Question: If the whole idea of good product management is about effectively being the “CEO of a product,” then why do so few CEOs seem to come from product management?
Answer from Derek Britton, Independent Product Management consultant: I imagine that if you ask 10 people this question, you will get 10 completely different perspectives! Such a diverse array of opinions has already been voiced across the ‘net and in published texts, which tells us this:
- it’s a great question!
- the answer is quite involved, but is difficult to describe
First, I would agree with the hypothesis that a product manager should be CEO of the product — that’s exactly the behavioral trait they must show to be truly effective and to lead those around them to help the product truly excel.
We must also consider that some “CEO type” activities are beyond the remit of a PM, such as interactions with shareholders, establishing management policies, process, culture, etc. The point here is that to be “CEO” of anything (even if you are really a PM) means you have to assume responsibility for things and lead or influence others to do the right thing for your product. So, for example, as a PM, you want hiring managers to bring in those with the right skills to sell and support YOUR products, you want the sales leaders to focus on YOUR product, you want your marketing team to put the right spin on the collateral, you want your organization’s other product managers to share your vision of the future so you can work together (and not steal resources from one another), plus a million other challenges. By being “the CEO” you will see it as your role, your responsibility, and your opportunity to solve each of them and more — usually through effective leadership, influence and persuasion… and usually by enlisting others in a shared vision, since you won’t achieve it with merely hard work — it must be a team effort.
That’s where this question gets interesting — defining what a CEO “does”. Certainly if we think that all they do is make the big decisions, sort out the funding, hire the VPs, fire the wasters, help on the big deals, then we are missing the role of the CEO entirely. You will notice most of this is just operational day-to-day routine stuff. This isn’t the key bit, though of course it is important. The CEO sets the strategy, establishes and monitors the culture, builds a vision, challenges the process, and (usually) lines everyone up to squarely support “the customer.”
Not much of this is about barking orders; it is about building consensus, establishing a pattern of leadership, and a culture of empowerment. It is about setting a pattern of behavior where others feel like they can and should make changes for the good of the company, of the product, and of the customers.
Not much of it either is about technology or technical prowess on the part of the “CEO.” It is about reaching out to those with those skills and utilizing them correctly. The same is true for a PM — you don’t necessarily need to know all the techie stuff, but you do need to know how it affects your clients, and you need to know who in your “team” you can refer to for the complex technology questions.
But mostly, for me, the CEO role is about understanding what the company exists for, and this is usually based on their customer. A company is nothing without its commercial lifeblood — its client-base.
I think because of this, effective CEOs almost always have a strong commercial background, and are salespeople by trade, and businesspeople and leaders in equal measure. All of these facets are also within a product manager’s remit, but I think the balance is tipped by the typical sales leader’s experience in getting genuine commercial results, which of course is the cornerstone of any organization doing well. Commercial experience also suggests a cost-management perspective too, which is equally important (and why many CFOs are also good candidate CEOs).
There are for sure thousands of other considerations, but an executive recruiter will usually look for evidence of commercial success in a direct capacity for a would-be-CEO to be a genuine candidate. PMs typically don’t have direct authority over revenue in the same way sales guys do, and that for me, boiled down, is the answer to this, because many organizations see revenue as vital and everyone else as secondary.
I would imagine that seasoned PMs with some specific commercial experience would be very much in the running though. The first step for any PM in becoming a full-blown CEO would be to “assume those responsibilities” in their current PM role. This is the acorn from which greater things can grow.