I am getting the feel that many people in the industry nowadays perceive Product Management (and Product Ownership) as a role devoid of any major responsibility. I disagree. When it comes to the success of the product, Product Manager bears no less responsibility than the CEO. Therefore, Product Manager should act in a similar manner as the CEO.
I’ll start this discussion by quoting an excellent article “Product Managers – You Are Not the CEO of Anything”
written by Martin Eriksson. In this article Eriksson revises the (in)famous article “Good Product Manager Bad Product Manager”
by Ben Horowitz.
“Product managers simply don’t have any direct authority over most of the things needed to make their products successful – from user and data research through design and development to marketing, sales, and support. Even today’s most senior product leaders only have hiring and firing control over their direct reports – other product managers. Does that sound like any CEO you know? A CEO, on the other hand, stands truly alone, with ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of not just the company but every product in it.” - Martin Eriksson
The argument goes on to say that, while most Product Managers choose to make hard decisions by themselves, Product Managers always have the ability to pass on the decision to the CEO and avoid responsibility of making the choice. Because of that, Product Managers do not have the same authority as CEOs do. I don’t think that this is a fair correlation, because just as every Product Manager has a CEO and a group of stakeholders that they respond to, each CEO has the executive board. Can most of the CEOs invest 1 billion dollars without getting the approval of the board first? Just like the Product Managers are not lone geniuses designing products from ivory towers, same goes for CEOs nowadays - they are not mythical demigods leading companies from other planes of existence.
Responsibility vs Authority
Now, I am not saying that Product Managers are mini-CEOs, just leveled one notch down in the organization in the terms of authority.
What I think that Horowitz meant when was writing the well-known sentence is that the level of responsibility is the same when it comes to the product itself.
”Bad product managers have lots of excuses: not enough funding, the engineering manager is an idiot, Microsoft has 10 times as many engineers working on it, I'm overworked, I don't get enough direction.” - Ben Horowitz
While most of Product Managers cannot fire employees from other departments, like Marketing or Sales, no Product Managers should be allowed to have that as an excuse. Product Managers have the responsibility to use any available means needed for the product to succeed. I have stumbled upon an interesting article
by Marty Cagan from SVPG
dealing with this topic:
“There are some aspects of the CEO role that are very relevant, and others not so much. The obvious way it’s not like a CEO is the lack of authority. But they understand that the Product Manager does need to take responsibility for decisions and they see that as similar, albeit they are usually lesser impact decisions.” - Marty Cagan
If marketing is not doing the required job, Product Managers should talk to the Head of Marketing, or whoever responsible, to resolve the situation. If Product Managers perceive that the engineering velocity does not satisfy the requirements, Product Managers need to raise their concerns to the CTO. If the company culture has issues that impact the product KPIs, Product Managers need to escalate that with the internal stakeholders and the HR. The list goes on… But one thing that Product Managers do not have a luxury of doing is to provide excuses for the product failure. Neither do CEOs.
To do the job well, Product Managers need to act like leaders, not authoritarians. Eriksson points out that very clearly. I believe that same goes for CEOs. Thinking about it, my conclusion is that the very best CEOs are also leaders, not authoritarians. Maybe some of the most famous CEOs had the tendency to act like authoritarians for the bigger part (just think of Steve Jobs’ approach), but they were leaders first and foremost.
It is worthy of notice that there is one difference in the leadership aspect between CEOs and Product Managers: Product Managers always need to be prepared to get publicly questioned by anybody in the organization about each and every decision made. The only way a Product Managers can defend their product decisions is with the knowledge and the data. They do not get to have that information is classified for a good reason moment, as CEOs might have sometimes.
Barring that transparency moment, I do not see any reason why Product Managers should act any different than CEOs when it comes to the product success. Do whatever it takes for your product to succeed. Care about your company. Make tough decisions and own them. Be thoughtful. Stay humble.