Stop saying Product Management is like being the CEO of your own product

We have all heard this analogy about Product Management. Either on meet-ups or General Assembly, Lean Startup, Design Thinking or whatever your latest thing is, there is someone who will mention the awesomeness of being a product manager and how you get all this ownership and it’s like being a mini CEO. (Queue: young “product” guy with *** all over his eyes) To be true, yes product management is amazing, but please for the love of whoever you believe in, don’t say the CEO crap again. ( Actually I’m on a crusade to ban this.) There is something shameful for me on this line, maybe it’s the bragging maybe it’s the cynic in me (which coincidentally has increased since I got into Product Management).

In any case my objective is to clarify and dispel the notions of why Product Management is seen as a role where you, millennial, can be “the CEO”. At it’s best, this statement transmits in an extremely simplistic manner this very ambiguous and amorphous role and at worst it sets incorrect expectations to people who have never done the role and/or attracts the wrong people.

But I’m not about to make a one-sided argument. In the spirit of fairness, transparency and mainly to confuse my brain in true product manager fashion I will look at both sides of this argument. I’m going to outline 3 ways in which the PM role is like a CEO and the 4 ways were it vastly diverges from a CEO-like role.

My thesis is that while there are similarities, the differences are more pronounced and more critical to successfully executing on the role.

3 ways Product Managers are like CEOs

  1. Just like CEOs are surrounded by a team of other experts, Product works on a daily basis with at minimum Engineering, Design and Marketing functions if not more. Product Management is not the expert in any of these fields but must incorporate and work with these people to have the final product. CEOs are the same in that they rely on the other C-Level folks who are supposed to be the experts in their areas. I believe both roles must be able to ask the correct questions from these different functions to get to the best answer.
  2. CEOs communicate internally to employees, and help set the tone and the culture of the company. Their main role is to communicate clearly the situation and the goals, including what, where, why. On the Product Management side, while it’s less about culture, a Product Manager must have great communication skills to clearly state the goals to the people that are building, supporting and selling the product. Finally and key in terms of getting buy-in and promoting collaboration, Product Managers also need to make sure that the decision making process is clear and available while listening to people’s opinions.
  3. CEOs communicate externally with every type of stakeholder. For product managers, you have your user conference, Dreamforce, F8, Gartner or other industry events where you must show your prowess without letting out too much of your strategy. You must inspire people to want to buy your product, you must sell, market, and promote your product. You are the evangelist.

4 ways Product Managers are NOT like a CEOs

  1. Unlike a CEO, I have no P&L responsibility.

The only P&L responsibility in my life is my Treasurer role in a local non-profit. Other than that I only deal with numbers in relation to points and velocity. I don’t have any idea how many bookings, ACV or TCV we had, what was the deal size of each and I certainly don’t tell Sales what to do. Am I interested in these numbers? Well certainly. Can I read a financial statement or a 10-K? Yes I can but there will not be a need to do any of that. What about when you are building out your business case? That might be your best case where some P&L might be needed, but that is actually going to be a forecast full of assumptions so not technically a true P&L.

(Bonus!!At a recent Product Camp in Austin I went to a talk about the leverage power as a Product Manager which was nothing but 4 P’s and STP, awesome dude. I stopped the presenter and polled the room about how many people actually had a chance to set the price. There were 3 people out of 40. So yeah this one doesn’t happen either. Sorry.)

2. I don’t have total control over all the aspects of my product

I’m forced to make decisions based on other people’s past decisions just to be consistent. I have a lot of design debt on me. I don’t have time to fix how that thing displays in 20 places I’m just going to keep doing it the same way it has been wrongly done.( And hate myself in the process) I will hope to move the needle one small thing at a time.

3. I can’t choose my vision/ideas totally on my whims/desires

My vision for the part of the product I’m responsible for needs to be aligned to the overall company strategy. What markets are they going after? What does my CPO/VP want to do for this release? You might convince them sometimes, but I bet that it’s a back and forth, pull and push until you settle in something that isn’t potentially what you had envisioned. It might be better or worse but it’s what you are going to be doing whether you like it or not. So exactly how many ideas/initiatives or proposals see the light of day. Well I think the odds are better than in Advertising. Here is a great quote from Daniel Elizalde over at techproductmanagement.com about this

In my experience, if I’m able to push through 50% of the ideas I have, then I’m doing a great job.

4. I have no budget or resources which means no authority

Developers don’t report to you, nor does anyone in the other teams you are working with. You have responsibility to deliver but no real authority to demand people to do so. This can specially be painful if you enter a company with a culture that is siloed so everyone does whatever they want, or one that values seniority/experience so much that you will have to prove yourself over and over again, one that values status-quo or simply one where product management is new and misunderstood. A CEO is the exact opposite because he/she is the major boss of everyone. You will nod and smile and say as the CEO does. I guarantee it.

Here is a rather accurate if disheartening and flat description of your first 3–5 years as a product manager.

“The majority of PM jobs involve you driving forward some relatively small dimension of the product, with little meaningful control over resourcing, zero actual reporting authority over anyone, nor much, if any, say in the budgeting process — all within the confines of some larger organizational superstructure that you are subject to, rather than master of.” — MatBalez

Yep, it’s true. Welcome to the real Product Management. But for the few that pass the disillusionment phase, it’s still pretty exciting and crazy all the time. I still wouldn’t change it for the world.

Addendum-ish

Finally a word of advice. Actually I said it before, but I will say it again. In interviews do not say you want to be in Product Management because it’s like being the CEO of your own product. This will likely disqualify you altogether. I’m sure you could be the nicest person on earth, but this answer gives me a red flag that you don’t know Product Management very well and/or that you might not be a team player. Either case both are big no-nos.