Whose Product is it Anyway? Nurturing the PM/CEO Relationship

In early-stage leadership product roles, the fit between the product lead and the CEO is paramount. When there is clarity and alignment, the product leader becomes supercharged. However, when this connection is lacking, it can lead to a breakdown.

In this article, I’ll explore tips on how to identify a strong product opportunity during the interview process and how to nurture the PM/CEO relationship for greater success.

Understand the CEO’s Vision for the Product Role

The product lead role is delightfully wide-ranging, requiring a diverse set of skills ranging from business acumen and strategy to technical delivery and operations. This broad scope is why I love working in product management. However, it is crucial to grasp which specific aspects of the product role the CEO expects you to emphasize. Having clarity on whether the role is more focused on vision/strategy or operational/services will set the stage for a strong partnership.

Recognize the CEO as the OG Product Lead

Almost universally, the CEO or Founder serves as the original product lead within their organization. They often have formal product management experience or assumed PM responsibilities during the company’s founding. Over time, the CEO’s role evolves to encompass fundraising, sales, talent management, and more. There comes a point when the product function should be professionalized under dedicated leadership, but this transition can be challenging for the CEO. It is critical to discuss expectations regarding this handoff and the division of labor moving forward. Expect some backseat driving or ‘takebacks’ in responsibility post-handoff. This transition must be discussed openly and continuously.

Manage Your Manager

The product role is highly collaborative, and at leadership levels, the responsibility for people/peer management often outweighs the ‘hard’ skills typically associated with an individual contributor PM (such as design, data, tech, road-mapping, etc.). Devote time to building relationships with your executive leader. I recommend a combination of dedicated 1:1 meetings and clear documentation at different altitudes, from up-to-date high-level product strategy documents to granular roadmaps. Humanize this relationship by creating an environment where you can discuss what’s going well and what needs further development. Prioritize conversations about “how we work together” as much as “what we’re working on.”

Keep Your Eyes Open

As a product leader, you have a unique perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of your executive leader. While you can nurture most relationships to success, some relationships cannot be improved. If you genuinely cannot regain confidence in your executive leader or restore the relationship, it may be a sign that you should start exploring new professional opportunities.

By focusing on these key aspects, you can strengthen the PM/CEO relationship and drive success in your early-stage leadership product role. Remember, the fit between the product lead and the CEO is essential for a thriving partnership. Open communication and mutual understanding are key ingredients for fostering that fit.