How To Be Strategic Even if You Can’t Set the Tone

When the CEO sets the strategy, what is your role as a product leader? How can you be strategic when the strategy is set by someone else? Surprisingly, there is no contradiction there, and in most cases, there is more room for you than you think. You just have to know where to look for it.
Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash

M. is the CPO of a hype scale-up. When we were working on building their strategic roadmap, he asked me a great question: “why do I need to start with the strategy, and specifically when presenting to management? It was management who set the strategy anyway, so they already know it”.

This reflects the common misconception that strategy is a very high-level thing. When working from this misconception, the strategy remains very thin – a general direction usually, and once it’s set, the only thing you can do is execute on it.

Fortunately for us product leaders, this is not the case. Unfortunately, many product leaders haven’t thought this through and feel more bounded by the CEO’s guidelines than they should be. Switching your point of view on strategy can go a long way in helping you become more strategic, so here is a quick guide.

The Definition of Strategy

According to Wikipedia, Strategy is “a high-level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty”. While it is indeed high-level, there are parts of this definition that are usually not included in the strategy set by the CEO. 

First and foremost, it’s an actual plan, not just a direction. But most companies don’t come up with a plan as part of their strategy. That is rightfully perceived as the CPO’s job, but in many cases, both the management and the CPOs themselves see the plan as a tactical, execution-related task. Per the definition above, a plan can still be very strategic, and you better be planning at the strategic level before you get to the tactical planning, or you might completely lose your direction

The other thing that is often missing from the strategy set by the CEO is the goals, and more importantly, why these are the right goals to set. Without understanding why we want to do anything, it is nearly impossible to succeed. Setting clear goals with detailed reasoning behind them is a must before you can start planning or executing anything.

Here are some examples of strategies that I have seen CEOs set:

We currently sell services, however, this is not scalable. We should develop a platform that will allow our customers to do it themselves.

Customers in the specific market segment we are operating in are unhappy with the products our competitors offer. Generally, people are already losing faith in this type of solution. By bringing in new, innovative technology, we can deliver a product that customers are truly happy with.

We should sell our product to the largest enterprises out there since they are the only ones who can afford the price we want to charge for it.

These are all real examples, and in all of them, the CPO was explicitly instructed to build a plan to deliver a product that supports this strategy as an immediate next step. The CEOs usually see this as a straightforward implementation of their general guidelines, and many CPOs don’t challenge that. 

But if we go back to the definition of strategy above, you can see that the strategy isn’t complete yet at all, and planning a product release should only be a few steps ahead.

They Don’t Know What To Ask for

Unless the CEO has been a CPO before or has worked with an experienced one, they will most likely not see the gap. They might feel that something is missing, but they wouldn’t really know what it is exactly, and it goes without saying that they can’t guide you in closing this gap. Therefore, they ask for what they think makes sense – a concrete plan for a product, so that development work can start. 

But just because they can’t see it, doesn’t mean that the gap isn’t there. As a product leader, it is your responsibility to close this gap, even if you weren’t asked to do so, and even if you don’t see it yourself. Start looking for the gap in order to find it.

Once you do, you don’t necessarily need to start explaining that there is a gap and that you should be doing something other than what you were asked to do next. This is most likely to cause tension and misunderstanding since the importance of product strategy is something that is very hard to explain theoretically. Instead, my recommendation is to start by adding a strategic layer when you plan the product and roadmap so that you will be closing the strategic gap while doing what you were asked to do.

Leadership Within Leadership

Another misconception that I would like to address here is that if management has set the strategy that means that they have it thought through and figured out completely. In fact, this is rarely the case.

Marc Porat, who was the CEO of General Magic and worked on inventing the smartphone back in 1994, described his experience of the CEO’s role in a rare and candid way as part of an interview he gave last year:

It was very lonely. Generally, the CEO is a very lonely job. No one ever tells you the truth. I would say something and find out that people spent 3 months to understand what I was really trying to say. OMG, it was just an idea, not an order.

Even if your CEO is not as aware, or perhaps even does give orders, it still doesn’t mean that it is fully thought of. And here is your opportunity to shine, as well as your responsibility for the company’s success: help them understand what they meant. Help other members of the management team to remember why they thought it was a good idea to begin with. 

There are a number of ways for you to help your CEO and your colleagues make sound decisions:

  • Reflect back to them on what you understand from their idea. Hearing it back helps them think about it from a different perspective, and also tells them that you are genuinely trying to understand them.
  • Ask why they think it is a good idea. Usually, there is a good reason, but they are not able to express it so easily. If you can’t get answers from them or don’t feel comfortable asking directly, try to make up a theory that would make this a good idea, and take it back to them. It is much easier for people to address a theory presented to them than to create a theory themselves.
  • Take their idea to the next level of detail. It exposes gaps that the high-level guidance doesn’t address. Ideally, you should come up with a solution for those gaps, or at least a good alternative for them to agree to.

Your leadership role doesn’t end when the CEO gives you a general direction and expects you to follow. In some ways, it only starts there.

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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