Why are CEOs crazy? This is the question that Amanda Richardson, CEO of Rabbit, tackled at #mtpcon Singapore. With extensive experience working with CEOs, and now being one herself, Amanda has come to the conclusion that even good CEOs are crazy. Moving from leading product teams to leading a company has given her the perspective to really understand why CEOs drive product managers crazy, and what product managers can do to make things better.
The CEO Decoder Ring
Amanda takes on the most common questions she had as a product manager about her CEOs’ behavior, and breaks down what is really going on in the CEO’s mind.
Why are you Micromanaging my Features and Telling me What to Build?
Product managers are supposed to define problems, understand needs, and then work to discover solutions. CEOs are supposed to set company direction and vision. So why are they worrying about features? Amanda says the reason is aperture, or area of focus. When you start as a junior product manager, you typically have a very small area of focus, maybe even just one feature. As you grow in your career, your aperture widens and your field of vision becomes larger with more responsibility.
The CEO’s aperture is the widest – they are not just thinking about the product as it is today, but also where the company is headed in the future. Sometimes this future thinking comes out in discussions of features. So while you may think a detailed conversation about a date picker with your CEO seems absurd, they may actually be thinking about how, in a few years, that date picker will be really important, and maybe they want to make sure you aren’t unintentionally going in a direction that may not work.
The solution: Grab a beer. Take them to lunch. Spend some time with them to understand the broader context. Leveling up your point of view will help you understand why the feature they’re focused on is so important.
Why Don’t you Care About my Features?
In some ways it’s nice to have a CEO who will leave you and your product alone. But Amanda again points to the CEO’s field of vision. As a product manager, you are focused on what it takes to make a product succeed. A CEO is focused on what it takes to make a business succeed. So if your CEO isn’t interested in the details of your product at all, they may not think your product is actually important to the success of the business.
The solution: Find a new job. While we wish there was a better solution in which you could convey exactly how vital your product is to the business, the truth is, either your product isn’t important to the business or your CEO doesn’t know why product matters. Both of those are terrible outcomes, and it’s okay to admit it is time to find a new product to work on.
Why are you so Obsessed With This?
At one point in Amanda’s career, when she was working on a presentation software product, the CEO would ping her constantly with thoughts, ideas, questions, whatever crossed his mind. It was easy to get frustrated and wonder why he was so obsessed. Over time she realized, she just wasn’t as passionate about this as he was. Presentation software just didn’t get her excited and wasn’t a problem she was aching to solve.
The solution: Work on a problem you care about. There are so many options of things you can work on in product management today – different user types, industries, business models, and products themselves. You have the opportunity to work on something that is more aligned with things you love, so you can be as excited about the problems you are solving as your CEO is.
Why Don’t we Just get More People to Help?
Every team feels they could accomplish more if they just had more people. Amanda felt this way too… until she went to a company where they had all the people you could hope for: product managers, UX designers, UI designers, researchers, data analysts. It seemed ideal, but the result was that nothing ever got done! The overhead of meetings and need for consensus among so many people slowed the team down.
The solution: Solve for skills, not bodies. Do you really need more people, or is there a skill gap that you can find a creative way to fill? If you really do need more people, talk about the skills you need to cover and why, not just that you need a bigger team. We need to recognize when we actually need an expert in a particular field vs when there are other ways to fill that need that are “good enough”. And we also need to appreciate that in the end, lean really is faster. Running lean reduces the burden of meetings and alignment challenges, and allows the team to move more quickly.
How can I get Your Attention?
When she was a VP of Product, Amanda would have one-to-ones with her CEO, and tell him everything was going great. Now that she is a CEO, she sees her team doing the same. No one tells the CEO what is really going on, and no one wants to be wrong. So by sugar-coating everything and not telling the CEO what is wrong, you waste an opportunity to really make recommendations, and become boring. That is not going to get the CEO’s attention.
The solution: Tell the truth. Say when things are good, and say when things are bad. Make recommendations and place bets – speak up and be willing to risk being wrong. And always be a place that the CEO can come to for facts.
How can I Help you?
Amanda closes with the question that most product managers don’t ask, but should. She encourages everyone to ask their CEO how they can help. CEOs need people who are resourceful and can get things done. They need people who care and will do the right thing even when no one is looking. This is value that a product manager can bring, and our CEOs really do need the help.
Most CEOs are not Crazy
At the end of the day, most CEOs really aren’t crazy. But it does take some work to really understand their behavior. Amanda ends with a to-do list for product managers wanting a decoder ring to understand their CEOs:
- Get aligned with your CEO’s vision
- Work on a product you’re passionate about
- Be scrappy
- Be honest
- Make strong recommendations
- Go get shit done