Product Manager as President

This is the third and final part of a series of posts about product management, you can read part one here and part two here.

There is this classic Ben Horowitz essay called Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager which lays out the Product Manager as the CEO of the product. In his original usage of the term, he’s really just saying the PM should take ownership of all aspects of the product the same way the CEO takes ultimate ownership of all parts of a company. However, in the years since the essay has emerged it has grown into this piece of Silicon Valley lore and become wildly misinterpreted.

The statement the PM is the CEO of the product is now used as an excuse for PMs to act as dictators ordering engineers and designers around to “build their vision.” Or even worse, it’s used as justification for PMs thinking they are some Steve Jobs like genius and that they can be successful by bending everyone to their will. Instead I’d like to offer a much better analogy: being a Product Manager is like being the President of the product.

While a CEO can dictate terms to employees, a President cannot dictate terms to constituents. The President of the product serves at the pleasure of the stakeholders and has the nearly impossible task of having to say no by default, but still somehow keep everyone satisfied. The President of the product has to build consensus while having the responsibility, but not the authority to get things done.

Being President of the product requires patience. Even if something is the right thing to do (or build), you might not have the political capital to make it happen and you’ll have to wait until the time is right. The President has to be constantly selling the next initiative before the current one is even complete. You can probably get away with pushing a few things through based on title, but if this becomes standard operating procedure you’ll quickly have a backlash on your hands making it difficult to get anything done. Maybe you’re fortunate and get into the position with a mandate, but even this fades with time.

I often joke that only a masochist would want to be a Product Manager, same goes for being President. All of your decisions have extremely high visibility to the rest of your company and your customers. Every single person will second guess or question everything you do, because they will be affected, not because they have the full context of the decision. If things go well, it’s because of the amazing team around you. If things go poorly, the blame rest solely on you.

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