The Product Manager as CEO-Heir Apparent

Ursula-Burns-XeroxIn May 2009, Xerox announced Xerox President Ursula Burns would succeed the retiring Anne Mulcahy as CEO. The fact that Ursula Burns is now the first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company is vitally important in and of itself and speaks volumes of the opportunities in the American workplace, non-existent scant decades ago. And yet, additionally, while reading Ursula Burns’ company biography, I am intrigued by whether Ms. Burns’ formative years with Xerox included significant work within product management. This may well have been the case.

Ursula Burns’ Xerox executive bio notes that “Burns joined Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering summer intern and later assumed roles in product development and planning. From 1992 through 2000, Burns led several business teams including the office color and fax business and office network printing business.” It would be interesting to know whether the business teams Ms. Burns led was within product management, and whether her work prior to 1992 included roles within product management (this might depend on how Xerox defines “product development and planning.”) I dropped a quick email to the Xerox PR department inquiring about any specific product management roles during Ms. Burns’ career at Xerox, culminating to her new role as CEO. Carl Langsenkamp, Xerox Public Relations, quickly replied, noting that Ms. Burns’ held several jobs that encompassed product management. He also explained that Xerox describes certain positions in unique ways that may not be a standard in other companies.

Product-Manager-to-CEOThe notion that a Product Manager can and should emerge as an ultimate heir apparent to CEO of the company is one that has been raised many times. I had the epiphany (well, for me, anyway) after completing the Pragmatic Marketing product management training led by Steve Johnson that product managers and product marketers are uniquely skilled to ultimately serve as CEO. You can also Google “product manager to CEO”, hit “I’m Feeling Lucky”, and you should be directed to a very interesting online article on the product manager as CEO written by Barbara Tallent, who was herself a product manager-turned-CEO.

All that said, Product Managers (and again, yes, Product Marketing Managers) often still feel their opinions on strategic matters or key decisions are not heard or considered by senior management. This is because it remains up to a product manager to fill her or his worktime with those value-added activities that constitute true steps forward to the CEO corner office. These value-added activities are summed up in five key “soft” skills every product manager and marketer must master. This advice came from ZIGZAG Marketing Founder & Managing Partner John Mansour, who just spoke on this topic as guest speaker for the The Boston Product Management Association (BPMA) meeting just held on May 21…

John remarked that product management (and product marketing) has not gained as much ground in executive recognition as it should. By practicing the five key skills, product managers and marketers will find their influence within the company will expand significantly:

  • Learn to sell. This means selling your ideas effectively, and getting others to be excited by them. For example, don’t just complete written product management deliverables and “throw them over the wall” with a verbose, sleeping pill episitle cover email. Instead, you want to put it right in people’s faces: get them in a conference room, make a presentation of your materials, explains what it means to them and the organization; be excited about it! John noted engineers’ comfort zones are in details, leave those behind as a product manager. The “how” is much less important than the “why” and “what.”
  • Become a market expert. This means understanding how your product fits with the market. Read the WSJ, Forbes/Fortune and analyst reports. Product managers should be the internal market analysts of the company. John emphasized you want to understand market dynamics and their impact to the organization; these are things the CEO cares about. Connect the dots from the market to how your solution is relevant to the market, what threats and opportunities exist, etc., all the while quantifying trends whenever possible (growth rates, etc.) John asked, if some other part of the organization knows the market better than you, who is in the drivers’ seat? This is important for your career, they want market savvy to drive the product; again, get out of the details of the product! Doing so will free time for this market analytical work.
  • Become a business expert. Understand what your customers do at an operational level and how that relates to your product and the market.
  • Socialize your knowledge. You have to let people know what you know. Do this in ways that help them and earn you recognition instead of merely tooting your own horn; for example: internal newsletters, blogs, etc.; things that let people know you are “driving the train” of your product.
  • Play the part. Carefully observe the way you dress, articulate your ideas, speak and write. As John emphasized, you are what you do! Product management is about leadership. You aren’t helping your career by putting out fires with the product that should be the responsibility of others. If you like delving in those details, by all means, be a designer, but understand doing so will hold you back in your career as a product manager.

These five key skills are the difference between a product manager/marketer and a product manager/marketer with a long term eye for the CEO role.

(Many thanks to Nettie Lagace for making this post a snap, thanks to her copious note-taking during John Mansour’s BPMA presentation!)

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