Is a PM the CEO of a product?

This is one we’ve all heard time and again — the idea of a PM being the “CEO of their product” is, in my humble opinion (and much of the internet’s), the most common misconception around product management. It originated in a good place — in Ben Horowitz’s Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager. However, as Horowitz himself notes in a disclaimer, that article was written years ago and while there is a lot that is good and relevant in the piece and it’s well worth reading, the “CEO” idea has spun out of control.

The comparison was intended as a way to highlight the similarities in the roles (motivating and enabling teams, being accountable), and in that sense it is useful, but the differences between the roles are stark and if taken without any critical thought it’s easy to completely miss the point. That hasn’t stopped the sentiment from taking hold — I have heard some sort of variation on this statement ad nauseam from students and others who are sort of familiar with product management, and I get it. It might look to a layperson like the two roles share enough characteristics to make this statement… but there are some very crucial differences, and calling yourself a “mini CEO” as a PM candidate (or worse, as a newly minted PM) is a great way to fail. Let’s break it down a little bit.

In terms of what the roles share, there is a great deal of overlap in terms of soft skills.

As a PM, you’re responsible for the success or failure of your product (or, more realistically if you’re not at a tiny startup and/or are a more early-career PM, your feature). You are answerable to stakeholders and delivering on what you say you will. You may have gleaned this from other PM reading, but the PM owns failures and the team owns successes. Every PM experiences this. You hustle to get it done, and there is no better feeling than shipping a feature and celebrating the collective hard work and success of the team. However, if you fail to ship, if something goes wrong, if you make the wrong decisions, if nobody uses your product, you are responsible. This isn’t the end of the world — if you’ve been doing your PM job right, then you’ve been adequately communicating upwards and managing expectations and you’ll just have to dust yourself off and keep going. TL;DR: much as a CEO is responsible for the success or failure of the company, you’re responsible for your product and there is no passing the buck as a PM — it stops with you.

You are responsible for your strategy. This means you need to both define and sell your vision to both internal and external stakeholders. You figure out the roadmap, prioritization, and make the call on any tradeoffs (and there will be tradeoffs!). Product management is a team sport and the healthiest product teams take product input from engineering, design, sales, and others — but ultimately, if there are differences of opinion, you are the expert on what the customer needs and you make the final calls on the “what” of the thing you are creating (but not the “how” — that’s a story for a different time).

You define what success means (and how to measure it) and you drive a cross-functional team to achieve it. Many people contribute to product development. In a given day, you might work with engineering, design, program management, support or advocacy, sales, marketing, and many others. These folks will be following your lead, and you are responsible for setting the North Star and guiding everyone toward it. More tactically, you also decide what to measure, how to measure it, and share that information more broadly.

To sum it up — being a PM requires general leadership capability. No surprises there!

However, the delta between CEO and PM is enormous in a few key areas. Not only are the responsibilities of the job fundamentally different, but the tools at your disposal are, too. Let’s check out just a few of the most critical ways that PMs are not like CEOs at all.

You aren’t responsible for P&L. You may help drive revenue, but you won’t have explicit goals tied to it. You don’t control budgets, you don’t determine headcount, you don’t touch a lot of the actual business function. Many PMs decry their lack of resourcing for projects, and you really don’t have any control over this area, either (you can try to influence the heck out of it, though!).

You don’t have any real authority. You’ll see this come up repeatedly in PM job descriptions and likewise, I see it frequently in resumes: “The ability to influence without authority.” This is because generally, as an individual contributor product manager, you are not anybody’s boss. Unless you have a very unusual org structure, none of the cross-functional partners you rely on to ship your product actually report to you. You can’t, and shouldn’t, tell anyone what to do. Even as you become a people manager, you still only manage other PMs. CEOs are everybody’s boss. PMs are nobody’s boss. This is why it’s crucial to build solid relationships with your team — you need them to trust you, and you need to trust them, but you are absolutely not their boss. Good CEOs lead with influence, but they have authority to back it up; PMs don’t.

Don’t be like this guy.

There are many, many people with more decision-making power than you. Yes, you are responsible for your product strategy and vision, but it is malleable — but there are myriad people who can influence, change, or veto your carefully thought-through roadmap. CEOs are answerable to the board, but a PM is answerable to… everyone. You’ll need to not only come up with your roadmap, but sell it and defend it (and you’ll need to gracefully facilitate when business needs supersede your wishes). People who might have sway over your roadmap include folks higher up in your PM org (if they disagree with overall product direction, or they decide something else is more important right now), leaders from other orgs (for example, reallocating engineering time to drive down tech debt as an engineering initiative), and the executive team.

To sum it up, good PMs do share skills with CEOs. They have leadership and the ability to work across functions and unite a team behind a vision and drive to execute, and they are accountable for the results of these efforts. But if you are new to product and you arrive thinking you’re the CEO, you’re in for a rude awakening! If you’re interested in building things customers love and flexing skills like collaboration, diplomacy, creativity and resourcefulness… if you have a willingness to get in the weeds and work across teams to get things done… if you’re comfortable navigating ambiguity… you have what it takes to succeed as a PM, without the authority of a CEO. You’ll have much better luck in interviews and out in the world when interacting with other PMs and stakeholders if you approach product management as a cooperative process.

Senior PM @ Zendesk