November 15, 2011

The Insulating Layer

A trendy analogy among product management relates the product manager's job to that of the CEO. This fashion statement is even starting to turn up in job postings: "you'll be the CEO of your product!" But I flatly reject this analogy on this simple assertion: a product manager has way more power than a CEO.

Any professional in a company must spend some of their time interacting with other functions: operations with finance to plan inventory, engineers with legal when filing patents, marketers with sales to pass leads, and so on. But really no other professional needs to interact with every other function in the way that product management must. There is really no other place in the company to get all of these functions aligned on the same mission, and especially when something is broken the responsibility to identify and fix problems falls on the product manager.

Of course, product managers have no authority to get anyone to do anything. But they do have relationships, and the most effective product managers consider these relationships to be critical for achieving success, but it's power through influence made possible by these relationships. It is exactly these relationships where the well-connected product manager hears what is going on, and really assembles a broad perspective of the organization and its behaviors. Whether an interaction is with an executive VP or an individual contributor, for the product manager it's a series of one-on-one relationships.

Now consider the CEO; the most obvious feature of this position is a staff of executives, each executive commanding their sub-organization. What is the function of the CEO's staff? They present information from the organization to the CEO, advise, and execute top-level policies and decisions. You would think with all this authority a CEO could get anything done. Can't they?

In presenting information to a CEO, there is always a filter applied - there has to be in order to reduce the volume of information to a manageable level. But the executive staff are just humans, after all. Even with the best of intentions they have a perspective and agenda that does not align perfectly with the CEO, and may sometimes be very badly misaligned.

How does the CEO compensate when the executive staff is not presenting critical information, or is not executing policy in the manner expected? How does the CEO find out? It seems that this would require some form of direct communication from the CEO down two levels, or even further. How would this happen? Would the CEO call these people into the executive suite? Visit their team meetings? Walk the floor and chat?

Think for a moment at the companies where you've worked - how often have you seen such behavior from a CEO? In practice, it's extraordinarily difficult for a CEO to break through the insulating layer of their own executive staff. They don't have the time. They don't have the inclination. They may upset their staff in doing so. It's uncomfortable. It's so much easier to just tell their staff to get something done.

But wait, didn't we just say that there is someone who not only collects all of this organizational information, but that actually gets things done! It would seem like an easy answer - a conversation between the CEO and the product managers could cover a lot of ground.

Not so fast, because where are these product managers in the organization? They are beneath the engineering VP. Or beneath the sales VP. Or beneath the marketing VP. Or beneath the operations VP. And each of these VPs has their own problems and agenda. So the product managers remain below the insulating layer, where the CEO can't get to them.

By the very act of trying to build an effective organization that can scale, we are all complicit in creating a structure that insulates the chief executive rather than empowers. Makes you wonder how anything gets done.

No comments:

Post a Comment