Weighing in on the “CEO of the Product” debate

product manager of a company is CEO of the productSearch for “3 traits of a great product manager” and you’ll find an overabundance of qualities that may make a highly skilled product manager:

  • Strategic thinker
  • Passion for products
  • Empathizes/listens actively to customers/prospects
  • Aspires to build great user experiences
  • “Keeps score”/can forecast and measure
  • Builds team morale
  • Trusts others and adds to the trust of the team
  • Values communication
  • Strong leader
  • Ability to prioritize
  • Builds process
  • Problem solver
  • Curious
  • Intellectually honest
  • Thinks big
  • Cross-functional influencer
  • Can say no when necessary

Quite a list, isn’t it?

In response to the question, “what is product management?” author and ProductTank founder Martin Eriksson answers, “the intersection of business, technology and user experience.” A good product manager must be experienced in at least one of these areas and passionate about and conversant with practitioners in all three.

Having been a product manager and/or leader of product management many times in my career, I know first-hand how challenging, frustrating, rewarding and fulfilling the role can be. It will test you – and if you reflect from time to time, it will teach you.

I have also been a CEO. More than a few times.

Which leads me to this: the concept of a product manager as “CEO of the Product” has been one of the more debated topics at product management conferences and in social media discussions. Most people are either strongly against this analogy – or strongly for it.

Respected product pundits on both sides pose interesting arguments. For example, Eriksson states that PMs are not the CEO of anything. But Marty Cagan at Silicon Valley Product Group states, “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 am a believer that a truly great product manager is the CEO of the product. They own it. Success and/or failure lie at their feet. And while most product team members don’t work directly for the PM, having been a CEO, I can tell you that accomplishing things is a result of investing time to build trust and communicating with your teams. Rather, if you think that your role is a matter of issuing edicts to employees – telling them what to do and how to do it – then you don’t really appreciate the attributes and traits of a successful CEO. I’ll never forget walking into a CEO’s office as a young PM, as he slammed down the phone and exclaimed, “do you know what I would do if I were running this company?”

Let’s not forget that a CEO has a boss, just like a product manager does. A CEO answers to shareholders or a board of directors. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, we all serve somebody.

I also believe that PMs should be held accountable for a financial scorecard to see if they are winning or losing in the marketplace. Many disagree with this profit & loss approach to product management, but I believe that it’s highly effective and have run PM organizations accordingly. Even with the challenges of cost allocations and other issues, it’s likely the best way to measure success and hold PMs accountable.

As is the case with a product manager being the CEO of product.

When I was a CEO, I considered myself the product manager of the company – with the company being the product. Even now, in my role as the executive director of the Master of Science in product management degree at Carnegie Mellon University, I view myself as the product manager of the degree. Like a PM, I have no one working for me. However, I am held financially accountable for the success of the program. I work cross functionally to make sure the offering is well-defined, competitively differentiated, and that the content of what we deliver is of high quality and value. I assure that the product is effective with respect to future, current and former customers – which, in my case are the program’s prospective students, current students and alumni. The degree must be marketed well to prospective students and corporate partners. Customer satisfaction arises in ensuring that current students have good experiences and achieve their desired outcomes. Our alumni become good references and ambassadors for the program.

Discussion of the role of PM and how it’s defined will continue, I’m certain. It’s a worthy discussion to have. But my experience will always favor the product manager as a true leader who has all the responsibility – but with not much authority.

Worth considering:  if the product manager is the “CEO of the product,” maybe the CEO is the “product manager of the company.”