10 experts weigh in on creating high-performing CRO teams
While new to many businesses, the “CRO team” comes with high expectations. Build your team wrong, and you can quickly lose support for experimentation.
Get it right, however, and not only can your team deliver truly impactful business results, but they can also help change the organization's decision-making culture.
Reading articles covering this topic, you’d be led to believe that to “do” CRO, you simply need to hire a CRO specialist. This individual will have the technical breadth spanning data science to UX design and the soft skills (and time?) to manage the entire end-to-end testing workflow while evangelizing their work throughout the company.
All you have to do is find such a unicorn, and you are sorted, right?
Even if such unicorns did exist, sadly, one person can’t single-handedly bring about CRO success. It’s a team effort requiring multiple specialists in different fields, a range of different soft skills, and time, resources, and buy-in throughout the company.
Back in the realms of reality, we asked ten practitioners what their ideal experimentation team would look like and what skills and traits were most important to be successful. Hear their thoughts on every aspect of building a CRO team below.
On the must-haves for every CRO team
If your business is just starting to dip its toe into the world of experimentation, it’s unlikely you’ll get approval for a whole department right off the bat.
So who do you hire first to get things started and help you build up your optimization team?
We’ve listed the following advice, from the bare minimum to a good baseline needed for a CRO team.
The Bare Minimum
Simon Clark, Head of CRO & UX at Evolved Search, explains;
For larger/more established teams, you could start to add in UX Designers, CRO Developers, and CRO strategists.
Tony Grant, Head of Marketing at INFINOX Global suggests;
"In terms of skills…
- PM (usually CRO manager)"
A good baseline of expertise
Shiva Manjunath, Senior Strategist at Speero says;
"I'm a firm believer in specialization for tasks related to experimentation.
- Data analyst
- UX researcher
- Program manager
These are some basic tasks. They don't necessarily have to be direct hires on an experimentation team, but they need direct resourcing from related organizations."
On the importance of non-practitioner roles
As hinted at above in some of the responses, a CRO team isn’t just made up of practitioners/specialist CRO roles.
Just as essential are the non-technical roles responsible for organizing and managing the work.
Manuel Da Costa, Founder of Effective Experiments explains his thoughts below;
A practitioner-led model worked when CRO was new, and companies didn't really know what experimentation was.
"The challenge now is experimentation is established in companies but not to the extent where it's fully understood. It's not scaling beyond the practitioner levels…Organisations have to rethink experimentation and the infrastructure that houses it. You need a balanced team with the skill sets relevant to helping drive good experimentation practices, scaling it, and evangelizing it.
But can practitioners not do it?
Look, we have come so far with practitioners trying to do all these roles and struggling. It’s time to accept - practitioners and specialists are skilled in their area of experimentation. Leave the management and evangelizing to people who are more skilled in those areas.
The organizations that will be able to make leaps ahead of their competitors are those that will restructure experimentation to make it a business-level initiative. The rest will be stuck on the CRO hamster wheel."
Manuel, shares three critical roles needed alongside practitioners for his version of an ideal CRO team. They include;
- Executive sponsor. A senior manager who uses their position to resolve experimentation challenges and ensures the team is accountable.
- Orchestrator. A mixture of team and project management tasks.
- Ambassador. Acts as a stakeholder liaison, marketing the experimentation program internally.
On building a team vs. finding a unicorn
While our experts all clarified that some of the hard skills mentioned above could be done by one person in a single role, too often, businesses unfairly expected unicorn-esque individuals to be able to cover everything that’s needed.
Even if such people did exist, there aren’t enough hours in the day for them to be effective in such a wide range of tasks. Thus the output of such programs would be limited.
So, just how much should we expect one CRO specialist to be able to do? Matthias Mandiau, Senior growth & CRO consultant explains;
"As a CRO specialist, it's important that you like to learn new things and be highly knowledgeable in one technical area like design, user research, AB testing, data analytics, product management, or development.
CRO specialists could start within one technical area, but eventually, it's beneficial to learn to understand and "speak the language" of the stakeholders you work with: developers, designers, and business managers. So you keep learning and accumulating more knowledge and skills in a T-shaped way, including "people skills" and "storytelling."
On who (and how) you hire
Two main factors will influence what roles you need to hire.
The existing department/roles within the business
If there's already a fully-fledged UX team, the CRO team will likely work with them or have an individual join their team as a user researcher rather than needing to hire. Emma Travis, Director of Research at Speero, explains below;
If we're talking about an ideal circumstance, there should be dedicated research resources within a CRO team.
The size/maturity of the business and its experimentation program
A more mature experimentation program may place higher importance on user research and thus need to hire a full-time researcher able to conduct advanced techniques. The size of the business and maturity of the program also impacts the budget/resources available to the CRO team.
Shiva explains another factor that influences who you need on your team;
"One of the things I think is worth exploring is that it is VERY context-dependent. Two major influencers are the program maturity and the matrix of the organization.
Things like hybrid vs. centralized/decentralized CoEs; there isn't a 'best' way to do it, in my opinion. There are many great ways, but you start with a basic framework and ruthlessly tinker."
So, your next hire should be based on your existing team members to create a balanced set of skills and traits. Simon Elsworth, Global Head of Experimentation & Digital Analytics, says:
"When I think about a high-performing team, it's about bringing balance. Hire people who have complementary skills across the areas you need. If you have a very technical or analytical team, hire a user-focused person for balance, etc. Also, soft skills are super important. You need team members who can empathise and actually talk to your stakeholders in a way that resonates.
However, that being said, if you do find someone who has M-shape skills in the areas you need or that unicorn, hire them."
Don’t forget to consider the skills present in the team as they develop;
But, how should you approach building your team as your program matures? Here are some common pitfalls to watch out for according to Simon Elsworth;
"Don’t just run direct to hire. Understand where the team fits (or will fit) in the current organization. That's going to help you focus on the skills you need first. Don’t just go direct to super technical roles unless you understand that’s what you really need.
Don’t have a totally generic ‘CRO’ job spec/job advert. Tailor it to the specifics you need. Yes, that means you might need to write more than one. But it will save you time in the long run (and yes, I tested that.) If you have the luxury, try to hire specialists, not generalists.
Don’t be scared to use an agency. There are some great ones out there that might help with multiple headcount issues.
Do understand what skills you might have in the organization already. Maybe you can lean on them to start with.
Be humble. That delicious organizational structure or job role description you defined will need to change over time.
If it’s your first leadership role, understand that you need very different skills as a people leader than as a practitioner, and you’re going to need to learn how to delegate and give up ownership."
Top nine traits to hire for according to Annika Thompson, Director of Client Services at Speero;
"Speero put together a number of traits from [a] previous study but also new traits that were mentioned on LinkedIn or that the Speero team brainstormed. Then everyone prioritized their top 5, and we also asked the industry to add their top 5 to our scoreboard.
The new prioritized list of the most important traits that an experimenter should have or showcase are as follows:
2. Being a team player
4. Critical thinking
5. Analytical thinking
6. Being data-driven
8. Entrepreneurial mindset
9. Kaizen - always trying to improve.”
Simon Elsworth suggests that you should hire for the soft skills as you can teach the hard skills.
"As many soft skills as possible.
Curious - need to ask questions and questions just about everything. Not afraid to ask the simplest of questions, and generally not happy with the norm.
Desire to learn - someone who doesn't learn every month/week/day will stagnate. Also, learn from people outside of your discipline (I listen to marketing, SEO, and UX podcasts)
Personable - they need to be able to talk to clients, internal teams, customers, sales teams, etc.
Everything else can be taught."
On seeking out soft skills
While the technical focus of a CRO practitioner role can vary based on context; there are some universally accepted soft skill requirements.
And according to our experts, they tend to be more important than technical know-how. David Mannheim, Personalization Consultant, says;
"Soft skills beat hard skills. For me - curiosity, creativity, and commercialism are the top three traits that not only alliterate but feel like the most appropriate for such a broad concept and mindset.
Commercialism, I find, is without a doubt the hardest thing to evaluate. It might be a biased-founder thing, but I can tell you from my gut some people are thinkers, and some are doers. A mix of both is ideal, but in either case, a sense of “how to apply it for commercial purposes” is the biggest thing lacking."
Maybe a trait you hadn’t considered to be vital to have in an optimization team, but without storytelling, data is hard to consume, learnings fail to have relevance to other teams and results get quickly forgotten. Johann Van Tonder, CEO of AWA Digital explains;
Storytelling is a great technique to influence people and make any information more memorable and interesting. According to Matthias;
"Well, I think ideal CRO people need to have great people skills. Because they need to enable other people to feel empowered by CRO processes and tools. They should be very technical but also be able to translate that knowledge with great storytelling so they can easily convince a lot of people to adopt better ways of working and better ways of making decisions.
Do make sure you hire people who are good at feeling empathy for others. Eventually, CRO/experimentation is about providing value to customers or colleagues by feeling empathy for their problems."
Hopefully, we’ve dispelled the idea that a CRO practitioner can or should do the job of multiple people. We’ve shown, instead, that you can build a small, balanced, and effective team and what to do as your program matures. Don’t forget the importance of those soft skills and non-practitioner roles, which are vital in moving your work beyond silos.
Thanks to our ten experts: Shiva Manjunath, Simon Clark, Emma Travis, Tony Grant, Simon Elsworth, Matthias Mandiau, Manuel Da Costa, David Mannheim, Annika Thompson, and Johann Van Tonder.
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Disclaimer: interviews have been edited for length and clarity.