Are product managers really the CEO’s of their product? 5 product leaders weigh in.

Posted on September 21, 2020.

Twenty years ago, author and VC Ben Horowitz posted one of the earliest manifestos of product management, Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager. In the years since it’s writing, one main idea continues to permeate the discipline as it strives to define itself, “A good product manager is the CEO of the product.” Given the diversity in responsibilities product managers are challenged with from one organization to the next, the lack of a clear set of product management deliverables and broad definitions of what product management even is, it’s no surprise that this pithy phrase caught on.

“A good product manager is the CEO of the product.”

Ben Horowitz

To this day, and despite Horowitz’s general disavowal of this statement in years since, many product managers still describe themselves this way. I’ve struggled with this definition since the first time I heard it, in many ways for the very reasons Martin Eriksson, founder of Mind The Product, shared when he said, “Unless you’re the founder and the product manager at the same time, you are not the CEO of anything.” 

But, to my dismay (and to my wife’s knowing glances) I don’t know everything and thought it best to seek out other experts’ thoughts on this topic. I found 5 product management leaders, practitioners and authors to weigh in. Let’s take a look at each response and see if we can live with this description or if we have to come up with a new pithy description of what product managers actually do. 

Teresa Torres

I started with Teresa Torres, product discovery coach and author of the super popular Product Talk blog. Teresa said, “The ‘product manager as CEO’ analogy only works if we all agree on what CEOs do. If you think a CEO is the boss and gets to do whatever they want (e.g., tell people what to do, be the HiPPO), then the analogy doesn’t work. But if you recognize that the best CEOs focus on enabling and empowering their teams, while being accountable for outcomes, then that’s exactly what a product manager should do.”

Teresa always asks the tough questions and this was no exception. “What does a CEO do?” And in the same vein of good pm/bad pm she pushes us to consider “good CEO/bad CEO.” So if you’re working as a product manager and your holding yourself and your team accountable for outcomes while enabling them to build the best products and services they can, then yes, you’re the CEO of the product. Sadly, most CEO’s don’t operate this way and often end up on the “HiPPO” side of the scale. 

Hope Gurion

Hope Gurion, former VP of Product at Careerbuilder, has a slightly more nuanced take on the question. Hope said, “A PM who can think like their CEO is well-served when they face difficult decisions.  Framing choices that expose cost/benefit trade offs to expedite good choices is the CEO mindset that helps PMs succeed, not the “I have the ultimate decision authority” mindset.” 

Hope confirms that product managers don’t usually have the authority of a CEO but that it would behoove them to think like CEO’s as they make decisions and their arguments for the direction the product should take. Focusing on data, health of the business and a deep understanding of the target market are activities both product managers and CEO’s should practice. 

Petra Wille

Next I spoke with Petra Wille, freelance product discovery and people development coach and author of the upcoming product management book, Strong, who continued to refine this line of thinking. Petra told me that, “As with every metaphor, the ‘Product Manager is the CEO of the product’ helps to make a point. The point of “if something has to be done and nobody else is taking the lead it should be you, dear product person! You are ultimately responsible for what you and your team are delivering.”

Petra continued, “But as soon as you are the CEO of something you realize there are so many more things you have to worry about then a typical product manager has to. So I’m not using this metaphor at all: we need a more nuanced way to speak about the role of product managers.” 

Petra doubled down on the ownership, accountability and responsibility aspects of being a good product manager but she too stopped short of using this metaphor. 

Adam Thomas

Adam Thomas, product team leader in NYC, didn’t mince words. “CEO’s have the power to change the budget and the personnel. If you can’t do both of those things, you aren’t the CEO of anything – you are a product person. Stop wasting cycles on things you can’t control and spend them on things you can influence.” So what is it then that product managers can influence? Product direction, team focus, detailed decision-making are all things that come to mind. Some product managers can likely influence product strategy as well. All product managers should be able to influence the user experience of their product. 

Melissa Perri

Finally, Melissa Perri, author of The Build Trap and founder of Product Institute, added her perspective as someone who’s held both roles. “As someone who has been both a CEO and a Product Manager, I can tell you the job is very different, most notably in the team and stakeholders. As a CEO you get to build your team or change your team. As a Product Manager you have no real authority there, so influence and executive backing is usually your only recourse around a difficult stakeholder.”

My takeaway from these interviews is this:

  • Product managers are not the CEO’s of their products
  • Product managers need CEO’s to support their decisions, product direction and team dynamics
  • To earn this support good product managers should focus on customers and outcomes that positively impact the business
  • The more a product manager can speak intelligently about the business, it’s cost structures, operating and business models the more likely she is to influence the CEO in a desired direction

Bottom line: Learn what good CEO’s do and need to be successful. Structure your product management practice in a way that provides that value to them and the autonomy and authority many product managers seek should be easier to earn. 

What’s been your experience?