The Product Manager as CEO-Heir Apparent

Ursula-Burns-XeroxIn May 2009, Xerox President Ursula Burns succeeded the retiring Anne Mulcahy as CEO. The fact that Ursula Burns then became the first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company is vitally important in and of itself. And yet, additionally, while reading Ursula Burns’ company biography, I was 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…

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