Securing a CPO Role with Help from Executive Recruiters

Posts, Building Your Product Career, The Path to CPO

By: Chris Johnson, Co-Founder & Managing Partner at Artisanal Talent

There are many types of search firms out there that range in size, industry, and specificity of roles (i.e., generalist, specialist, domain-specific, etc.) My firm and I focus on market-leading technology companies in B2B and B2B2C venture capital and public company landscapes. Some examples of our previous clients include Notion, Rippling, Calendly, Databricks, Rubrik, Figma, Vanta, and many more. 

We pride ourselves on being ultra-high touch, low volume, and relationship-driven rather than transactional. This ensures that we maintain our credibility and connectedness to the market to help cultivate fantastic talent (many of whom are CPOs). 

You might come across executive recruiters as you navigate your career growth, so I wanted to share an inside look at our process so you can learn how to collaborate with them successfully.

  1. Commit – A specific company retains us to hire one person to fill a defined critical role (i.e., Chief Product Officer). We search for executives for our clients versus searching for jobs for candidates (we are not “candidate agents”).
  2. Create the Plan – We begin our relationship with the hiring leader by creating a comprehensive role needs assessment. We build out a detailed plan for the interview process, messaging, and core responsibilities of the position we are hiring for (CPO/VP) as well as align on competencies (i.e., domain vs. non-domain, level of seniority aka proven VP/CPO or high potential first time VP). At this point, we figure out what trade-offs we are willing to make.
  3. Map the Talent  – Our team then develops very tailored research and recruitment strategies for the hiring leader’s specific hiring needs. We spend time figuring out the most SUCCESSFUL and domain-relevant companies where this potential hire works today or previously worked. If you have worked at those companies, it’s likely that you have a leg up on others, given you’ve been a part of a winning company.
  4. Deep Dive into the Market  – Once we triangulate on the best of the best companies in a particular space, then we figure out who the most relevant leaders are for our client and who had a significant impact during the relevant time of company growth (i.e., who built the company from 0-$25m annual recurring revenue and not just who is there now at $100m ARR or who took the company from single product to multi-product)
  5. Get the Word Out – We are targeted in whom we reach out to. If we’re reaching out, we have a thesis on why you’d be suitable for this role. We know candidates are busy or not looking at times, but the best executive search leaders will hustle until they get an answer, so consider giving them an answer even if it’s “no.”
  6. Evaluate – Now comes the fun part! Our job is to pitch both our clients and the opportunity while simultaneously evaluating whether or not there’s a fit with a particular candidate. I’d advise you to run away from search people who try to get you to take a meeting with their client without actually understanding if there’s a true fit between what the company wants and what you bring to the table.
  7. Drive the Process – After we pitch and interview a bunch of high-quality candidates, we figure out who the best ones are for a particular client, and we start introducing those candidates to meet the client.
    1. A simple process includes meeting the hiring manager (likely a few times), the executive team, maybe the board of directors, doing a working session, pulling references, and giving an offer.  
    2. During the process, assume that back channel references have, are, or will be contacted.
    3. Maintain close contact during the course of the search. This is when you build trust and relationships with the best executive search folks. They handle the candidate relationship as well as they do the client relationship.  

Now that you have a rough idea of how an executive search and hiring process plays out, here is some advice on thinking about your career through the lens of an executive search leader.

Career Planning

Play career chess, not checkers! Be thoughtful about what it is that you want to do and where you want to take your career, and share that openly with recruiters and elicit feedback. The best executive search leaders will be direct and share where they see the potential gaps relative to the next role you are looking to land. We spend all of our time evaluating and recognizing patterns in successful career paths. Use us as a resource as you’re strategically planning your career moves.

The right companies are more important than the title/role. You’d rather be the #2 on a rocket ship than the #1 on a sinking ship.  Invest the time to actually think about your career and what strategic bets you need to make to get to where you want to be. 

  • Examples – If you work at a large public company and have aspirations to do a startup, really spend time understanding what that looks like before you make the jump. Startups are not for everyone! 
  • If you’ve had a successful Series A or B VP Product job but aspire to be a CPO of a $100M ARR company, then get 3-4 years of experience as a VP working for a CPO at a much larger scale company (i.e., $250M-$500M ARR). 

You must play the long game with your career and professional relationships. You cannot hide from a good search leader. If you are hard to work with, treat people poorly, burn bridges, do ethically questionable things, underperform, etc., they will find out. And if you are high impact, low ego, hard-working, kind, and a team player, you will stand out and shine! 

Networking with Executive Recruiters

The best opportunities come when you’re not looking! 

Take the time to meet a handful of executive recruiters. Specifically, spend time with the ones who are reaching out about interesting searches that align with your career aspirations.

Focus on the search leaders who are right for what you want to do with your career. Don’t get to know many VC-focused executive search leaders if you are most excited about public companies or Private Equity. 

Instead, build trust and a long-term relationship with the executive recruiter. Their relationship with you should be as important as their relationship with any client.

Even if you are not remotely looking, but a search leader reaches out about an interesting company, it doesn’t hurt to have a 10-minute chat. At least you are now on their radar, and they have some data on the things you’re interested in when the time is right! 

  • Take note of the recruiters you hear from often and the ones that consistently flag quality companies. Even if role, timing, location, etc., is off — it’s worth responding. Adding context to what you’re looking for / interested in and some details about yourself  will pay dividends (many of you have ambiguous titles / sparse LinkedIn profiles — it can be challenging for search leaders to discern how senior you really are)
  • Ask people in your network who the best recruiters are. Keep them posted on things going on in your world. They may not have an active or relevant search, but we definitely want to be kept top of mind as things change in a particular candidate’s career.
  • Great executive search leaders are well-networked beyond their active clients, so the upside is massive if you build the right relationships. They can help open doors to things like Board opportunities, Advisor roles, investment opportunities, etc.

Showing up 

  • When you are first getting to know an executive recruiter, it is most likely in the context of a particular search they are working on. First impressions are key! How you articulate your experience, impact, and career goals is as important as what’s on your LinkedIn profile. Just remember that particular search leader may be the person leading your dream job search…
  • If it’s been a while since you’ve interviewed, take a few minutes before you chat with a recruiter to brush up on your story. Clients look for clarity and conciseness in a product leader’s communication – so do search leaders!
  • Know your metrics: team size, revenue growth, NRR, NPS, etc. All of those help a search leader build your case for a client. 
  • If you are a presented candidate on a search, show up prepared. You are representing yourself, but you are also a reflection of the search leader. If you show up with no understanding of the business or no-show at a meeting, you may not get another call from that search leader. 
  • Give your recruiter specific feedback if you met their client and it wasn’t a good fit. The details help the search leader, client, and you in the long run – a good search leader will make note of what you like/dislike and what types of people you get along with. 
  • Be clear and intentional about the interactions you have with search leaders and their clients. 
  • Share compensation expectations, especially if you have meaningful constraints! 

It’s our full-time job to obsess about the market and find the exact right CPO for the company we are building. This is not something trivial. Building a relationship with an executive recruiter could be the key that unlocks the career that you’ve dreamed of. We hope to get to know you! 

To hear more on the topic of executive product recruitment and the challenges in recruiting women executives, listen to episode 49 of the Path to CPO podcast.


Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson is one of the co-founders of Artisanal Talent, a highly specialized boutique executive search firm known for building some of tech’s most talented executive teams.

The career moment he’s most proud of is leaving a Partner role at another established search firm to start Artisanal Talent with Andy, Dalton and Chase a few months after having his first son.