More than 20 years ago, tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist Ben Horowitz wrote that a good product manager is the CEO of the product. Many product managers disagree with this analogy, but it has some truth.
Senior product managers often form strong relationships with the C-suite as they navigate transitional states, undefined objectives, and competing stakeholders. A product manager’s knack for clarity is pivotal in times of change when CEOs are more vulnerable. In these moments, pressure from boards and pushback from employees can thwart strategic transformation, risking revenue and careers. By contracting a generalist product manager to manage relationships with stakeholders, CEOs can gain operational insights and buy-in for products and initiatives at all levels of an organization.
Why Product Managers Make Great Deputies
Everyone likes a product manager. Or, at least, no one is threatened by them. That’s because product managers have no authority outside of the product team. Their aim is to ensure the product roadmap solves compelling problems and addresses user priorities. To do that, they must study the ins and outs of each business unit, building rapport along the way.
Consequently, stakeholders feel safe answering questions that could expose vulnerabilities or cause misunderstandings. As an example, one of my clients, a for-profit university group, was acquired in a leveraged buyout, and the new board ordered employees to digitize decades-old processes. But the board’s guidance was vague and didn’t make sense in every scenario, leading some stakeholders to ignore directives or quietly improvise their own workflows. Had this been discovered, leadership would have penalized these stakeholders for going off-script. But their behavior was a pragmatic response to systemic problems they had no authority to eliminate. I documented these top-down problems, not the stakeholder workarounds, as serious pain points we needed to resolve.
A product manager uses cultural information to map the company’s de facto processes, then shares problem-solving recommendations with the C-suite. Here’s how they go about it.
How Product Managers Approach Key Stakeholders
An experienced product manager will build rapport with stakeholders to identify problems at the start of a project, negotiate solutions to those problems, and ensure that the solutions are viable. This process requires a series of steps that leverage the product manager’s soft skills and a broad array of hard skills.
At the start of a project, the product manager will hold one-on-one meetings to allow stakeholders to speak freely about their pain points without the risk of retaliation. If there isn’t time to meet with every stakeholder, the product manager will target a subset with the most influence. These stakeholders are often long-tenured managers or contributors who understand the organization’s structural issues and serve as mentors to their colleagues.
Next, the product manager will divide teams into small discussion groups to learn how they function. Keeping these meetings small ensures that individuals feel comfortable airing grievances, suggestions, or anxieties. By the end of the listening phase, the product manager will have captured critical details about each stakeholder’s workflow and constraints.
The product manager will then use a tool like Miro or diagrams.net to map relational workflows, data structures, and organizational dependencies to launch further discussion with stakeholders. This map introduces leadership to on-the-ground realities and shows workers that other colleagues share their roadblocks and objectives. The map also facilitates the roadmapping process later on, helping to identify known and unknown risks to the organization, from counterproductive workflows to looming disruptions that could affect healthy business units.
At this point, some contract product managers will deliver a tidy summary and some good-looking slides before signing off for good. This is not who you want to hire. A good generalist product manager will stick around to collaborate on stakeholder-led solutions that work and hand off day-to-day troubleshooting to an in-house product manager once the project is running smoothly.
After drawing the map, the product manager will start problem-solving, starting with each stakeholder’s most straightforward pain points. This exercise should yield immediate benefits for the organization at large. However, remember that the product manager should not get too embedded within a particular business function, or they risk becoming part of the dysfunction they are trying to solve.
Instead, the product manager should organize larger, cross-functional projects and implement information-sharing processes to preempt siloing and friction. The product manager may select representatives from each relevant business unit (often talented but underutilized team members) to collaborate on the project.
Suppose sales and marketing need better alignment. In this case, the product manager might hold a weekly working group with one marketer and one sales representative to organize their teams’ objectives and processes and evaluate new customer relationship management (CRM) systems. These representatives would then report their findings to their respective teams.
Mediating among stakeholders is the most delicate but rewarding stage for product managers. Techniques may vary, but my approach to mediation is simple:
Organize a meeting and include all stakeholders who will use or be affected by the product. The invite list should include the functions that other stakeholders tend to overlook when planning major changes. These functions vary between organizations but often include customer service, human resources, or finance. Extending invitations to as many stakeholders as possible ensures that no one derails the product out of self-interest, or fails to adopt the solution in favor of back channels.
Based on the meeting notes, draw a rough map of the functions’ overlapping and competing interests and priorities to find points of commonality and conflict.
Lobby each team by identifying how it will benefit from an initiative. If a team sees no upside to projects that inconvenience it, it will opt out or resist. Say the CRM working group decides the engineers must update the current platform to incorporate new lead generation tools for the sales team. The resulting disruption could last for months and heavily impact marketing’s performance. To get marketing’s buy-in, the product manager must explain the long-term advantages to the marketing team, such as improved automation features.
Reconvene the stakeholders and offer one or two creative alternatives to the main proposal in case it fails to gain consensus. If stakeholders can’t agree on a solution, the product manager should select one and explain why it’s the best option.
Repeat meetings with individual stakeholders to solicit feedback and explain the plan’s impact on them and their teams. The goal is to have blunt discussions that the product manager can use to craft a compromise.
Outline an action plan and ensure stakeholders understand that their thoughts and time are vital and will generate value for the organization.
At the end of this process, stakeholders will view the product manager as a friendly mediator and start involving them in regular information exchanges. Product managers able to work across functions and with many stakeholders can help eliminate inefficiencies and silos throughout the company.
How CEOs Get Lost in the Corporate Fog
The “fog of war” is a term derived from the treatise On War by Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz. It refers to the necessity of making operational decisions with incomplete information. This fog also develops in changing organizations, such as early-stage startups or more established companies in the throes of a scale-up or digital transformation. Activist boards demand quick results, while anxious employees resist change, fight over resources, or withhold information from leadership and one another. Meanwhile, new functional overlaps and unforeseen dependencies add complexity, deepening the chaos.
In the case of the university group client I mentioned earlier, educators, administrators, and staff were slow to implement new processes because the processes were confusing or ill-suited for a specific context. When the board’s new vision failed to manifest quickly, it fired the CEO. By the time I arrived, the board had replaced the entire C-suite twice in one year, to little effect.
Executives are often too busy managing direct reports and board expectations to monitor operational minutiae. When performance lags, they may exert broad pressure, worsening fissures and dysfunction within the company. An experienced product manager can break this vicious cycle by exploring all levels of the organization, gathering information, and organizing initiatives.
Product Managers Are Allies, Not Competitors
After the CEO, the senior product manager has the most significant transverse role within a company, constructing webs of relationships and influencing culture and strategic direction. This influence can seem threatening to CEOs, particularly if the product manager strays out of their lane. For example, an overenthusiastic product manager might suggest changing the company’s strategy or propose initiatives outside the scope of their assignment. The stress of fending off a rogue product manager can lead CEOs to micromanage, slowing decision-making and reducing autonomy throughout the organization.
CEOs and other C-suiters should remember that it’s unlikely a wayward product manager has ulterior motives. While the job does have some soft skill overlap with the CEO and even the COO, it lacks many of the demands of those roles. Product managers don’t deal with investors or the press like a CEO, or payroll and hiring like a COO, and that’s part of the role’s appeal. But, ultimately, trust will depend on the unique relationship between the CEO and product manager, particularly in smaller companies. Skills and experience are important when evaluating a product manager, but trust will make the difference between a counterproductive power struggle and a transformative collaboration.