Product Managers – You Are Not the CEO of Anything

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product-manager-ceoWhen Ben Horowitz wrote his groundbreaking memo good product manager, bad product manager nearly 20 years ago he described a product manager as the CEO of the product. While this has gotten a lot of people excited about the job I couldn’t disagree more – unless you’re the founder and the product manager at the same time, you are not the CEO of anything.

While you could argue that a product manager is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of a product in much the same way the CEO is ultimately responsible for the success of the business, even that similarity is a stretch. A product manager ultimately has a CEO behind them somewhere, and can always pass the buck. Now most product managers don’t pass the buck, and this ownership of the problem and willingness to make the hard decisions is where a product manager gets closest to being a CEO but there is a massive difference between having someone behind you or really having the final say.

Where the two roles differ completely is in authority. Product managers simply don’t have any direct authority over most of the things needed to make their products successful – from user and data research through design and development to marketing, sales, and support. Even today’s most senior product leaders only have hiring and firing control over their direct reports – other product managers. Does that sound like any CEO you know?

A CEO, on the other hand, stands truly alone, with ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of not just the company but every product in it. The CEO also controls all the resources of the company – with hiring and firing prerogatives across the company and final say on the budget. Does that sound like any product manager you know?

Not just Semantics

This may seem like mere semantics but the distinction is important. Too many product managers I meet buy into this trope of CEO-of-the-product and believe their role is to act like an authoritarian CEO, often with disastrous results. These product managers tend to believe they have all the answers, that they produce the best solutions and designs, and that their teams should just do what they’re told. They’re mini-CEOs after all!

Lead, don’t Command

Truly successful product leaders instead embrace their lack of authority and lead their teams and the wider company through communication, vision, and influence. They focus on collaborating across the company, bringing together the best people to move the product forward, and setting those teams free to execute on their product vision.

In Daniel Pink’s book To Sell is Human, he refers to this skill as the ability to “move” people from one mindset to another. Successful product managers and leaders spend a significant portion of their time engaged in these ‘moving’ activities, bringing everyone together around a shared understanding of the customer problem so that everyone can be involved in helping solve it to further the business goals.

Product management is a team sport after all, and the best teams don’t have bosses – they have coaches who ensure all the skills and experiences needed are present on the team, that everyone is in the right place, knows where the goal is, and then gets out of the way and lets the team do what they do best in order to reach that goal.

Youre-not-the-boss-of-me-GIF

As Ken Norton, Product Partner at GV, says in my upcoming book Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams, “When you’re a product manager, you’re generally not the boss. You need to gain authority through your actions and your leadership skills, not your role.”

Most of the product leaders we interviewed for the book echoed sentiments like this. “A lot of people say the product manager is like the CEO or the captain of the ship. I don’t really think of it that way because when you describe things like that it makes it seem as though you’re making all the decisions, or you’re driving how everything works together, and you’re not.” adds Mina Radhakrishnan, the first Head of Product at Uber.

You are not the CEO

You are not the CEO of your product, you are not Steve Jobs, you are not a lone genius designing a product from your ivory tower. Never forget that as a product leader you are only as good as your team, and setting them up for success and giving them the space and air cover to do their best is ultimately how you and your product will be successful.

Now just because you can pass the buck to someone higher up the chain of command doesn’t mean you should. You should live and die by your product’s success and failure anyway, because giving it your all is important whether you’re the CEO or not.

But one day…

“I think actually product leaders, not surprisingly, are often seen as great potential candidates for the CEO or COO when they get further on in their career. I think that’s because at an executive level, all the product management attributes are really relevant because you’re focused on the money, you’re focused on the users, you’re focused on the data, and you’re focused on the future” says Tanya Cordrey, Non Executive Director & Digital Adviser at the ‎Schibsted Media Group.

So while you may not be the CEO of anything right now, the funny thing is Product Leaders make for great CEOs and maybe some CEOs could do with acting more like Product Leaders. All those skills of leading without authority, moving mindsets, and setting your team up for success are what define great CEOs too, so if you want that title, keep working on those skills and who knows where you might end up!


Product Leadership BookEnjoy what you’ve read? Good, because there’s an entire book full of this stuff!

I’ve been working with two masters of product Richard Banfield and Nate Walkingshaw on writing a book that all product professionals can benefit from. Partly out of curiosity and on the back of our own experience, we’ve interviewed almost one hundred product leaders. Their insights and experiences will open up the conversation and take the lid off the mystery of great product leadership.

The Product Leadership book is being published by O’Reilly and will be out on shelves in May 2017 but you can pre-order the book on Amazon today!

You can follow us at @rmbanfield, @bfgmartin, and @nwalkingshaw.

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  • Nick Anderson

    Yes, if only Product Management could be ‘simply’ defined or ‘boxed’. I think there is a really important point here about Leadership and what a good leader is and I have just started reading a book called Legacy by James Kerr. It’s less about companies but how the All Blacks rugby team worked to achieve world domination in Rugby. Haven’t finished it yet but I have found all the Product Management books are quite similar. So a nice change basically.

    As a final point, there are sometimes where command is necessary, hence the need for Product Managers with high levels of emotional intelligence to be able to identify this and use the whole artillery of skills appropriately.

  • Antonio

    I offer a different view. We all learned that successful products come from listening to users needs, fitting, scaling, and shaping our companies back from this. So far, the product turned to be the business model, not the software. Because only considering marketing channels, revenue streams, op activities, together with the value proposition that continuously morphs into our software, we can serve a sustainable innovation to users and customers. And oh yeah, this is being a mini-CEO for the product, and Ben is still up date.

    • Dane Willis

      People who have little to no experience being a product manager are easily misled by the ‘mini-CEO’ moniker. That is why many of us dislike the title.

      Ben cautions “Warning: This document was written 15 years ago and is probably not relevant for today’s product managers.”

      But we know that understates the document’s current relevance. I don’t think Martin was putting Ben’s document on trial here, but I side with his caution against using the mini-CEO title. It isn’t necessary and isn’t useful.

      Aspiring product managers will be better prepared for the role if they pay more attention to the skills and techniques the job requires and less attention to a potentially misleading title. I personally wish I’d never come across it when I was learning the role.

      Thanks for the great article Martin!

  • Excellent post Martin. I’m glad more people are joining in debunking the myth of the “CEO of the Product” or even “mini-CEO” (what does that even mean?).

    I am convinced that this analogy is very harmful to our profession because it gives aspiring PMs the wrong idea of what the job really is about. I also wrote about it some time ago. Thanks for keeping the conversation going.
    https://techproductmanagement.com/ceo_of_the_product/

  • Viktor Bielko

    Well, it’s not always about PMs that think, they are a CEO of product. Sometimes the CEO advertises the position in such way, then suddenly he tells you “I’m not giving you budget for this”. And many times sales people sell your product under the price you have calculated to be profitable. It’s very sad, but it happens in many companies. The only way to be sure that you are CEO of your product is to leave and ground your own company around your product.

  • Steven Haines

    Sometimes I wish I never even used that expression because it’s become so incredibly blown out of proportion. The post has a more accurate slant on the idea, yet, there are a couple of points that I’d like to make:

    1. My 20+ years of benchmark research with leaders of larger, more complex companies asserts that product managers who think like a general manager or a CEO tend to do a better job at leading, influencing, strategizing, and a host of other competencies.
    2. The research also finds that less than 10% of product managers fit the bill for this product manager.
    3. Many leaders are frustrated that product managers are too tactical – that they do pieces of work without fully understanding the big picture. CEO’s and GMs always have the big picture in mind when cultivating their vision and strategy.
    4. Many product managers don’t really pay attention to the numbers (financials) and other KPIs. This means more of them are making decisions without the proper context.

    Look at product success – or more – business case success rates. Still hovering in the 25% range after decades.

    So I’d like to put something out there. Take a hint from successful CEOs and GMs. What makes them successful? Then – think about your success as a product manager.. and the actions you take.. and the outcomes you produce.

    Don’t get caught up in terminology. Get the job done, deliver the goods, and you’ll make your way to the C-suite.

    Steven Haines
    Author, The Product Manager’s Desk Reference

  • Smokey Geo

    hahaha – I’ve always thought of product managers as being the “CEO of the product” except without any authority! So the game is to influence – again, without any of the authority. It doesn’t take long to find out otherwise if you have any misconception.
    CEO’s have told me also it’s much better to use influence rather than authority in that position, since no one is motivated much when they’re told what to do.

  • Peter Brunone

    “Too many product managers I meet buy into this trope of CEO-of-the-product and believe their role is to act like an authoritarian CEO, often with disastrous results. These product managers tend to believe they have all the answers, that they produce the best solutions and designs, and that their teams should just do what they’re told.”

    This is not healthy behavior for a CEO either.

  • Brad Antcliff

    I understand how this analogy can be misconstrued from an authoritative perspective, but I actually found it very useful in understanding my role as I was transitioning a few years back.

    To address your primary concern about using this comparison to abuse authority, I get how that could be confusing if you take this analogy EXTREMELY literally. But if a potential PM is thinking “Wow, CEO of the product! That means I get to hire and fire, control all of the money and make decisions in isolation right?” That person probably needs to take a business fundamentals course before taking on any PM role anyway, as those are not the primary responsibilities of a CEO.

    So how would you describe the job of a CEO? Personally, I think of it as something along the lines of.. “The CEO is responsible for leading the development and execution of the company’s long term strategy with the goal of maximizing shareholder value, as their primary liason.” Phrased that way, does that remind you of another role at a product based company? Substitute product for company and stakeholders for shareholders and this could be the first line in a generic job description of a PM.

    Yes, CEOs can do things PMs can’t like hire and fire and control the budget, but those responsibilities are a means to an end, not the primary goals of the role themselves. The point of this analogy is, “the primary responsibility of the CEO to the company is very similar to the primary responsibility of the PM to the product.”

    Like any analogy, if you take it too far, it breaks down pretty quickly. But just like any good analogy, it is an easy way to grasp a new concept at a high level. I respect the intent of your post, but I have never seen the risks / downsides of using this particular analogy materialize as you have warned, and personally found it useful when I was seeking to understand the profession.

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