How Calling Yourself “CEO of the Product” Can Backfire

How Calling Yourself “CEO of the Product” Can Backfire
Daniel Elizalde

Product Management is still a relatively new profession, so many people don’t understand what we do.  And I’ll be honest, it can be difficult to describe in just a few words.

Recently, I’ve heard the phrase “CEO of the Product” more times than I can count, especially when interviewing PM candidates.  During the interviews, I always ask a variation of the question, “Why do you want to be in Product Management?” And 3 out of 5 candidates respond with a variation of the “CEO of the Product” answer.

For example:

  • I like being a Product Manager because I’m the CEO of the Product.
  • I want to get into Product Management so I can make all the decisions, since I’m the CEO of the product.
  • As CEO of the Product, I’ll oversee all areas of my product including Engineering, Sales, Marketing, etc.

Yikes!  I understand that Product Management is hard to define, but using the “CEO of the Product” phrase is not only inaccurate, it can backfire.

But “CEO of the Product” is just an analogy.  How can it hurt?

1. It hurts how your team perceives you

Imagine you’re talking to an Engineering Manager who has had bad experiences working with the Product team (which is not uncommon).  On your first 1-on-1 with him, you drop the “I’m the CEO of the Product” routine.  Think about how you’ll be perceived?

The word CEO carries a connotation of authority and ultimate decision making power.  The Engineering Manager already has a boss who reports directly or up the chain to the CEO.  So does this mean now you’ll be bossing him around?  Does it mean you’ll veto all his ideas, and that he has to run everything by you?

Play that scenario again with your peers from Marketing or Sales.  You can see how it easily gets out of hand, and people start doubting how collaborative you’ll be.  Now try playing the same scenario with people in higher positions than you, like say, the VP of Engineering.  The conversation might go something like this:

  • VP of Engineering: “So, how do you foresee your role here?”
  • You: “I really see myself as the CEO of the Product.”
  • VP of Engineering: “Oh, that’s cute… by the way, the Engineering team is tied up with other projects, so we won’t be able to get to your product for at least 6 months.”
  • You: “Oh, I see…”

I have too many stories of Product Managers that came into companies with that attitude, and very quickly their LinkedIn header read, “Experienced Product Manager looking for new opportunities…”  Don’t be one of them.  You need to build trust and credibility that you’ll work with your peers hand-in-hand to push the product forward, and not give them the impression you are here to boss them around.

2. It can hurt you in an interview

For all the reasons listed above…

[tweetherder]Calling yourself the CEO of the Product can hurt your chances in an interview[/tweetherder]

…with the hiring manager (your future boss) and with other interviewers.  As a hiring manager, hearing this phrase tells me two things:

  • This person might not be very collaborative and might not fit well with my team.
  • This person might not have much real-world experience in Product Management.

Some people use this statement as an opener and then offer a good explanation of what they mean.  That’s borderline okay.  But just to be safe, I strongly recommend you eliminate this line altogether.

Okay, I won’t say it out loud.  But in reality, I am the CEO of the Product, right?

I’m afraid not, and here’s why.

[tweetherder]The Product Manager role is not one of authority, but one of influence[/tweetherder]

I’ve talked to many aspiring Product Managers who want to go into the profession because they want to call all the shots.  They feel they’re going to be the ultimate general, like Napoleon Bonaparte or something.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

If we perpetuate the belief that the Product Manager is “in charge”, then we are setting up new PMs for failure.  Our profession is misunderstood enough as it is, without continuing to promote the idea of a dictator type role.  (By the way, “mini-CEO of the Product” is equally misleading.  You can’t be a mini-CEO.  Either you are or you are not.)

Product Managers don’t have control over the budget or resources

It’s true.  As a Product Manager, you have all the responsibility, but none of the formal authority to demand the personnel or budget needed to make things happen.  In most cases, nobody reports to the Product Manager.  Even if you are in a Director or above role, your direct reports will be other Product Managers and not the people you need to convince to get the job done: Engineering, Marketing, Sales, Biz Dev, Support, etc.  They all report to different departments, and you have to use influence to get things done.

In contrast, everybody rolls up to the CEO.  Everybody.  He/She can determine the direction of each department and assign resources (both personnel and budget) to products and initiatives.  Based on the company strategy, the CEO can decide to pull resources from your product and put them somewhere else.  All of a sudden, you have no team, and no product to build.  And there’s nothing you can do about it.

I know this from experience.  One of the companies I used to work for was acquired.  The product I had been working on for years was no longer aligned with the new vision of the company, so it was killed.  Just like that.  It was the decision of the new management, and there was nothing I could do.

You don’t get to make all the decisions

Anybody who has worked in Product Management for some time will tell you that we don’t get to make all the decisions.  It is true that we drive a lot of the product strategy and are accountable for its success, but we don’t call all the shots.  The only person who can make unilateral decisions is the CEO, and even they have to get buy-in from their staff and the board.

Instead, our role is to propose solutions to customer problems and define the feature set of the product.  And no matter how high we are in the food chain, most of these proposals and initiatives will need buy-in and final approval from at least a manager, and at most the CEO or an Executive.

If we do our job well, then many of our proposed improvements or initiatives will be approved.  And as we build trust, it becomes easier to gain approval on even the most difficult initiatives.  In my experience, if I’m able to push through 50% of the ideas I have, then I’m doing a great job.

So how should I describe my role?

The description of your role is very personal.  We all have different reasons, and they are all very valid.  Here are some possible answers to, “Why do you want to be in Product Management?”

  • I enjoy understanding customer needs and working with Engineering to solve those problems.
  • I like working on strategy and directly contributing to my company’s growth.
  • I like collaborating with multiple departments and bringing people together towards a common goal.

Next time you are asked about what you do, think twice about using the “CEO of the Product” slogan.  I encourage you to spend some time thinking about a better response, one that shows your leadership skills as well as your willingness to work with others.

Now it’s your turn.  How would you describe your role?  Leave a comment below!

15 Comments

  1. Deepak Kolingivadi 7 years ago

    Hi Daniel – A well written article. The analogy to a “CEO” perhaps is more of a doing from the profession not being “well defined” in the industry and hence inviting comparisons. While the portrayal of the Product Manager as the ‘CEO of the product’ is misleading (for all the reasons discussed in the article) , i think the point should not be lost on the empowerment that is provided to this role to be possibility thinkers. As a product manager , you are still responsible to significantly influence the build/buy/partner/integrate strategy for your product/product line or portfolio even when hit with realities of reduced resource funding , the CEO changing the strategic direction of the company etc. This is important to allow you to distance yourself from being wedded to your product (atleast at sometimes) and think of the bigger picture and vision for the organization we are all part of. Perhaps then to foster possibility thinking , you will still need to “think like a CEO” , but not act like one !

    • Daniel Elizalde 7 years ago

      Hi Deepak,
      I’m glad you liked the article. I like your perspective. PMs need to take a step back and see the whole picture, just like the CEO would do. I think that another way to put it is not in terms of the CEO role, but in terms of the strategic role that PMs play within the organization. We need to be strategic, but that doesn’t mean that we drive the strategy of the whole company or product. We are a part of the team, not the center of it. What do you think?

      Thanks for your comment,
      Daniel

  2. Tunde 7 years ago

    This is a brilliant and eye-opening write-up.
    There are certain emotions generated by certain titles in the workplace. ‘CEO’ is definitely one of them. The Product Manager sees himself as CEO because he is mostly held accountable for the end-to-end success or otherwise of the products he manages. But while a Product Manager is a ‘CEO’ of a product portfolio in principle, he could lose the cooperation of those he is working with if he is not a team player and understands the dynamics of his role.
    Keep it up.

    • Daniel Elizalde 7 years ago

      Hi Tunde,
      Thank you so much for reading it and for the kind words!

  3. Milo Woodward 7 years ago

    Well said, it’s about collaboration. Understand customer needs, convey those to engineering and work through the stories to paint the picture. Describe the “what”, let engineering determine the “how” – instead of drawing a box then asking them to create something that has 4 sides, is connected at 4 corners, where each side is 90 degrees from the side to its’ immediate right. Working with engineering is a challenge and an opportunity in one. You share the goal, the risks, failure, and success. Nobody wants to follow a dictator, they want to follow a leader, and a true leader is naturally followed. Managers are put into a power position but leaders earn that position and must never abuse it.

  4. NK 7 years ago

    Hi
    While I agree to most of the points but I don’t agree to the core. I certainly believe that you are the CEO of a product as a product manager. Following are the arguments:-

    1. As a PM you drive the product and take most of the shots much like what CEO does for the company.

    2. In critical matters even the CEO looks upto the board for approval. No one has the supreme authority in this world.

    3. CEO title for a PM is more related with responsibility and than authority or someone dictating terms. It’s always dependent on the PM.

    4. As a PM one has to coordinate and work across functions much like what CEO does for the company.

    Looking forward to your counter arguments.

  5. Roger L. Cauvin 7 years ago

    Great piece, Daniel. You made two particularly interesting points:

    1. Everyone reports up to the CEO.
    2. The CEO nonetheless needs to get buy-in for major decisions.

    I would say that the product management role as it relates to the product team (everyone, from any department, responsible for making the product a success) is actually quite similar to that of the CEO. The problem is this notion – whether for the CEO of the company or a product manager – that leadership and decision-making stems comes from authority.

    The best leaders empower others to produce greatness. While sometimes that empowerment comes in the form of a firm, top-down decision, no organization or product team will succeed in the long run if “authority” is the source of decisions.

    You might like this piece I wrote debunking leadership myths in the context of product management.

    • Daniel Elizalde 7 years ago

      Hi Roger,
      I agree with you that the whole notion of CEO of the Product is pointless. It’s all about leadership and earning the trust of the team. I really like the article you wrote. I think you really drive home the idea that leadership and authority are two very different things. The sooner we (PMs) learn that difference, the better we’ll be at our jobs.

      Thanks for your comment and for sharing the article.

      -Daniel

    • Art 6 years ago

      One must, however, keep in mind that all organizations are not the same. I have been in some organizations where everybody wants the product manager to be the “CEO of the product” and make decisions. Others have been much more collaborative. There is no one-size-fits all description of how a PM should lead in an organization.

      In addition to finding profitable market problems, a product manager must have a deep understanding of the competencies and resource constraints of the organization he is serving; there must be a good match between organization capabilities and culture and opportunities to pursue. This will inform the leadership style that will best suit a specific organization.

  6. Dan Corbin 7 years ago

    This article really resonated with me. I’m a technical Product Manager for an API and we would not be successful if I assumed an “I’m the CEO” mindset. We’ve worked hard to ensure the engineers have a shared vision of the product with myself and the business side. It’s been critical that I listen and integrate the feedback from all of my engineers when making product decisions. I have to convince them when my product discovery conflicts with their ideas but they appreciate that I genuinely consider their input when making product decisions. In this way, I’ve been able to gain the trust of the entire team and influence them despite the fact I have no actual authority over them.

    • Daniel Elizalde 7 years ago

      Hi Dan,
      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. It’s amazing how difficult it is to build that trust with other teams and how quickly we can break it by saying silly things like “CEO of the Product”.

      Thank you for your comment,
      Daniel

  7. Chintan 7 years ago

    @Deniel, thanks for sharing drawbacks of being CEO of product. i really enjoyed reading since i have been in shoe of Product manager. and its tough job like you said. keep writing. 🙂

    • Daniel Elizalde 7 years ago

      You are welcome Chintan! Thank you for reading.

  8. Michael 7 years ago

    I believe the people you’ve interviewed misunderstood the following article https://a16z.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/good-product-manager.pdf

    • Daniel Elizalde 7 years ago

      Hi Michael,
      I agree, that’s one of many articles out there. It’s probably the one that started it. The intentions and the message are good, but like you said, it has been misunderstood by many.

      Thanks for sharing the article.

      -Daniel

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