We’re all familiar with the trope that ‘product managers are like mini-CEOs’ that became popular in the last five-years or so - here’s an example of an article from The Next Web that put the trop to use in 2013. The counter-arguments are starting to emerge too, like Martin Eriksson’s article from 2017 entitled Product Managers - You Are Not the CEO of Anything. This post is another reason why product managers are not like CEOs - in short because we need people like CEOs to give us goals so we can do what we do best: figure out how to meet those goals.
Where did the product manager as mini-CEO trope come from?
Ben Horowitz wrote a famous memo over twenty-years ago in which he referred to the product manager as the ‘CEO of the product’. That same memo is published online but now has the following disclaimer:
“This document was written 15 years ago and is probably not relevant for today’s product managers.”
Product Marketing for Technology Companies by Mark Butje (2005) also refers to product managers as CEO’s - but with a significant caveat:
“The product manager is a weird person - someone who takes on an enormous amount responsibility without actually being in charge. Sort of like a CEO but without the hierarchic power.”
I think this is interesting and rings true. CEOs are in charge and have power. We (product managers) are not in charge and do not have power. We have influece but not authority.
The important difference between business strategy and product strategy
What is ‘power’ or ‘authority’ in this context, and why don’t we (product managers) hold it?
The answer may lie in the difference between business strategy and product strategy. Roman Pichler’s recent article - Why Product People Should Care About Business Strategy - summarises this well:
“Business strategy - how will the business succeed? Product strategy - how will the product succeed?”
A good CEO owns business strategy - setting the vision for what the business will achieve and providing the basis for making the right investment decisions.
A good product manager - in this case probably a product leader like a Head of Product or a Product Director - sets the vision for how business’ products will support the business strategy.
“The business strategy states how the company will be successful, whereas the product strategy describes how […] product[s] will achieve success.”
A good CEO does have overall ‘authority’ for their organisation as a whole - in that they own the overall business strategy. We (product managers - even the most senior product leaders) influence our organisation through product strategy - how our products support our overall product strategy.
And that is another reason why product managers are not mini-CEOs.
The Lean Enterprise gives some great tips on how an organisation and its leaders can use both business strategy and product strategy.
Financial Times’ talks on its use of the principles similar to those outlined in The Lean Enterprise are useful in helpig to understand what this looks like in reality. Here’s a talk by Cait O’Riordan (Chief Product Officer) and another talk by Bede McCarthy (Product Director).