Friday, January 09, 2009

hmm: what can product managers learn from CEOs

Ack/nak reader and Productologist author Ivan Chalif wrote a year ago - passionately and at length - on why the product manager is not the CEO of his product.

Go give it a read, I'll wait.

As evidence he offered three qualities not possessed by product managers which the reader can conclude are possessed by CEOs:

Control over staffing
Control over strategy
"Invincibility" as defined by the likelihood of PM getting shot sooner than the CEO

I won't comment on his thesis that the product manager is more like the COO of the product than the CEO, but I will suggest that where it matters most the successful product manager can learn an awful lot more from the CEO than from the COO. Because while the CEO has powers the PM does not, successful CEOs and PMs share (or should share, IMO) one core talent.

I'm speaking specifically about the art of leadership.

In an old but still relevant survey, 1300 sentient creatures opined that 53% of what makes a great CEO is leadership.

I agreed with these creatures then, I agree with them now.

What does the business expect of its leaders?

Let me put my tautology hat on. . . we expect our leaders to lead.

I think it expects its leaders to understand the past, be engaged in the present, and plan for the future; to have an ability to gather, synthesize and use information; and to communicate transparently and effectively. It expects people who can inspire followership.

When you break it down this way it's easy to see that these are all qualities the business expects of its product managers too - within the more limited context of product.

Sure, you need technical and business chops, but as the person at the "center" of the product, you need to be a leader first. And if you accept that leadership is what is valued most in CEOs, then there you go - the transitive property FTW.

I don't think we need product managers who are tyrants any more than we need CEOs who are - we need product management leaders who are fair and "teachable" - who expect excellence because they strive for it themselves - and who want to bring everyone along with them into the future.

Sidebar: Back in July of 2007 I wrote about what I see as the defining qualities of operators. The COO is the Spock to the CEO's Kirk. Both need to lead. But the COO is valued most for the ability to optimize the organization, its talent and its processes, whereas the CEO is valued most for. . . leadership!

If you've got ideas of what the product manager can learn from the CEO, let me know. Other than "where is the executive washroom".


Anonymous said...

Leadership centers on the ability to choose. Choosing effectively is more about what you will -not- do than what you -will- do.

I can divide all leaders into two categories: those that had the courage to choose wisely and those that responded to every suitcase full of money that showed up on the door step.

I follow the first. I despair for the second.

Internal communication and other characteristics cited here and on the Productologist have value.

But without the courage to choose, all leaders will fail. No matter what title you put on your business card.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for referencing my post. I don't recall why right now, but I remember that I was really fired up about this topic when I wrote about it a year ago.

Leadership is clearly a key success factor for Product Managers, but even as your survey points out, it's only half (or at 53%, slightly more than half) of the story.

Leadership is the largest factor, but having the other characteristics is also important. Being just a leader is insufficent for success as a CEO (at least in the long-term). Personally, I'd like to see more CEOs with less focus on leadership and more focus on creativity, accountability and ethics, but that's a separate issue.

Likewise, Product Managers should diversify their skill sets to ensure that they can accommodate the wide audiences that they are exposed to and the varied set of tasks they are charged with executing. Leadership, influence, and execellence are all good, but they are not enough. Sometimes, they can be too much.

Ivan Chalif

bob said...

Ivan and Jim,

All good points. Thanks for the comments.

When I'm focusing on "leadership", it's to suggest what I feel is "most important". Like many qualities, it encompasses a whole constellation of actual skills, attitudes and traits.

Do I value ethics? Sure. Creativity? You betcha. But I value leadership most in my CEOs. I'll evaluate whether I want to follow them based on how well my own ethics harmonize with theirs.