CEO and Product Leader Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

The relationship between tech CEOs and their product leader is often challenging to manage but is super impactful on the company's success. Here is what it looks like, and some advice on how to improve it for both sides.
Photo by Frank Busch on Unsplash

The relationship between tech CEOs and their product leader (CPO, VP Product or Head of Product) is one of the most challenging to manage, and one of the most impactful on the company’s business results. There is so much overlap (in reality, not in the ideal situation), and while both want to lead the company to success conflict is inevitable.

Being both the CEO and the product leader for my company, I run into these conflicts with myself quite often. It looks something like this:

Noa-CEO: “I want us to have a facebook group for CEOs.”
Noa-Product: (rolling her eyes inside but smiling nicely) “OK, why?”
Noa-CEO: (taking a deep breath)
Noa-Product: (waiting, eyes on Noa-CEO)
Noa-CEO: “Becuase I want CEOs to understand how important product leadership is.”
Noa-Product: “OK, and what are we going to do in this group?”
Noa-CEO: “Have a thriving community of CEOs who see that we can help them with strategic product issues.”
Noa-Product: “I’m not sure I understand how it’s going to work exactly.”
Noa-CEO: (losing patience) “What’s not to understand? Communities are the new way to engage your customers and sell more. Everyone does that!”
Noa-Product: “OK, OK. So let me see if I follow what you are saying.”
 “You want to reach more CEOs, and convince them that solid product leadership is important.”
Noa-CEO: “Right.”
Noa-Product: “And that if they need help, we are the ones who can help them.”
Noa-CEO: (slowly calming down) “Exactly.”
Noa-Product: “And you think the right way to do it is through a facebook group that we will run.”
Noa-CEO: “Correct.”
Noa-Product: “OK. Why would they join our group?”
Noa-CEO: (losing temper but trying not to show it) “I don’t know, that’s Noa-Marketing’s job. Talk to her.”

Noa-Product: (confused, knows something is missing but not sure what to do)

Noa-CEO: “Are we done here?”
Noa-Product: “Yes, just one last question…”
Noa-CEO: (annoyed) “Go ahead…”
Noa-Product: “If you as a CEO don’t think product leadership is important, why would you go to a facebook group to talk about product leadership?”
Noa-CEO: (losing it) “What? What do you want from me? Can we just do the facebook group or what?”
Noa-Product: (backing off) “We can, but we need to think it through.”
Noa-CEO: (sigh)
Noa-Product: “Look, we already decided to work on delivering the product-market fit lecture to a wider audience, and on the product executive training program. Once we are done with these I’ll go back to the facebook group and see what we can do, ok?”
Noa-CEO: (defeated) “OK. I never understand why everything is so hard with you but fine. I guess you know what you are doing.”

These debates happen in my head at least once a week, if not once a day. Since I believe in solid product leadership as the right way to lead the company forward (as Adam Fisher from Bessemer Venture Partners also said recently in his great article on product-market fit), Noa-CEO lets Noa-Product take the lead most of the time. But I want to assure you that it’s super hard for me to do so, despite all the confidence I have in my own product leadership skills. So when the CEO and product leader are not the same person, it’s even more complex and harder to do.

I have written a number of times in the past about specific CEO-Product conflicts and how to deal with them (for example here, here, and here). The common ground in all of the aforementioned pieces of advice is trying to understand the other side.

CEOs, your product leaders often don’t understand why you want certain things done. Take the time to explain it as clearly as you can. Repeat it if you need to. If you don’t have all the answers that’s fine — instead of trying to explain what you can’t explain, say it’s your gut feeling and ask the product leader’s help in connecting all the dots. It requires some research and thinking, so give them the time to do so.

Product leaders, help your CEOs organize their thoughts. That’s part of your job, although typically a secret, unspoken part. Make yourself their partners in leading the company and the product forward.

In the spirit of upcoming holidays and new year resolutions, I encourage you to make this relationship work well in 2020.

And a final thought for both sides:

I have noticed that the idea monster inside Noa-CEO raises its head when I feel things are not going as well as I hoped, or when I don’t see a clear path ahead. There are moments like that every day — when a prospect takes too long to respond or my post is not getting enough engagement. It doesn’t have to be about big things.

Many ideas — some good but many bad ones too — are a result of fear. If my KPIs are not as I expected — even temporarily, I become nervous. I feel an urge to do something — anything — to change it. It’s almost the fight-or-flight mechanism working. Instinct, not rational thinking.

Luckily for me, I have both the self-awareness and the product-awareness to remind myself to stop and think. While I often use the fear I feel as motivation to provoke action, it is almost never the same action I originally thought of. Taking a step back and thinking things through really helps. But you can’t do it if you don’t understand where you are coming from and exactly what’s bothering you right now.

Make yourself aware, and help others be aware too.

My free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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