The Product Manager vs. the CEO vs. the CTO
October 8, 2019

The Product Manager vs. the CEO vs. the CTO

by Brian de Haaff

Do you like tennis? If you like watching it live, you know that it is best to sit behind one of the players. Because if you are at mid-court, you may get dizzy snapping your head back and forth to follow the ball. And if you are a product manager caught watching angry volleys between a CEO and CTO, you also know the whiplash feeling.

So how do you avoid becoming nauseous when the CEO and CTO are engaged in vigorous competition?  

Tension between different function areas is not unique — especially in smaller or mid-sized companies where the product manager likely interacts directly with the CEO and CTO. But even at large enterprise companies, the dotted line exists. Whether that tension trickles down through other leaders or hangs heavy in the company culture, it usually has an impact on the overall team.

Let’s assume that this does not come from drama or infighting, but from leaders who have a strong perspective on what is best. The CEO has a real duty to the business’s growth and the CTO has a real duty to the infrastructure and technology. Things can get tricky when the CEO and CTO lose perspective that sustainable growth is needed. It can result in opposing priorities — with you as product manager stuck in the middle.

For example, sales and marketing may push for developing functionality to reach a new market, while the technology need is to work through technical debt before adding more complexity to the code base. Your product plans need to consider it all — navigating what is best for the business, the technical constraints and possibilities, and what your users need most.

It is important to remember that while you are on the same team, when one viewpoint wins, another often loses.  

It begins with understanding each person’s role. You can more effectively collaborate with senior leadership to negotiate all of those competing factors when you understand the goals and motivations of the people you are working with. Which means you can be a better product manager.

Here are a few tips on understanding the CEO and CTO roles, their different perspectives, and how to move your product and the business forward:

Strategic direction The product manager defines the product strategy and creates the product roadmap. This requires understanding and communicating the “why” behind what the team is building to the rest of the organization. Product goals should support the overall company vision set by the CEO and be technologically feasible.

The CEO sets the direction for the entire business. This necessitates forward-thinking leadership and the ability to turn a bold vision into reality. It is essential to have a clear idea for what the company wants to achieve and how it will get there.

The CTO owns the technical direction that the company will take. This entails identifying technical solutions that can improve the product and determining how to best develop and deliver the product. The technical goals should support the overall business goals.

Areas of expertise The product manager is deeply knowledgeable about the product, the customers, and the market. This understanding enables the product manager to deliver a Complete Product Experience (CPE) — the aggregate of every interaction that a company has with its customers. The product manager is able to communicate with both technical and non-technical audiences alike.

The CEO knows how to drive results. Besides setting company strategy, the CEO is responsible for making high-level decisions that affect customers and employees. As opposed to a product manager who typically owns one product or product line, the CEO is responsible for overseeing the organization.

The CTO knows everything about the technology stack. The CTO is responsible for overseeing enterprise architecture, ensuring that the company’s IT infrastructure supports the business and product goals.

Managerial function The product manager does not always manage people directly. But there is a leadership role within the product team, a cross-functional group from engineering, marketing, sales, and support. The product manager guides this team through what is planned. Depending on the size and structure of the organization, the product manager may report to the VP of product, CPO, or CEO.

The CEO manages the entire company but typically meets only with C-suite executives or senior VPs as direct reports. The CEO relies on these teammates to research, analyze and share relevant data and insights about the market and customers.

The CTO leads technical groups within a company. But the leadership work comes from ensuring the technological resources the company relies on are scalable — for short-term and long-term growth. The CTO may lead transformation efforts as well and usually reports directly to the CEO.

Metrics The product manager is interested in how the product is performing. (Obviously.) This requires tracking KPIs such as customer growth and reductions, product usage, in addition to tracking progress against specific measurable goals set within the product strategy.

The CEO is interested in the overall company performance. So, the CEO is invested in understanding the results of the metrics the product manager tracks. However, revenue, losses, customer sentiment, hiring trends and overall growth percentages are a few of the big picture KPIs this leader monitors.

The CTO is interested in how the product is performing and how to improve the development process. This means understanding team velocity (how quickly the team pushes out new features) and performance of the technology itself (bug fixes etc.).

Successful product managers need to do what is best for the product while negotiating meaningful and productive relationships with the CEO and CTO. 

You need to be able to explain how the product goals support the larger company goals and align with the technical strategy. When you can let goals guide your choices, you can eliminate a lot of friction. But you should also review your roadmap with the CEO and CTO regularly to ensure that everyone agrees on how the product will drive the business forward.

When you do this you build momentum product and business momentum so everyone wins. You could even call it a grand slam.

How have you navigated working with leaders who disagree?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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