, Bil. You have been a Chief Product Officer at a number of leading firms in the digital banking and payments world over the past ten years.

The CPO role is one we’ve increasingly been asked to fill by digital banking and FinTech clients. So, maybe, let’s kick off with a definition. For you, what exactly is a CPO? It seems like a role with a multiplicity of responsibilities, requiring a wide range of skills.

Bil Ahmed:  There is no simple definition of a CPO, it depends on a lot of things within a particular organisation. To really boil it down, the CPO is responsible around the 'Why' of your product. I’ve seen over the past decade that product leadership has become a multi-faceted role, revolving around the 'Why would a customer use your product or your service?'.

As a product leader, you need to have real depth across a number of areas. Tech depth, customer depth, commercial depth.

You have to be at a level where you can really enrich the relationships throughout the whole organisation and have super tight relationships with the CTO, the CMO, the Chief Sales Officer, and so on.

You need credibility in those areas in order to push things forward. And to create what I call the healthy tension to help push the business forward. The CPO role is one of the few roles that really deeply touches every functional area within an organisation.

EG: What does that mean for the culture of the business?

BA: Well, before we get into that, I would say there needs to be clarity on the role of the CPO in the organisation, and that person needs to be empowered to do what they and the product team have committed to do. The ambition & purpose in becoming more of a customer-led product organisation is key, and the organisation needs to set up the CPO & product team to win.

Without that, just parachuting in a CPO, and thinking the status quo environment is good enough to drive the right transformation and outcomes, is short-sighted.

I'll give you one example to show how important it is to get the CPO positioning correct within an organisation. Take getting a product out at a pace to the market, a key metric for any product organisation. To do this, there is a lot of dependency on the tech solutions which sit with the CTO’s organisation. Ultimately you can’t do this alone. You need the co-operation and involvement of the rest of the technology in the organisation. This creates the healthy tension I mentioned where as the CPO you need to ask those difficult questions, to see what can or can’t be done.

EG: So, where should the role of CPO sit in the organisation?

BA: Well, I’ve had various experiences. I’ve been where it sat in IT, and product was dictated by the business and product were really order takers. There are still a lot of organisations who work like this.

What’s wrong with that is that you’re spending a lot of time, money and resource, building something based on internal assumptions. Product sitting in IT means it is part of a cost centre, and that budget line is always going to be questioned, year on year, and usually squeezed, but still expected to deliver more results.

But what has emerged over the past twenty years, what a lot of organisations have wised-up to, is that product is a commercial enabler for the business.

So, not only can it automate and drive efficiencies in the organisation, but it can drive top-line growth, help extend into new markets, and so on. Product needs to use all of the organisation’s tech assets and should have P&L accountability. Product organisations that sit within an IT cost centre will have a ball and chain cost perception around them which will hold product back from really becoming an enabler and strategic commercial investment for the organisation.

So, when you have a conversation with the board, and the CFO asks, what kind of investment is this, what’s the ROI, when are we going to break even, the conversation becomes very different. The expectations can be managed. It’s not just a 12-month project, it’s a strategic investment, with all the right check-points to ensure we’re going in the right direction to it becoming a business, not an add-on.

I’ve seen a larger organisation where the CPO has that direct line to the CEO. Again, it depends on the organisation. In the start-up communities and the FinTechs, that CPO role is often done by the founder. But once they’re ready to scale and become a real business, that role changes, it needs more product craft and product sensibility that is beyond the capabilities of the founder, and this is the point they start to look for a CPO. That CPO will typically report into the CEO, usually the founder.

It’s still early days, but I think organisations that want to do this seriously are giving a seat at the big table to the CPO.

EG: What about the other stakeholders?

BA: I think stakeholder management is another big role you have to excel at as a CPO. The larger and more traditional the organisation, the more you need to have allies. Because for product to succeed in an organisation, it will touch every part of it, so having allies and partners is key for successful execution.

Things will go wrong, you will impact on other groups, such as customer service who will be affected by the products you launch to market.

Communications is so important, people need to be kept informed about what to expect along the way.

EG: So, if you’re building a great product team, what does that look like?

BA: A product organisation is a cross-functional team, with product managers, UX, UI, engineering. But it’s one team, one family, they win together, lose together, learn together.

Skills-wise, you obviously need the competencies in each of their domains. Over and above that, I would look for curiosity across the whole team, not just asking how do we build this, but also why are we doing this, and how can we do it better than it is right now. I really look for those who are not content with the status quo, looking for ways to improve, even if it’s outside your area of immediate expertise.

You want to have a product team that even with the most-established banking products, they will challenge and want to make it better. You know, ‘we’ve spoken to customers, we’ve heard what they need, there’s a gap there, and we think we can do something’.

We’ve seen time and time again, in other industries, that it’s not just about the sexy stuff, it’s when someone looks at something that everyone’s ignored for ages, and they put enough thought into it and say ‘yes, we can make this better’. And then you get an Uber or a Netflix.

The Product Manager is a key role, in my experience. They create a balance across the cross-functional team. Their experience has to be wide, across the various functions.

It’s almost like a mini-CPO. Tech, customer, and stakeholder management, they’re the people on the ground trying to clear the path for the team trying to build that awesome product.

EG: Thanks, Bill. In the next part of the interview, we’ll look into Open Banking in a little more detail, as well as the challenges of being a CPO in a more conservative banking environment.