What It Really Means To Be The CEO Of The Product
The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a product is a metaphor often used to describe the product manager. While there are differing views to whether this is the case or not with valid reasons supporting both sides, I stand for the motion. The reasons, I will share below.
What it does not mean (in most cases)
Before we get some clarity on what it really means to be the CEO of a product, we must first clarify what it is not.
You are the key decision maker
While the CEO of a company is the key decision maker for all matters relating to the company, this is not the case for a product manager. If you work in an organisation where you have senior colleagues you report to, they have influence over the direction of the product based on their vision and expectation for the business in general. While you can share your opinions on what the future of the product should be, it may not be accepted by the senior team, and that’s okay.
For startups, chances are that you are the CEO or founder and the product manager. In such a case, you do make key decisions. It becomes quite clear that your ability to make such key decisions on product matters is primarily because of the CEO office you occupy, and not that of the Product Manager.
Your team will look up to you
As a new, maybe inexperienced product manager in an organization, working with experienced developers and UI/UX designers, you may find yourself acting as a task manager. You may have researched the product and figured out ways you will come in and “save the day”, but to your surprise, you spend less time being a hero and more time being a fan where you are constantly “following” your team members.
If you join the team as a more experienced product manager, this is less likely to happen and your team members may look to you as a leader, but it is a good idea not to expect it at all. You are just a member of the team as everyone else.
You have hire/fire authority
This may be the most obvious. Being the CEO of the product does not mean you have the authority to hire or fire members of the product team, you may even be fired yourself. While you do not have hiring or firing authority, you would most likely be able to inform the senior team of the roles or skillsets lacking in your team for more efficient delivery. You should also understand that it is not completely up to you and your request may not be granted.
What it really means
Many people believe that the role of the CEO is to ideate and plan while she instructs her employees to execute. This is however not entirely true. The CEO has other responsibilities which I believe were considered when the term “CEO of a Product” was coined. Focusing on some of these other responsibilities helps to bring light to what it really means to be the CEO of the product. It indicates:
You are the product visionary
A visionary is a strategic thinker. She sees the potential for change and takes steps to get there. The CEO of a company has the responsibility to develop the company’s vision and goal. She sees where the organisation should be in the future and determines what actions need to be taken to get there. This is similar to the role of a product manager.
Being the CEO of the product means you are to see the big picture, communicate the vision and define steps that would drive the team in achieving the vision. It happens often that team members, for example, engineers, may become too focused on ticking off their tasks that their very action does not adequately contribute to the big picture. It is the role of the PM to ensure that team efforts connect with the overall goal. In cases where you did not define the product vision, it is your responsibility as the CEO of the product to direct team players in keeping with the vision outlined for the product, to remain passionate and be the driving force behind fulfillment.
You are the go-to person
A CEO is expected to communicate on behalf of the company to stakeholders and act as a primary spokesperson for the company. This is also the role of the product manager with regards to the product. Being the CEO of the product means you are to communicate with product stakeholders both internally and externally and speak officially for everything product related.
As a product manager, you remain the go-to person for product strategy, updates, product impact, future plans, challenges, etc. You will be the first line of contact even though it may not be regarding your primary duty. Understanding this role allows you to remain knowledgeable about both the business and technical side of the product so that you can communicate effectively when the need arises.
You are to assess any risk and solicit guidance
You probably did not assume that being the CEO of the product involves seeking guidance. You’d expect that the CEO should have the knowledge and grit to make the right decisions and take the right steps. This is however not completely true. Yes, the CEO is responsible for the success and failure of the company, but being responsible for something does not mean you have everything figured out. It is also important for the product manager (and indeed a responsibility) to identify challenges and risks the company faces, and work with board directors to formulate a strategy.
As the CEO of the product, you are held accountable for the success of the product. This means you are to measure product risks and discuss with high-level officers on how you can take adequate preventive and precautionary steps. Building an invaluable product that people love would require a team of experts and being the CEO of the product means you are to seek guidance on these matters when necessary.
You are to provide inspired leadership
It is the responsibility of the CEO of any organisation to demonstrate quality leadership. A CEO leads her company through good and difficult times. It often becomes challenging for employees, but one major reason the company would be able to push through at such difficult times is because of how inspired her employees remain. The feeling of purpose and meaning propels them.
Being the CEO of the product, in retrospect, means you are to provide inspired leadership to your team. Remember, your teammates may not see you as their boss (and in reality, you really aren’t), but you lead them as you inspire. While you are not their boss, it is essential that you provide this service to your team members because someone has to take the lead for any group to function properly. Being an inspiring leader is something I am definitely still learning to do as I write this because I have come to realise it is most crucial for a product manager although often underplayed. It enables the team to operate from an inner place of purpose and really put in their best in achieving every task.
Finally, I would suggest, don’t get too excited about the title “CEO of the product”. It does not bring with it all the cool stuff, but rather deep responsibilities. However, knowing what it really means to be the CEO of a product places you in a better position to carry out its responsibilities effectively.