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Are product managers chief executives of their product? It depends

Are product managers chief executives of their product? It depends

Two ways PMs are like CEOs — and one way they aren’t.

Credit: Dreamstime

It’s said that every company is now, at least partly, a software company, which is undoubtedly changing the IT landscape. As a result, product managers (PMs) have more opportunities and are more important than ever.

Yet it’s often wondered, by everyone from the chief information officer to the help-desk technicians: What exactly does a PM do?

The traditional answer is that a product manager is the chief executive of their product. Like all clichés, this one is both true and false. Let’s see if we can separate fact from fiction.

Why PMs are not CEOs

On the one hand, this comparison is specious. First, as a CEO, you oversee all employees; ultimately, everyone works for you (or the shareholders if your company is publicly traded).

By contrast, as a PM, very few people actually report to you (or are even in your dotted line on the org chart). Indeed, asking for it to be otherwise is a surefire way to burn bridges, isolate yourself, and get nothing done.

As a CEO, people (generally) follow you because you’re the big boss. Of course, it’s best to listen to your staff and explain your thinking, but at the end of the day, you set the rules. And if someone doesn’t follow them, you’re empowered to show them the door.

This is the polar opposite of how PMs ply our trade. Instead of pulling rank, we marshal data. We cite focus groups and usage reports and case studies and A/B tests and card sorting. We live and die by analytics and metrics, not anecdotes or pet peeves.

What does this principle look like in practice? Consider the time Marissa Meyer, then the head of product at Google, ordered 41 tests of the colour blue to see which one triggered the most clicks. Meyer’s numbers-first, numbers-only approach may be extreme, but even the company’s top designer — who said this modus operandi led him to quit — said that he “couldn’t fault Google for this reliance on data.”

What’s more, notice what Meyer didn’t do: She didn’t issue commands. She issued a request for data. Yet what if you don’t have any data? Or what if the data you do have is unclear or incomplete? Or what if your engineering counterpoint is just plain obstinate?

Even then, a PM never appeals to authority. In these cases, we turn to the trust we’ve developed with our coworkers. Without our calling card of data, the only card we have left is the relationships we’ve built.

This fallback works because if a PM is doing their job, then everyone on the team knows that they’re unconditionally committed to their success — without the need for credit. After all, unlike a CEO, a PM doesn’t have to fret about the company’s stock price or whether TechCrunch covered the company’s latest press release. A PM’s first, second, and third concerns are the product, the product, and the product.

Why PMs are CEOs

On the other hand, a PM shares several central traits with a CEO. Here’s the first: You’re both responsible for basically everything.

Specifically, you’re responsible for outcomes. Whatever the outcome — an upgrade cycle is stalling; customer-acquisition costs are spiking; freemium customers aren’t converting to premium ones — you own it.

Even though others may be at fault, the issue almost always involves the product. And whatever involves the product, involves the product manager.

Indeed, wherever problems emerge, like a moth to a flame, that’s where a PM comes in. You may not formally be a member of another team, but their failure is your failure. Like a CEO, your job isn’t limited to any single lane; your job is to solve problems, regardless of the province.

So, if the product needs more customers, you offer to join sales demos. If existing customers are filing too many bug reports, you offer to join the daily engineering meeting. It’s the fate of PMs and CEOs to always be the buck stoppers.

Here’s another way to think of the PM-CEO similarities: For both a PM and a CEO, the most important thing you do is make decisions. The CEO decides the direction of the company, and the PM decides the direction of the product. Therefore, you both place an enormous premium on collecting information.

Indeed, to succeed as a CEO, you need to be exceptionally well-informed — not only about your company and industry, but also about the economy and regulations.

The same is true for a PM: To succeed, you need to be well-informed not only about your product, but also about your tech stack and customer demographics and profit margins. After all, you can’t solve a problem if you don’t understand it.

Think about the parallel this way: Neither a CEO nor a PM must be consulted on whether the company’s website uses Java. But they both should be kept in the loop, so they can bring to bear the big-picture considerations that only they can see.

My take

The question of whether a product manager is a chief executive of their product is more than academic. The answer reveals volumes about your organisational silos, your commitment to collaboration, and whether you empower those whose only mission is your collective success.

Sure, as a chief product officer, I’m biased, but my bias springs from more than 20 years of experience with a variety of software companies. I’ve worked for startups; I’ve worked for the establishment. I’ve directed research departments, and I’ve written code.

And if there’s a common thread throughout my career, it’s this: The best PMs offer the best of both worlds. Their resourcefulness makes them chiefly, while their selflessness makes them indispensable.

And if those traits sound desirable, then you’ve hit upon a second thread: The best training to be a chief executive may well come from being a product manager.


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