Be the CEO of your product

The maxim that a product manager is the CEO of her product motivates me to think broadly and avoid blind spots caused by narrowly focusing on daily tasks. It also informs how I mentor product managers and set their goals and objectives: “You’re the boss – and I mean that literally,” is my frequent guidance, with an explicit expectation of the product manager highlighting broad requirements, supporting decisions with relevant data, and ensuring action across the organization.

The CEO comparison can be empowering, but may also seem daunting or impractical. While this idea is espoused by many successful leaders, some people push back by pointing out numerous differences between product managers and CEOs.

Objections to a product manager being compared to a CEO are rooted in the differences between a coach and a king. A coach rallies her team and achieves desired outcomes through influence. A king orders his subjects to do as he wishes. A weak product manager wishes for power to force others – engineering, marketing, sales – do what she believes is correct.

Credit: Mindaugas Danys,  “scream and shout”
Credit: Mindaugas Danys, “scream and shout”

Being the CEO of your product is taking responsibility and accountability for product success, not pretending that you are everyone’s boss or have full control over all situations. The product manager can’t force anyone to do anything. She has no budget authority. Executives can overrule her. No one reports to her.

Keep in mind that a CEO lacks omnipotence. Many factors lie outside her control, though she is officially the boss. Employees have autonomy to leave her company and slow-roll her vision in the absence of motivation and buy-in. Everyone second-guesses her decisions. Competitors, governments, and nature refuse to behave as expected. Product managers and CEOs are at their best when they lead by influence and everyone around them wants to follow.

Being the CEO without being the boss

It takes a CEO mindset to step out of narrow job descriptions and consider what overall success looks like and how it can be achieved. The product manager is best positioned for this responsibility because she operates cross-functionally, observing gaps to success and opportunities for improvement without being limited by functional boundaries.

Problems selling often involve multiple factors including product, messaging, and field enablement. A successful product manager identifies broad, cross-functional gaps, works with her peers to understand practical remedies, and evangelizes her vision for success across the organization. Narrowly defining product management as writing a PRD won’t work.

I’ve seen product managers walk away from problems because other teams “won’t cooperate” or “aren’t investing enough.” Predictably, the results are varying degrees of failure both for the business and the product manager’s standing. These product managers believe they did their job and the other guy is at fault, while the situation worsens. Rather than getting trapped in cycles of indecision and blame, you can leverage your unique role to create a cycle of influence:

Articulate what success looks like: create a succinct problem statement focused on specific, actionable gaps. While you may have an accurate vision of the successful outcome, it’s critical to achieve buy-in from your constituents who will consume, benefit, and execute the outcome. Everyone who has a stake in the outcome should share in the solution. This must be done in writing so appropriate people can review, contribute to, and approve the shared vision. You can always return to reference the shared vision and, if necessary, modify it as you progress.

Define the steps to achieve success: this is about identifying and resolving organizational dependencies versus telling others how to do their jobs. Engineering can manage a bug-fix project. Support can draft a customer communication plan. But support may first require a better understanding from engineering on what went wrong before customers can be contacted. Engineering may first require more customer data to confidently recreate the problem. Work with each stakeholder to ensure there is a documented, agreed set of responsibilities and hand-offs sufficient to achieve success.

Eliminate obstacles to doing the work: talk to the people who must execute each step. What do they need to succeed and what is blocking them? Sometimes there is a priority conflict with another product release or go-to-market activity. An important tool or access to information may be missing. Resolve obstacles by reprioritizing, helping to acquire what’s missing, or seeking executive support for necessary resources. These are often “taking out the trash” or “sweeping the floor” responsibilities that fall through gaps in organizational boundaries and require the product manager to step up and make things happen.

Sell your vision for success aggressively, but fairly: having accomplished the first three steps, executing the plan is rarely easy and will require everyone to work hard and invest extra effort. Adding up all the tasks may yield a timeline far longer than what the customer or market will tolerate. With the broadly agreed facts on your side, set an aggressive goal that balances external requirements with internal capability. Excessive tension will result in execution failure, while a lack of urgency risks the customer and market. You’ll need to achieve executive buy-in from all the affected teams by demonstrating value for each team, a realistic plan agreed by each team, and vision shaped by each team.

This is being CEO of your product. You’re defining success and ensuring a plan that is executable while achieving a necessary business outcome. Do this a few times and you’ll be regarded as an influential problem solver who your organization turns to for answers.

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