What Is the Difference Between a CPO, a Head of Product and a VP of Product?

Product management is a broad and fluid field, particularly in small and growing startups. There can be a lot of differences from one startup to the next in terms of product management job titles, hierarchy, and the role of each position.

In larger companies, there are a few standard roles in the management structure. From the Chief Product Officer, to Head of Product and VP of Product, these roles have their own defined responsibilities.

Read on to learn more about the difference between the most common product management job titles, and the part each role plays in the product team.

Product Manager Job Titles

Most product teams follow a similar structure, with similar job titles. It might differ somewhat depending on the size of the company. Smaller teams may not have all these positions, while large-scale, enterprise teams could have multiple people in some roles, or even additional roles in between.

Here’s what the standard progression through a product manager's career path might look like:

Associate Product Manager

An entry level position, reporting directly to a product manager. This person is usually new to product management, and comes in with the goal of learning the ropes, while also assisting with day-to-day tasks of the product managers above them.

Junior Product Manager

Junior product managers are a step above associate product managers, and will likely have a little more experience in the field. As such, they have more autonomy, focused less on learning and more on productivity. The junior PM will still report to a product manager or senior product manager above them.

Product Manager

The product manager job title is one that tends to be the most broad, and differ the most from team to team.

In a small startup, the product manager may be one of the highest ranking members in the team. Whereas in a large business, there may be many product managers, filling more of a supervisory role.

Generally speaking, this position will take on more responsibility, and begin to work more on setting processes and strategies, rather than implementing the day-to-day task of executing those strategies. A product manager may take on responsibility for a specific product or feature (e.g. the news feed for a social media site).

For more on what product managers do, check out this example of a product manager job description.

Senior Product Manager

In larger teams, there is a separation between product managers and senior product managers. Though likely to do the same job more or less, the senior product manager is responsible for larger tasks. For example, they may take the mantle for a larger or more important feature or product within the company.

A senior product manager may also begin to mentor younger team members, and grow into more of a leadership role, alongside the hands-on work of building and shipping products.

VP of Product

The VP of Product steps a little further from the day-to-day tasks of product management, focusing more on the operation of the team as a whole. They’re responsible for overseeing the work of senior product managers and their teams. The VP of Product is likely to also take on some big-picture responsibilities, such as roadmapping and budgeting.

Head of Product

Often, the VP of Product and Head of Product are two terms that are used for the same role. In teams with both, however, the Head of Product sits slightly higher on the ladder.

As the head of the product team, their job is to ensure every part of the team runs smoothly, and that the products they ship meet the company’s standard.

Chief Product Officer

The Chief Product Officer, or CPO, sits at the top of the heap. They are part of the executive team, alongside positions such as the CEO, CTO, CMO, COO, CFO, and so on.

The CPO’s responsibility is that of the product team, but more importantly, ensuring the product team and product strategy fit into the overall strategy and vision of the business as a whole.

What is a Chief Product Officer?

Let’s dive a little deeper into what a Chief Product Officer does.

The Chief Product Officer is responsible for the entire product side of the business. As ultimate lead of the product team, their job is to ensure the company makes products that fit a need in the market, and produce revenue for the business.

A large part of the Chief Product Officer’s role is centered around vision and strategy. They’re tasked with deciding which direction the company takes on the product side. This might include which markets to target, and what the company can do to innovate and disrupt their target market.

As a member of the executive team, the CPO also needs to focus on the success of the business as a whole, and thus needs to ensure the product strategy aligns with the strategy and vision of all other parts of the business.

They may delegate some of the more hands-on, daily workings of the product management team, such as processes, personnel and cross-department cooperation, to a leadership position lower down the ladder.

What is a Head of Product?

The Head of Product is the lead person in the product team. While they report to the CPO, everyone else in the department ultimately reports to them.

The Head of Product is likely to focus on big-picture responsibilities. This includes crafting product vision and strategy, and maintaining that vision through everything produced by the product team.

They’ll also make sure the right people are in place in the product team, specifically in leadership roles, such as senior product managers and the VP(s) of Product.

The Head of Product will work closely with both the CPO and VP of Product, with the Head of Product and VP generally taking on slightly different scope with their day-to-day tasks.

What is a VP of Product?

The VP of Product is slightly below the Head of Product, though in some teams these titles may be used interchangeably.

In companies that have both, the VP of Product is responsible for more operational responsibilities. They’re tasked with building out procedures and processes for the product team, that ensure products are delivered on-time, and to spec.

This includes how the product team works with other departments in the organization, such as engineering, support and marketing.

They’ll also focus more on product specifics, such as design specs and user experience. The VP of Product may also take on some of the legwork of communicating with customers, collecting feedback (with a tool like FeedBear), as well as building roadmaps.

The VP of Product’s scope will probably overlap with that of the Head of Product to some degree. Both may also be involved in the hiring and recruiting of people to the product team.

What’s the Difference Between a CPO, Head of Product and a VP of Product?

In smaller companies, these roles are likely to all blend into one. With larger organizations, however, they’ll take on slightly different responsibilities, and likely occupy different positions on the company hierarchy.

The main difference between the Chief Product Officer, Head of Product and VP of Product is their ranking within the company/department. The Chief Product Officer ranks the highest, as part of the executive team, followed by Head of Product, then VP of Product.

Chief Product Officer.png

The Chief Product Officer’s scope is generally the most broad, and the most big-picture. Their job is to craft a coherent long-term product strategy, which matches that of the entire company.

The Head of Product focuses a little more on the actual operations of the product team. They look at budget allocation and profitability of the product team. That means working with marketing/sales to make sure the products they ship are being sold effectively as well.

They’ll also focus on recruitment and personnel issues.

Finally, the VP of Product takes again more of an operational scope. They’ll focus on putting processes and procedures in place to get the job done in an efficient manner. Along with that, they’re the mouthpiece for the customer; they communicate with customers to learn how the company’s products can meet their needs, and work on ensuring the user experience provided is up to scratch.

It’s important to note that these are just general overviews. In some companies, the roles may look a little, or a lot different. It’s really up to the individual company how these roles are defined and what their specific responsibilities look like.

Common Skills in These Job Positions

Whatever the job title, there are some common skills and characteristics that come in handy in all roles in the product team.

Product Management Skills.png
  • Leadership: all three positions are leadership roles, both within the department and within the company. They should be able to rally the people below them, and get the best out of everyone they work with.

  • Empathy: product management is all about meeting the needs and wants of the target customer. Empathy means having the ability to step into the customer’s shoes and understand their emotions in relation to the product, and the problem it’s meant to solve.

  • Communication skills: product management takes a huge amount of communication and collaboration, both within the department and with other areas of the business (such as engineering, marketing, sales).

  • Business skills: positions as high as this require an adept understanding of how businesses work, and what the product team can do to help the business succeed as a whole.

  • Analytical skills: a large part of these roles involves analyzing the market, the performance of different products, and the performance of the team. They need to be able to collect, consume and analyze data well.

  • Technical ability: while not a must-have, it’s extremely useful for someone in a leadership position in the product team to have some degree of technical ability, in order to properly relate with the people who are going to build the product.

  • Problem solving ability: everything to do with product management is just problem solving. The product itself is meant to solve a problem. And the process of building and shipping products is just figuring out the most effective solution. 

  • Marketing skills: the CPO, Head of Product and VP of Product should hold at least an elementary understanding of marketing. While they may not be directly marketing the product themselves, it should be built with an idea of how it can be marketed effectively in the near future.

Final Thoughts

Job titles in the product management hierarchy can be confusing. Many of the titles sound similar, and indeed, their roles within the product team often have some overlap.

In most cases, there are some well-defined differences between titles such as Chief Product Officer, Head of Product and VP of Product. They each occupy a different place in the team’s management structure as well, with the Chief Product Officer at the top of the ladder.

This guide should help to clear it up, and give you a better understanding of how each position has their own separate role and responsibilities.

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