There are many paths to becoming a CEO, some more beneficial than others. After all, getting there is important, but once you are in charge, what you do -- and how you do it -- is what matters the most.
One guy who knows is Gregg Johnson, the CEO of Invoca, the call intelligence company (they capture data from incoming phone calls to provide marketing, sales, and customer insights), who last year moved from an executive role at Salesforce to leading a company for the first time. (Check out his other observations on being a first-time CEO on Into the Deep End.)
Last October, I joined Invoca as CEO after spending ten years in product management and product marketing at Salesforce.
A few weeks after starting my job, a former colleague asked me, "So how is it being the boss of the company? Isn't it fun being able to tell everyone what to do?" Meanwhile at home, my 10-year-old son struggled to understand what "exactly" my new role entailed, so he boiled it down to two words, "big boss," and explained to his younger brother that the job of the "big boss" was to order people around.
Fittingly enough, the word "boss" is derived from the Dutch "baas," which means master. And while it certainly fits with the traditional stereotype of the CEO -- the boss as the highest-ranking executive, the person in charge -- it certainly doesn't fit with my paradigm of the modern CEO, and my own business and leadership experience, and the leaders whom I respect and admire.
In fact, I've concluded the most valuable training for my current role as CEO was the time I spent being "the boss of no one" -- more specifically, being a product manager.
In technology companies, product management is the domain with the most narrow span of direct control and the widest range of management by influence. Your job is to bring a diverse group of people together to execute, yet you don't have much formal authority. If you don't work in technology, you may not be familiar with the role of the product manager (PM). As a PM, you're responsible for a lot of different things, including:
- Building products with designers and engineers
- Defining positioning, pricing, and go-to-market strategy with product marketing
- Driving leads with demand-generation teams
- Creating awareness of a product among analysts and media with brand-marketing teams
- Delivering quarter-to-quarter commercial results with the sales team
- Ensuring current customers are happy with customer-success and support teams
Essentially, you interact with every function in the company -- yet none of them report to you.
In a typical software company of 500 people, there might be 20 product managers. So even if you're responsible for "all of product management," you need 480 out of 500 employees, none of whom "work for you," to execute your strategy and vision.
That's exactly why I think product management is a great training ground for becoming a CEO. The very nature of the PM role requires building the skills you need to be a successful executive, namely:
1. Create a compelling vision for your teams and company.
The number one responsibility of any CEO is to align the company around a vision, and help every employee "see the future" so they can be successful in making that future become reality.
The more clearly you can paint that vision, the more effectively you can harness the intellectual and creative horsepower of the organization to achieve it -- rather than being "the boss" and having to micromanage every detail of an operational plan. Product managers are constantly communicating strategic vision with their design and engineering counterparts, and great PMs can bring the vision to life without prescribing how to achieve it.
One of my favorite examples is from my time at Salesforce. A colleague, Adam Torman, wanted to simplify the user profile, which in his mind had become unnecessarily complex. To motivate the design and engineering team, he wanted to portray the problem in more realistic, tangible terms.
So he printed out all the screens and associated data that the user profile required, taped it on the wall for his engineering team to see, and illustrated how it was equivalent to multiple stories in our building headquarters. Adam no longer needed to instruct his engineering colleagues on every detail -- they had internalized their mission and could bring their own ideas to the table on how to achieve it.
That is the foremost responsibility of any CEO.
2. Make the hard investment decisions.
Once you formulate a vision, your role as CEO is to prioritize where the company should focus limited resources, time, and capital.
You need to ensure employees have the context to make tradeoff decisions on their own, operating quickly and in alignment with the company's strategy. It's also about removing roadblocks in executing the company's vision. Prioritization is at the heart of product management.
Another example from Salesforce comes to mind. In 2009, as Twitter and Facebook were gaining traction, Marc Benioff asked the product and engineering teams at Salesforce to build social and collaboration into the heart of the product. We had to decide what other projects we would put "on hold" to make this happen.
And when we went back to Marc with our first plan, he challenged us in his response: "You're not being aggressive enough. This social layer (which would ultimately become Salesforce Chatter) is the number one priority, so you need to make the tough decisions on what can wait."
We went back, ramped up the investment even more by putting additional projects on hold, and delivered a feature set in nine months. These features helped to strategically differentiate the company for years to come.
We achieved that result only because we followed the CEO's lead in making hard tradeoff and investment decisions.
3. Navigate between the 30-day and three-year levels.
One of my favorite parts of being a CEO is the intellectual challenge of shifting between a 30-day timeframe and a three-year perspective. You need to ensure the company is executing against its monthly and quarterly targets, and has the processes and analytics to identify issues and course correct.
Simultaneously, you need to align your business with the right industry trends, so you can capture new sources of growth.
PMs, in a similar fashion, have to shift between multiple modes of thinking. A key requirement of the job is to meet with the engineering team on a daily basis, reviewing the most minute details of the product as it takes shape. Just a few hours later, you might be brainstorming ideas about new product concepts that are a year or more into the future.
Steve Jobs epitomized this ability to move between a strategic, multi-year view and the most nuanced detail of a product. Few CEOs have ever transformed the path of a company as profoundly as Jobs did upon his return to Apple in 1997. He had an ability to "see the future," and positioned Apple to transform not just personal computing, but mobile devices, music and entertainment, and television.
To complement the big-picture view, Jobs was also fanatical about subtle but important elements of the consumer experience, down to the packaging of the products. He was personally involved in selecting the colors and design of the Macintosh box in 1984, and later helped design the unique packaging for iPods and iPhones.
No product detail was too inconsequential for him, and that level of attention helped inspire and instill a focus on design that is core to Apple's culture, and success, today.
Not everyone can (or should) be Steve Jobs or Marc Benioff. There are many ways to be a successful executive or CEO, and many paths to get there. But in today's world, where companies must quickly respond to changes in technology and the marketplace, leaders need to enable employees to make decisions autonomously in a way that benefits the company.
In my mind, the best training ground for that type of leadership is not a traditional command-and-control environment, where leaders become accustomed to management through formal authority. Rather, it's in the experience of managing through influence, crystallizing a vision, motivating people to pursue it, and relying only minimally on the title everyone thinks bestows more power than anything else.
That's why the discipline of product management -- where you have almost no direct authority -- is one of the most effective training grounds for future CEOs.