Product Managers Are Mini-CEOs—Sort Of
November 20, 2018
Ever since Ben Horowitz compared Product Managers to CEOs in 1998, PMs have been critical of the analogy (see here, here, and here). Some people, however, defend the comparison (see here, here, and here).
Difference of opinion around PMing should come as no surprise. From one company to the next, Product Managers work on a variety of products, have different stakeholder groups, and work along different points in the product development lifecycle. At Connected alone, Product Managers work with our clients on everything from mobile platforms to voice products, IoT devices to automotive experiences.
Given our product guild’s breadth of experience, we thought they would be in a good position to weigh in on the debate and shine a light on the many sides of product management…
I confess I’m not a huge fan of the CEO metaphor. The main reason is that PMs lead without authority. They don’t have everyone on the team report to them the way a CEO does. Instead, PMs have to lead with influence, by example, and find ways to support and add value without having any team member actually report to them.
True, PMs are responsible for the “why” and drive strategic decisions for their product in a way similar to what a CEO does for their company. But they do it without authority.
PMs have to lead with influence, by example, and find ways to support and add value without having any team member actually report to them.
Product Managers cannot be successful without the trust of their team. They need to make decisions quickly, to be adaptable, and to possess a deep understanding of their business and customers. At 10,000 feet, they are ultimately accountable for the product vision.
All of these characteristics are integral to being a great CEO too, which is why the metaphor has sticking power. And as product-centric organizations become increasingly the norm, many of the next generation of CEOs will likely be former Product Managers.
At 10,000 feet, PMs are accountable for the product vision.
But the metaphor falls short in terms of how both authority and influence play out on the ground. No matter how transparent, collaborative, or flat a CEO sees their company culture, there is always a hierarchy of influence, which means that authority is not distributed equally. A CEO may have to act on direct authority due to constraints on time or how high the stakes are, whereas a PM should almost always default to influence as their team needs to feel they have autonomy and can make their own decisions.
On a project, my main goal is to empower everyone on the team to achieve their goals. I play advisor to the client, coach to the developers and designers, and a remover of obstacles overall. With that in mind, I ultimately disagree with the PM-as-CEO analogy. As PMs, and especially as PMs who consult, we do not have direct authority over either the team or the project we’re working on. Leading through authority may be easier, but leading through influence makes great teams. And great teams make great products.
Leading through influence makes great teams. And great teams make great products.
I prefer to think of PMs as something like the “sherpas” of the team. Sherpas served as guides to early explorers of the Himalayan region, helping them navigate peaks and passes at extreme altitudes, especially for expeditions to climb Mount Everest.
Like sherpas, PMs are responsible for guiding the team toward reaching the goals they set out when they started. For me, this boils down to keeping them motivated, hungry, and focused while at the same time protecting them from externalities. This includes things like:
- Ensuring team morale is high and they are always motivated (e.g. celebrating the wins)
- Ensuring headaches (e.g. bottlenecks, overheads) are lifted from the team to allow them to remain focused and engaged
- Providing direction and focus to individual team members as they need it (and having a high EQ helps to identify these situations)
- Holding everyone accountable for the promises they made to themselves, to each other, and to the full team to reach their goals
Product Managers are like symphony conductors, orchestrating people to play a piece of music in front of a very discerning crowd. We’re also like referees, promoting and maintaining the quality of decision-making throughout the product development process. Finally, we’re detail-oriented accountants: we love balancing the books.
PMs promote and maintain the quality of decision-making throughout the product development process.
Marc De Pape
A CEO’s job is to set a vision, a defendable trajectory, and ensure that everyone who executes against it is in a position to be successful. While there are similarities to the responsibilities of a Product Manager, a PM is more accountable for the realization of a vision than its definition. But whatever the analogy, good product is less about which individual does what than collective contributions that deliver impact.
The role of the Product Manager is to understand what needs to be built in order for it to be a successful product in the market, and that means reaching beyond the product narrowly defined to touch other aspects of the business, too. As for which other aspects, I quite like Doblin’s 10 Types of Innovation: here you can see that a good PM should extend beyond the “offering” strictly speaking to consider the “experience” (service, channel, brand, customer engagement) as well as the more businessy and back-end “configuration” of the product (profit model, network, structure, process) as the “building blocks” of a business.
CEOs sell the team on a grand vision. They inspire the art of the possible. This vision is by design almost impossible to achieve within the given timeframe. A Product Manager, on the other hand, has to inspire their team while continuously shooting down the grander ideas in the hope of bringing them to fruition. We provide guardrails to the CEO’s visions.
Think of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission. A CEO might announce in 2016 that, “By 2018, we will touch the surface of the Sun.” A Product Manager would announce that, “By 2018, we will get closer to the sun than ever before. We estimate getting within 4 and 15 million miles of the solar surface, which will vary based on the protective front heat shield’s ability to withstand extreme temperatures.”
CEOs sell the team on a grand vision. PMs inspire their team while continuously shooting down the grander ideas in the hope of bringing them to fruition.
–Mike Stern (CEO)
Earlier in my career I disagreed with Ben’s comparison. I was a product consultant, and I remember romanticizing the authority and decision-making rights that my clients and their CEOs had. Today I no longer think about authority the same way, because believe it or not, CEOs have to manage through influence more than anyone else. Our goal, after all, is to empower others to make an increasing number of decisions on their own, not to decide for them.
Just look at some of the great product-first CEOs. Tony Hsieh didn’t found Zappos, Apple used outside firms like IDEO to invent some of its early products, and Amazon lets new product ideas come from just about anywhere. These companies’ leaders don’t make every decision or come up with every idea. Instead, they maintain a strong and singular vision, thereby fostering good decision-making throughout the organization.
Tony Hsieh didn’t found Zappos, Apple used outside firms like IDEO to invent some of its early products, and Amazon lets new product ideas come from just about anywhere.
Great PMs tend to understand this too, and so they become skilled influencers and change-makers, delivering impact not through authority but through collaboration and trust. I think the thrust of Ben’s statement is that, just like CEOs, PMs sit between multiple stakeholders, disciplines, departments, and must be sensitive to each, translating between them, often in a dizzying fashion, and all at once.
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