Some time ago, a few articles began describing the Product Manager as the “CEO of the Product”, and this concept really took off. However, using this analogy can hurt your chances at getting a new Product Management job, establishing rapport with colleagues, and succeeding in your role. Read on to discover why…
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.
- 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…
…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.
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!