Sean Cosier, Global Vice President of Product at Huge, explains why being a product-led company matters for your bottom line and how to retain top talent through servant leadership.
Holly Camponez: Today I’m joined by Sean Cosier, Global VP of Product at Huge. Sean has held roles as Chief Product Officer and Chief Technology Officer at a variety of companies. He has a degree in Architecture from Pratt University and has also attended an executive education program at Stanford University.
Sean, let’s start by talking about leadership. How would you define your leadership style and the culture you’re creating within your team?
Sean Cosier: This is a very important question, and for me, it’s taken a lot of learning to get to the right answer. My nature is to take everything on myself, but I’ve learned to make sure I have a strong team and that I’m mentoring and guiding them to achieve their goals, which requires servant leadership. I am not here to protect my position but to make sure that my people can one day get to where I am. This takes empathy and the ability to understand and cultivate what each individual wants independently of business goals.
We tend to ask people to set their career goals based on our business goals, and I think this poses a challenge for employees because their idea of growth goes way beyond the individual company. Yes, revenue and profitability are important, but anyone growing professionally has greater needs and desires that we have to consider even if we’re also accountable for the business outcome.
HC: How does that leadership style play into your ability to scale sustainably while protecting quality?
SC: The talent market is really hot right now, so you have to make sure that you’re not growing too fast or achieving too much at the cost of your team. It’s easy to lose sight of people’s individual desires when things are moving too quickly. Businesses are always trying to grow, and the constant change this requires puts a lot of pressure on teams.
You have to do your best to keep anyone who has the right leadership presence on your team. My advice is to focus on retaining the people who have the capability to lead in the chaos and in the change, which goes back to making sure that they’re satisfied, because they’re probably being pursued by other companies. You may not always be able to match the salary other companies are offering, but you can match what drives them intrinsically. If you can tap into that, people will stay because they like the culture and they think they’ll grow in ways they may not be able to elsewhere.
HC: You’ve talked a lot about product-led culture. What do you mean by this, and what is the role of a modern product officer?
SC: You would think that any company that sells a product would put product first. But there are so many other things that interfere, from the agendas of various executives to numbers the board needs to see. My belief is that if you put the product first, everything else will follow. Because of this, the product leader needs to have a seat at the table and bring their experience, which is essentially a mix between data and art, to foster open conversations where we test our instincts against what data shows the consumer wants.
HC: What does it take to be a good Chief Product Officer?
SC: You have to look at things outside-in and make sure that any decision being made across the organization is based on consumer insight. Even when the company has to make hard business decisions based on financial constraints, you have to think broadly about how to manage consumer impact. In the end, the business is the product.
HC: The holistic economy of a company is a lot to balance. This brings up the big question in the product and creative space: give us your thoughts on in-house versus agency solutions and the pros and cons of each.
SC: I may be biased, but I think businesses need agencies. I started on the agency side myself, and my reason for going in-house was to learn what was happening on the other side of the wall when blockers came up or decision makers changed directions. When I went in-house, I realized decisions are influenced by inevitable bureaucracy and silos, and that even the most strategic businesses pivot their focus. That gave me a completely different perspective on how to engage a client with empathy and help problem solve.
By the same token, when I went in-house, I tried to change the way we engage with our agencies, which I like to call partners. We want to keep the dynamic as far away from a transactional client/vendor setup as possible by taking simple measures like giving partners our business email addresses so that they’re considered part of the team. I also try to simplify contracts and talk more about the strategy, the work, and the product. The results are great! My internal teams have a much better understanding of and respect for partners, and vice-versa.
What I can tell you is that clients definitely need agencies. What happens when things come in-house is that they slow down, and we need agencies to help with velocity.
HC: And maybe perspective as well, right?
SC: Yes, clients definitely need to be open to partner insights. The longer you’re in a business, the more you tend to think you’re the expert, so you have to work hard to listen to fresh perspectives from agencies who may have new insights from working with multiple industries globally. This isn’t just my experience – it’s backed by data. Agencies are doing research to understand market and consumer impact, so they can help significantly.
HC: Let’s get philosophical. How can designers and creatives marry creative integrity with their responsibilities to the business?
SC: We need to realize that designers and creatives are inherently business-minded. There’s a perception that creatives want to do whatever they feel inspires them. They do have the gift of bringing ideas to life, but they’re bringing them to life for a purpose. What we need to do on the product side is ensure they have the information they need to connect their vision with the business objective, not as a guardrail, but as data to ensure the right decisions are made.
To me, being product-led means that you’re using data and insights to inform your strategy, but how that comes to life is also important. Creatives and designers are key to the output that leads to outcomes for the business.
HC: Maybe that false dichotomy between creative integrity and business responsibility only exists when creatives are denied data, because part of their craft is figuring out how to make the product work for users, which in the end means making it work for the business.
One final question: what keeps you up at night, whether it’s a problem you want to solve or an idea you’re excited to try?
SC: I’m trying to figure out how to influence without direct authority. As a leader, I’m always looking for ways to correctly convey my perspective within the wider organization.
HC: I think you’ve hit on something that a lot of leaders or people aspiring to leadership roles are asking themselves. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on leadership and product-led strategy with us today, Sean!
Holly Camponez is the Director of Design & Creative Services at Avenue Code. She is passionate about the potential of design thinking to create a positive impact both socially and economically. Holly lives in Northern California with her husband, son, and three cats.