When your product is your product team

Pendo’s chief product officer shares his take on product management leadership

Brian Crofts, Chief Product Officer, Pendo“If software is leading the world, then product managers are the modern-day businessmen and women,” says Brian Crofts, Chief Product Officer (CPO) at Pendo.

Pendo offers a platform of tools that allows product managers to make their products better —whether they are at the beginning of their product roadmap deciding what to build or want to validate the direction for how their product evolves. With Pendo, product teams can understand user behavior and sentiment and then act on those insights by engaging with users through in-app messaging or surveys.

However, Pendo’s platform of tools isn’t exactly what Crofts considers his primary product. “If you think about what my product is — more than the Pendo core product — it’s my team,” explains Crofts. The success of a product is reliant on strong, integrated teams that work together to bring the product’s vision to life. For this reason, a big part of Crofts’ day is spent with various product teams in what he calls “working sessions.”

Such sessions can have multiple formats — at times, more formal, including a PowerPoint-style presentation — and other times, more casual. The sessions allow Crofts to help his team make decisions, resolve roadblocks or simply get an understanding of where the team is with a particular task and what they are learning from the latest customer analytics data. For Crofts, “the most effective [sessions] are looking at prototypes or being on the whiteboard and having more of a conversation. That’s a big part of my day.”

While product managers are typically leading individual product teams, hands-on involvement from CPOs is not uncommon. According to a recent report, “more than half of product managers now report into a CPO role, more than double in frequency over the last year.” This trend represents a significant shift away from the marketing reporting line. One reasonable cause may have to do with CPOs’ greater ability to get technically involved with product design and development.

Such level of involvement offers CPOs another important benefit — the ability to develop their team. For Crofts, it comes to the classic question of how you scale yourself and pass on the critical lens to your product managers. “You’re trying to show them how to think critically, and how to make trade-offs, and how to challenge engineers or challenge design in the right way.”

Beyond working closely with his team, Crofts also spends considerable time with customers as well as the C-suite team. “We have about 500 employees, and there’s about five of us that are on the C team, and we spend a lot of time with each other in the pursuit of running an efficient and high growth business.”

The burden of bias

So, what’s it like being a chief product officer at a product company that helps other product managers make a better product?

Unlike his previous positions where he led the creation of many tax, HR and accounting products — all subjects where he had little knowledge of the field — Pendo’s product is very much within his core expertise. “I’ve had to relearn how to lead a product team when I have a lot of bias, where I didn’t have any natural bias when I was solving problems for accountants… [there] I was always in discovery mode.”

On the flip side, Crofts says that people don’t simply buy Pendo’s software for its technical solution or tools. As a company that’s become a leader in the product management space, many product managers turn to Pendo for best practices and thought leadership. “That’s where I lean into my bias, and that’s where I share my understanding of the craft of product management.”

When asked what’s the most challenging part of being a CPO, he zeros in on the decision-making aspect of his role. “It’s really the job of distilling down the critical few things versus the attractive many things. In other words, my role is very similar to that of an editor.” The reality is that there are always more ideas than the time needed to build and execute on them. The ideas may come from multiple stakeholders or be substantiated by various sources and customer data. However, the hard part, according to Crofts, is ensuring that you’re working on the most important things.

Discovering product management

If you’re wondering how Crofts got into product management, you may be surprised to learn that he initially wanted to pursue investment banking or management consulting — a logical choice with his academic background in economics and finance. However, his career took a different turn when he started at Intuit’s corporate and strategy side. At first, he had little passion for software. Things changed once he was exposed to product management.

He recalls a company kickoff meeting where a product leader took the stage to explain a significant customer problem and then presented an elegant solution that the product team had designed along with the timeframe in which it would be built. “What I was looking at was a product vision and a roadmap and I was like I want that job. That’s the job I want.”

Crofts observed that like him, product management leaders were very strategic and thoughtful, but their position allowed for a more tangible work output. “They could do the work that I was doing, but then they had a team of engineers build a solution, where my deliverable or my product was a PowerPoint and it felt pretty shallow.” This realization ultimately led to pursuit of a product management opportunity at Intuit, and a career track that progressively led and prepared him for his current CPO role at Pendo.

Like most, his career journey is full of lessons learned and the one lesson he wished he knew at the beginning of it all is just how critical communication is. “Communication is the most underrated aspect of product management. Whether it’s talking about the product’s future, the vision, the customer challenge, motivating men and women or comminuting the why behind what we’re doing… it all comes down to communication.” For this reason, Crofts continuously challenges his product managers to be repetitive and over communicate.

For those looking to enter the field of product management, Crofts underscores the importance of understanding your company’s business objectives. “The big movement for product teams, at least the aspiration, is to move from being a feature factory… and towards teams that deliver against business outcomes.” For Crofts, this is one area where he is actively working on with his product teams as Pendo matures as a company.

For aspiring product managers

Carnegie Mellon University’s top ranked Tepper School of Business and School of Computer Science have partnered to create a master’s in product management degree. This 12-month program is the first of its kind to focus exclusively on building better product managers. Learn more here.