How Product Managers Deal With a Meddling CEO

product manager ceo

Oh boy. The CEO is back from a weeklong trip. After meeting with customers and sales leaders in the field — now back in the office with a vengeance. You know what is coming next. A slew of emails and new feature requests scribbled hastily on a whiteboard. Sure, there are some good ideas up there. But the one thing that is lacking? A stable product strategy behind it all.

It is exhausting fielding requests from a CEO who is deeply invested in the product yet has no clear vision of where it should go and why.

As a product manager, this leaves you managing the chaos and putting the right processes in place. It also leaves you with a big responsibility — to communicate a clear vision and drive that “leading with strategy” mindset that the team needs to succeed.

It would be terrific if the CEO and the leadership team had a consistent strategic outlook that could guide the product team’s decisions. But since this rarely happens, you must fill the void.

The key is to allow your strategy to guide what should be prioritized and what should be avoided.

So how can you make that happen? How can your vision be the vision?

Define the future
You cannot define the overarching vision for the whole company, but what you can and must do is document the “why” of the offering — your product vision as you see it. This will lay the foundation for your conversations with the CEO about their ideas and the direction of your product. It will help guide the decisions you make together.

Do your research
Talk to customers. This might feel like a lot of work, but it does not have to be. Start with a few conversations with your most active customers. Then look for patterns in your learnings. These will either validate the CEO’s ideas or it will help you bring perspective to something that likely will add little value. Your personal opinion will not be good enough to win key arguments — but your vision combined with stories of real customers can.

Build your case  
Now that you know what you want to accomplish, you need to drive your vision forward. Start by building a strategic roadmap that ties the work to the strategy. Then put together a roadmap presentation, specifically targeted at your CEO and the rest of leadership, to explain your thinking and show how your plan aligns with the overall business goals.

Keep pushing   
Backed by your research and data, you know that your plan is solid and that the team is on track for achieving the vision. Do not give up on that vision — especially when the CEO brings an idea to the table that would take you off course. Have honest and direct conversations with the CEO that are rooted in that plan for the future. Stay calm and rational as you continue to push for what is right for your product.

Get what you need  
The vision is set. Your plan is in place. Now it is time to manage the release process and coordinate all of the activities required to bring it to market. You need to have the capacity to do the work, and your colleagues need to come through on their part too. Now, the CEO is in a position to advocate for your product and help you secure resources. Keep nourishing your relationship and do not be shy about letting them know how they can best help you and the product.

Stressful as it may be, try to look at every interaction with your CEO as an opportunity.

Their participation in the product process gives you leverage — they are the best ally you could hope for. And it gives you access to insights you cannot get elsewhere.

So, the next time your CEO wants to talk to you about a big idea, do not think, “Uh oh.” Think, “Thank goodness. The vision for the product will tell us yes or no.”

What have you done when there was no consistent strategy for your product?

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About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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