I recently engaged in a short Twitter thread on the “CEO of the Product” topic.

If you’ve been in product management for any period of time, you’ve undoubtedly heard someone use the metaphor that a “Product Manager is the CEO of the Product.

It’s one of several metaphors used to describe product management. Others are:

  • Hub of the wheel
  • Voice of the customer
  • Gap filler or Glue

Each has some basis in reality. but none, particularly “gap filler” and “glue” remotely do justice to what Product Management is about.

The CEO/Product thread started as a tweet about a line that Marty Cagan had at a ProductTank Talk in London last week. Cagan himself tweeted the following to help clarify his words.

If you read Cagan’s post (and you should), he talks about the struggles he’s had with the metaphor. There are good insights in the post and I agree with much of what he says on areas like lack of proper education for PMs, the broad cross-functional nature of the role, the variety of skills required etc. He also points out the similarities between a CEO and a PM. e.g.

“In an early stage startup, all of the above work is still necessary, but it’s almost always a co-founder, often the actual CEO, that does this. So in that case the same person is CEO of the company, and CEO of the product.

But as companies scale, it because untenable for the CEO to perform this role for all of the company’s products.

All that is to say, I now believe that it is more important and valuable to emphasize to the new product manager the many ways that the product management job is like a CEO, rather than to avoid the phrase in fear of unleashing some Kraken within.”

So here’s why I disagree with that reasoning above. And just to be clear, none of this is to say that Cagan is wrong and I’m right. I think he speaks well for himself and his views. I simply have another view that makes more sense to me and has worked well for me over the years.

The analogy is weak

First, as Cagan states “often the actual CEO” does the work. But also often, it’s not the actual CEO doing the work. It might be another founder, or a CTO or CPO etc. If either of those were the case, would we refer to the PM as the “CTO of the product” or “CPO of the product”? Of course not.

Additionally, the CEO may also be the chief sales person. So why don’t we extend the CEO analogy over to Sales? i.e. when they hire the first sales person? Or if they are involved in leading the marketing efforts, why don’t we extend the CEO analogy to Marketing?

You see the issue. It’s a selective designation of the work that the early stage CEO may do, just because there is overlap in focus. It’s an edge case that is being extended as a general pattern.

The analogy emphasizes the wrong attributes

Second, although some aspects of Product Management may bear resemblance to that of a CEO’s job, the title CEO has VERY strong connotations of positional authority, being “the boss”, having budgetary and hiring/firing power etc.

Those are precisely the wrong attributes to convey onto the role of a Product Manager. The good attributes to convey would be the cross-functional nature of the role, and the leadership (by influence) aspects of the role.

One of the concerns Cagan had WRT using the CEO analogy is to convey the right image to “the new Product Manager”. But, if the analogy conveys the wrong attributes, then a better way is needed.

We need to stop using metaphors

I started in Product Management in 1997. I believe Marty started several years before me. Back then, specifically in software, the profession was young and many people didn’t understand it. It was convenient to use metaphors to bridge the knowledge gap. Thus the proliferation of several different ones.

When I got my first PM job, people asked me what I did. The dialogue went something like this:

Them: What does a Product Manager do?

Me: I don’t develop, market or sell the product, but I am responsible for ensuring that what we build is the right product and how we market and sell it is done as well as possible.”

Them: “OK, so you’re the boss then?

Me: “Well sort of, but not really.

Most conversations ended there and it didn’t really warrant further explanation. I never used the various analogies, but I remember others, including a couple of CEOs, using them to explain the role. “Hub of the wheel” was the most common one used.

That was then. More than 20 years later, how have we improved? On the plus side, product roles are EVERYWHERE. Product Management is reaching a critical mass. Many companies want to hire “product” people and be product-led etc.

On the minus side, the landscape has gotten terribly confusing. We’ve had a proliferation of product roles. Back in the 90s, we had Product Managers (PMs) and to a lesser extent Product Marketing Managers (PMMs) within the overall product org. That was it. Now we have many product related roles. Here are just a few:

  • Product Managers
  • Product Marketing Managers
  • Product Owners
  • Product Designers
  • Technical Product Managers
  • Product Strategists

There’s a lot of confusion over what these roles are and how they are related to one another. We need to get beyond weak metaphors and be able to clearly articulate what we do and who does what.

Because if we can’t clearly articulate what Product Managers do, and clearly distinguish that from what others do, then how can we expect OTHER departments to understand what we do?

And how can we expect companies to efficiently hire, utilize, educate, and develop product managers? We are doing ourselves and our profession a huge injustice.

A better way forward

After more than 20 years, is it not possible to come up with a brief description/analogy that is better than the problematic “CEO of the product”?

I think so. In fact I know so. If I were to have that same “What does a PM do?” conversation today, it would look like this:

Them: What does a Product Manager do?

Me: I am a cross-functional leader focused on driving product success.

Them: “OK, so you’re the boss then?

Me: “Not a boss, but a leader who helps the entire product team achieve our goals.

That’s it. Those two attributes:

  1. cross-functional leadership
  2. driving product success

are all that is needed to describe the role. It’s NOT a metaphor. It’s a short description of they key attributes that is clear, unambiguous and minimizes potential misinterpretation.

And, in my personal opinion, using this description is the least we can do to start reducing the ongoing confusion that reigns over our profession.


Saeed Khan is a founder of Transformation Labs and has worked for over 20 years in high-technology companies building and managing market leading products. He speaks regularly at industry events on the topic of product management and product leadership. You can contact him via Twitter @saeedwkhan or via the Contact Us page.