You aren’t a mini CEO, get over it

I’m sure that you have heard this saying time and time again. Product Managers are like the mini CEOs of their company because blah blah blah. I hate it. It’s not right. It leads to a misconception of power and a lack of collaboration. First let’s look at what a CEO is


Product Managers have a lot of responsibility but it’s not the same responsibility that CEOs have. Here are some responsibilities of a CEO that don’t overlap with Product Managers and entail real authority:

  1. To lead a company in conjunction with the board.
  2. Tracking expenditures and making sure they are maintained within the annual budget.
  3. Organization and staffing including the responsibility of terminating staff as well.
  4. Acting as a liaison between management and the Board
  5. Own the vision of the company
  6. Track and ensure good company performance.

These are just a few examples I have seen or found through research and describe quickly how misleading calling ourselves mini CEOs can be. I for one don’t want to have anything to do with the termination of staff. I’m sure that most CEOs don’t want this responsibility either but it’s theirs. I for one am more energized by the challenge of leading by influence and building relationships with my teams so, here are some examples of what a PM is actually like.

Team Captain

You wouldn’t know it looking at me but I was once captain of the swim team. I think I got the role more for my willingness to actually help parents with projects as a senior in high school, like fundraising, than my amazing ability. One thing that I learned as a team captain was that all of a sudden I had a lot of responsibility with very little context and absolutely no direct authority to tell people what to do. I had to quickly adjust from the perception that I could stubbornly take a stand and have my way.

Similarly to my first time experience as a team captain, as a PM I came in as a relative nobody who had to build trust and respect. I did this by not only collaborating with incredibly smart people when the need arose but also proactively seeking their input in brainstorm sessions.

A team captain doesn’t forget their fans either. When I was in high school it was the parents sharing their thoughts on how we could make the team better. In a company it’s our wonderful customers. Customer empathy is vital to company growth and sustainability. You can almost have any methodology or process for success but if you aren’t talking to customers on a weekly basis you are probably going to fail.

“Michael, I think we should raise our fundraiser goals for the homecoming float.”

When you are a team captain you get to interact with the parents and fans on a daily basis. With some products this might not be feasible but doing weekly discovery calls to keep in touch with the customer should be a goal of any company. It’s easy to believe we know what a customer needs and wants due to our past experiences. However, if we talk to customers, understand their goals and walk through their daily lives with them we will ensure that we are “in-touch”.

You can almost have any methodology or process for success but if you aren’t talking to customers on a weekly basis you are probably going to fail.

Captain America

I know, I know. That’s two uses of Captain. But it’s different I promise. I think that it’s ok too since Captain America is no longer stuck in the realm of comic book lovers but is now a treasured superhero for everyone. He’s the very essence of doing what’s right in the face of great opposition.

Product Managers are the Captain Americas of the business world because they stand up for what is right. Oftentimes, we find ourselves having to be flexible and adapt to new feedback or data. This doesn’t always seem convenient but is usually right. In this case, when we pivot we are doing so for the benefit of our customers and to meet our organization’s vision. However, depending on the situation, it can be hard for customers and your team to see it that way.

Illustration by: Jesse Harding

Just like with Captain America in ‘Civil War’, sometimes you have to tell that salesperson that the super cool and flashy feature we promised we were working on is not the thing we are going to do anymore, because a/b testing proved it wasn’t the right thing. In that moment we aren’t the enemy. We are Captain America. A lovable friend who annoyingly stands up for what’s right for the company.

Other times we are doing discovery and find out that a customer will pay big bucks if we just develop this one feature. Sure it may stand to make us a lot of money at the time but it also has proven to a. Not actually be the thing they really need or b. not represent enough of our customer base to justify the time and resources we’d put into it. Like Captain America being unable to sign those Sokovia Accords we can’t sign off on this project because it’s not right. We are Captain America.

Punching Bags

I’m pretty sure that at this point it’s a universal truth we are going to fail. I think the point is to fail fast and also quickly learn from the experiences. With our newfound experiences we implement even more thoughtful and innovative solutions aligned with customer goals. I’m disappointed to say that I have often seen PMs without the ability to deal with failure and instead deflect punches to their team, especially engineering.

If punches are being flung I would rather err on the side of being the punching bag than allow my team to be disrupted or disheartened by a PM who won’t accept the failure as their own. So, I’m not saying that this is a chance for people everywhere to lay a PM out or vent all of their frustrations onto us but PMs shouldn’t be afraid to take some punches for their team.

PMs can be a lot of things but at the end of the day we should be the ones others trust. Our influence should come from the many relationships we have built and the success we have had. I think it’s most important that new PMs don’t get the the whole CEO idea in their head early. Let’s instead replace it with something that will be representative of a real experience and lead them to be an empathetic, strategic, and successful Product Managers.