Product Manager: CEO or Conductor

If you have been a product manager for any length of time you’ve undoubtedly come across the somewhat cliché comparison of Product Manager to CEO – often stated as “Product Manager is CEO of the Product”. One can certainly make the argument that product managers are concerned with all aspects of a product, like a CEO is concerned about all aspects of a business. One significant difference is that a CEO can order people whereas a product manager must influence people to get things done. This comparison did seem to make sense when I first heard it, but over time my perspective has changed.

I can recall a conversation with a CEO when I was in one of my early product management roles. The CEO stated, “Our jobs are actually similar, but when I tell people to do something they have to do it.” I thought about that for a moment and my response was that in the end, his challenge was the same as mine. Yes, he could order people about. But, unless he had a vision and had inspired and convinced his team to follow that vision, he was not going to get the results he wanted because he didn't really have a commitment from them. That conversation was the beginning of a shift in my thinking away from comparing the product manager role to that of a CEO, even though I acknowledge aspects of that comparison.

I have now come to a different viewpoint for product management. A better comparison for a product manager is with an orchestra conductor. Product managers conceive and deliver the right product. Orchestra conductors conceive a vision of a musical piece which is translated into a performance to an audience. Both the product manager and the orchestra conductor need to communicate their vision to their teams which then need to work together to bring it to life. Both the product manager and the conductor are concerned with every aspect of their product's success and lead the effort to coordinate the activity of many individuals with different skills to that end. While those individuals work with the product manager or conductor, they do not necessarily work for them. In summary, product manager and orchestra conductor alike need to communicate a vision: inspiring, influencing, and marshaling their team to bring the best of themselves to deliver a product that fully delivers on the promise of that vision.

Whether you agree with my comparison or not, I do hope that I have at least made you think about your role as a product manager, how you interface with the many people in your company, and how you can most effectively bring about your desired results.


Originally published in LinkedIn Pulse.