Being the CEO of the Product

As product managers, we are taught to look for market problems that people are willing to pay to solve.  Have you ever thought about turning that around and applying it to your career development efforts?

When I first took on the role of product manager I had the idea of using job postings to conduct market research on what hiring managers were looking for.  A job posting is a direct way for hiring managers (i.e. your target market) to indicate exactly what problems they are willing to pay to solve.

What is the most demanded quality of a product manager?

Steve Jobs Visionary CEO and Product Manager
Steve Jobs Visionary CEO and Product Manager

After collecting and analyzing over 20 job postings, the most often requested product manager quality is to be the “CEO of the product.”  Hiring managers are saying “the typical candidate doesn’t take full ownership of the product in which they are responsible for.”  This is the problem.

While contemplating this, I recently ran across some excellent articles on the Andreessen Horowitz blog (AH) about how they evaluate and think about the CEO’s that they invest in.  Marc Andreessen, Ben Horowitz and their partners represent some of the smartest money in the valley so when they wrote about what they look for in a CEO a lightbulb went off in my head.

I’ve combined their main points with my own experience about how these concepts can apply to product management.


What I love about Product Management is that it is the ultimate leadership position.  Unlike the CEO, you have no direct reports and yet you have to influence every department in the company to align behind a vision.  This requires a broad set of operational skills because you have to be able to speak in the language of engineering, design, marketing, sales, and the executives who are funding the project.

You must create an environment where every employee is productive and aligned with the vision.  This can be like herding cats, but that’s exactly why it’s a valued skill.  My greatest takeaway from my days managing large enterprise software projects was to establish milestones that the team bought into and then create an atmosphere where everyone feels as if they are on a mission from God to get there.  The team needs you to push them, to set the right objectives, and to establish a high bar for execution and quality.  Most importantly, they need to believe that what they are being asked to do will lead to something great.

As a leader you also need to have the “right kind” of ambition to make the company successful.  Shipping a product is not about your personal goals.  The only way to get smart people to believe in the vision is to lead in a way that makes it clear that shipping the product will be a significant achievement towards something bigger.

Talk to Customers

Creating a great product and achieving product/market fit starts with deeply solving someone’s problem.  To solve someone else’s problem you have to spend significant time with people who use or will use your product to observe the problem first hand.  I encounter countless people who dismiss this advice because the problem seems “obvious”.  Don’t fall into this mental trap, be humble, learn to listen and I guarantee you will learn something that would have never occurred to you if you didn’t experience it yourself.

A note about most business software settings, the buyer and the user are almost always two different people.  Both groups will have unique requirements for the product.  In practice, you have to make a point to spend significant time talking to the end users of the product too.  Their pain points are generally invisible until you get close enough to them to see what they deal with on a daily basis.  It’s like the first time you saw an HD sports broadcast and began to notice the blades of grass on a football field.  You need that resolution to see the problem in full detail.

A good product manager will spend up to a third of their time working with both buyers and users of the product.  They will get to know these people, build personal relationships, and begin to sympathize with them.  The feedback you get will be invaluable for setting the “right” vision for the product… the one that will resonate with the market.

Be the keeper of the vision

To be a great product manager you don’t have to be the visionary who came up with the genius idea.  That’s not even how it works for the greatest visionaries.  This is an extremely valuable lesson.  If you aren’t the next Steve Jobs, don’t worry because you can still be a great CEO or Product Manager!

You do need to be the keeper of the vision.  Great ideas can come from anywhere, and woven together, ideas can be formed into a compelling story.  You must shape, mold, and then carry this story forward as the keeper of the vision.

If new market evidence comes in and the vision needs to pivot, the product manager has to lead that change.  It’s ok to listen and to adapt but you must keep the vision alive at all times and carry it forward.

From practical experience, I’ve found that if you are working with bright people, there will always be a steady flow of new ideas coming in.  As product manager you have to first listen, understand, and decide to either weave the idea into the vision or get the team to refocus on yours.  If your team is “on a mission from God” you can’t afford to spend any more time on an idea that dilutes or distracts from the vision.  See section on leadership.

At any given moment, the product manager must be able to succinctly and convincingly articulate the vision.  If you don’t feel like you are constantly repeating yourself, you aren’t communicating the vision enough and the team will eventually fracture.  The vision must be strong, believable, and repeated often to hold the team together.  If it needs to change, it must change.

Final Thoughts

Bringing the CEO mindset into the job is what good hiring managers are looking for you to do.  The general problem they are trying to solve is avoiding PM’s who are just tactical order takers or project coordinators.  The market is looking for people

with leadership ability who can build a vision, communicate it effectively, and own the results.  Adopting this mindset will not only help you in your career but it might just get you one step closer to being the CEO one day too.

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