Something that pops up everywhere is the idea that a Product Manager is ‘The CEO of a Product.’ Generally, the product community has a very Love-Hate relationship with this phrase. It’s a decent enough explanation for a position which can be difficult to describe. Usually what people mean by this is that a Product Manager has to oversee a lot of different teams, the way a CEO does. They have a general overview of all areas involved in a product, without deep diving and having extensive knowledge of any one particular area, much like a CEO has an overview of their business. Both positions involve being the keeper of a vision, and both also have to be decision makers by curating ideas from many different sources.
However there are some crucial differences between a CEO and a PM, and it’s important for new and prospective Product Managers to understand the reality of their role.
The Silicon Valley Dream
Being the CEO of anything is a very attractive prospect. Working in tech, especially in big businesses or sectors, is to the modern professional what being a stockbroker was in the early 1990s. Thanks to pop culture, tech jobs have an air of glamour about them. It can be easy to fall into the trap of viewing oneself as the new Steve Jobs or the next Sheryl Sandberg.
But just look at what happened when Elizabeth Holmes started idolizing Jobs, and focusing on all the wrong things. Chaos ensued! Of course, it’s great to have ambition, and there’s nothing wrong with modelling your career after someone you admire. However, getting ahead of yourself and forgetting your real-world position will only get in your way. The people who have to work with you certainly won’t appreciate it!
Influence Without Authority
One of the most valuable skills gained through a career as a Product manager, is the ability to lead and influence without holding any real authority. A Product Manager has to unite teams under the same goals and the same vision, without actually being able to tell them what to do.
There’s a real danger of a Product Manager thinking of themselves as the CEO of a product and therefore being a nightmare to work with. PMs have to guide everyone involved in the development of a product through persuasion, and also through earning the trust and respect of their colleagues. A Product Manager is a storyteller, communicating a vision that others can believe in and follow.
Ownership and Responsibility
Being a Product Manager carries a lot of responsibility. The PM is the one who holds the ties between different departments, and if they let go it could be disastrous for development. Although the buck somewhat stops with the PM on a smaller level, the CEO is ultimately the person responsible. Especially in the eyes of the public. If a product fails catastrophically, it’s the CEO’s face we see at the top of LinkedIn articles asking what went wrong? Equally, if a product is disruptive, innovative, and famous around the world, it’s the CEO being interviewed by Forbes.
Perhaps the quickest way to realise the colossal difference between these two positions is to look at all the things the CEO, and only the CEO, does.
What Does a CEO Do?
The role differs from company to company depending on many variables, for example size. (A CEO in a company with 3 people has a completely different job to one in a company of 30,000.) In general, their responsibility is to handle high-level decisions relating to the overall strategy of the company. While the PM does make a lot of decisions, they are by no means the final decision maker. A CEO answers only to the board of directors, while the PM may have to answer to many people depending on the hierarchy.
A CEO will be an important voice at the table when discussing things like investment, business partnerships, and capital allocation. They will also be the primary person in charge of setting the company culture. Calling a PM a CEO is evidently very misleading, and insinuates a level of authority which they just do not have.
CEO + Product Manager = Success?
So…when is it OK for a Product Manager to call themselves the CEO of a product? Pretty much only if they are also the CEO. This might sound like a match made in heaven, but it can also be a nightmare.
Everyone has experience of getting too close to a project and needing the influence of others to make it work, whether it’s a piece of copywriting, a CV or a pitch. When something belongs to us, we feel like it’s our brainchild and it’s harder to take an objective view. A founder who also functions as a Product Manager is much more likely to force through decisions that, realistically, do not work, but they are in line with their original vision.
Having the authority of a CEO also ruins the ‘magic touch’ that Product Managers have. How can you lead without authority if you have literally all of the authority? You wouldn’t be suggesting a new feature, you’d be ordering one. Of course, in a very small startup with only 3-4 people, the CEO may be the Product Manager by default, but in smaller companies, everyone has a higher level of authority compared to larger companies where authority is distributed across a complex hierarchy.
It’s a good enough metaphor for those times when you have to explain what your job is to someone who has no understanding of product whatsoever. But within business, we should try to avoid it, or risk misleading prospective PMs as to what their responsibilities and authority level will be.