The concept of the product manager as CEO of the Product has been one of the more controversial and polarizing topics in product, and most people are either strongly against this metaphor or strongly for it. In truth, I’ve been conflicted.

I was first exposed to the concept from Ben Horowitz when we worked together back at Netscape, and it’s worth noting that we worked for Jim Barksdale, an exceptionally strong CEO in both character and leadership skills, which is probably why I didn’t originally have the same reservations that many others do now.

But I also don’t disagree with the main criticism of the metaphor, which is that it may give license to the product manager to think of themselves and act like the boss, because I also know some product managers that misinterpreted this concept and were awful people to work with.

A year ago, I wrote about the various views on this in the article My Favorite PM Interview Question.

However, after considering this topic for several years, and weighing the benefits against the drawbacks, I have decided to take a clear stand on this.

In this article, I’d like to share that view and explain the reasons why.

At the end of the Interview Question article, I summarized with this sentence:

I want [product managers] to be ambitious, and hungry, and I want them to be confident enough in their abilities to take responsibility for decisions, and I want them to understand they need to worry about all aspects of the business, but I also believe strongly in the importance of humility for a product manager, and I need to make sure they’re not thinking the title gives them anything beyond a shot at earning the respect of their team.

I absolutely still stand behind those words, and I try to instill this mindset in all of the product people I teach and coach.

But over the past several years, I’ve noticed a change in our industry, and this change has impacted the calculus for me.

The change is that the vast majority of product managers that I meet have had almost no real training at all, and the training they have had is usually a CSPO (Certified Scrum Product Owner) course which doesn’t even scratch the surface of what a product manager needs to know.

The result is countless people with the title “Product Manager” or “Product Owner” that are not doing the job their company needs them to do.

I wrote about this problem in the article Product Manager vs. Product Owner Revisited.

Before I go forward, let’s pause here and consider a week or two out of the life of a true product manager:

  • a discussion with the legal counsel to better understand potential privacy issue
  • a discussion with sales, marketing and finance regarding new pricing strategies
  • a discussion with industry analysts around competitive landscape
  • a discussion with sales and marketing around the capabilities of the sales channel
  • a discussion with finance and legal about tax implications and considerations
  • a discussion with marketing around alternative acquisition strategies
  • a discussion with finance around costs, budgets and planning
  • a discussion with business development around contracts and commitments
  • a discussion with product marketing on launch timing and sales training
  • a discussion with technology leadership on upcoming re-platforming efforts
  • a discussion with the CEO on the status of specific reference customers
  • a discussion with the data analyst on understanding some unusual user behavior
  • a discussion with customer success on issues with the current product
  • a discussion with the CISO about security considerations for a new effort

Sometimes these discussions are primarily listening to the concerns and constraints of the stakeholder; sometimes the discussion is more of a negotiation or collaboration with the stakeholder to come to an agreement that works for all parties; sometimes the discussion is more the product manager evangelizing the need and value; sometimes the discussion is more about presenting evidence to be considered and evaluated.

If this sounds easy to you, you should probably read the list again more slowly.

This, of course, is all on top of visits to current and prospective customers to deeply understand the opportunities and test out new product concepts, as well as the intense daily interactions with the product designer and engineers as they work together on discovering solutions to the objectives they’ve been asked to focus on.

Now, the strong product manager does not need to be an expert in all of these many aspects of the business, any more than the CEO needs to be.

The key is that, like the CEO, the product manager needs to have a solid understanding of the many aspects of the business, and assimilate all of this information to make informed decisions.

In an early stage startup, all of the above work is still necessary, but it’s almost always a co-founder, often the actual CEO, that does this. So in that case the same person is CEO of the company, and CEO of the product.

But as companies scale, it because untenable for the CEO to perform this role for all of the company’s products.

All that is to say, I now believe that it is more important and valuable to emphasize to the new product manager the many ways that the product management job is like a CEO, rather than to avoid the phrase in fear of unleashing some Kraken within.

When I meet people that don’t like this metaphor of CEO of the Product, usually it’s due to the reason I mentioned above – they are afraid it will go to the head of the PM – but sometimes it’s not that; but rather it uncovers a true difference of opinion on what the PM is actually responsible for.

In this case, the people will look at the list I provided above and get intimidated, and say that is the job of the actual CEO, and not the product manager. These are typically the people that have been escalating most every significant decision up to the actual CEO.

I try to explain that this is not scalable, and that in the cases of truly strong product managers, it is the PM that is doing this; but for some this is too big of a stretch to see themselves in this much bigger role.

So going forward I’m going to continue to emphasize the importance of humility and earning the team’s trust, but I will also start emphasizing and embracing the positive aspects of the similarities of the PM role to the CEO.

I promise to work hard to emphasize this does not mean they are the boss of anyone, but it does mean that the PM job is very challenging, and yes, when done well, it is a proving ground for future startup CEO’s.

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