Ask Women in Product: How do you deal with a CEO who dictates all product and design decisions?
Katie McCann, Fabiola Carcamo, and Annie Dunham offer tactics for reframing the conversation so that everyone in the company – including the CEO — can participate in a way that adds the most value.
Answer from Katie McCann, Venture Partner at Mighty Capital & Co-Founder of Unblocked Collective
Just about every product manager has had to deal with someone dictating product requirements, be it the CEO, a salesperson, a marketing manager, or a customer service rep. The imbalance of power, however, makes things especially frustrating when the CEO is involved. After all, if the CEO tells me to do something, I’m just supposed to do it … right?
Focus on Goals, Not Tactics
One of the key jobs of a product manager is to frame product discussions around goals instead of implementation details. In an ideal world, the CEO has set company goals, and the product team has its own product goals that flow from the company’s goals. When your CEO says she wants to do A, B, and C, discuss how those things align with your agreed-upon goals.
For example, if your CEO says she wants the user onboarding flow to have three exact steps, shift the conversation to your goal of increasing user retention: why are users currently abandoning the product? What data suggests that the steps in the onboarding flow are the problem? What other ways might there be to achieve this goal? By framing the conversation around the desired outcome, you’ll be surprised by how quickly you’ll both almost forget she even mentioned steps A, B, and C.
What happens when you don’t work in this fantasyland where you have predefined company and product goals that you can use to frame the conversation? In this case, you can still ask the open-ended question, “What is the goal of this project?”
The CEO, as the external “salesperson” for the company, can sometimes have a perspective that the operators of the business simply don’t have. I once went through a particularly frustrating design / UX requirements exercise with a CEO, where the team was asked to implement things that made little sense from a user perspective. It turns out that the primary goal of the first iteration of the product was to signal to the industry at large (competitors, investors, the media, etc.) that we were entering a new business. Suddenly, some of the decisions I had previously found incredibly frustrating (building a flashy UI over a more usable one, for instance) made much more sense with that added context.
Prioritize Early and Often
I’ve seen numerous startups where “prioritizing the roadmap” meant that the executive team looked at a list of projects and said, “This, this, and this seem important.” Often, the person who spoke first and/or the loudest “won” the debate. To get out of this tar pit, you need an objective methodology for making these decisions. For example, check out this overview of several effective strategies to prioritize the roadmap.
Choose a system that makes sense for your company, one that:
- uses a process that is visible and transparent to key stakeholders; and
- produces a roadmap that is always up-to-date.
Such a prioritization process is especially helpful for managing the CEO who walks into the office twice a week with the amazing-new-idea-that-everyone-should-drop-everything-to-work-on. If you have a framework for evaluating the latest idea against everything else on your roadmap, you can enforce objective decision-making about priorities and avoid the whiplash that results when priorities frequently change.
Be the Voice of the User
A CEO once said to me (during a heated product debate), “If we’re going to make decisions based on opinion, we may as well use mine.” But wait. Why are we relying on either of our opinions? Are we not supposed to be building the product for our users?
Much has already been written about techniques for learning about your users’ pain points and needs (for a good deep-dive, see A Beginner’s Guide to User Interviews from General Assembly). Regardless of the techniques you use, it’s important is that you refresh the company’s understanding of your users’ pain points and needs regularly, and not only when you need feedback on a new prototype.
Remove the Ego
Reframing the conversation around your users’ needs and company goals will allow you to break the frustrating cycle of disagreeing over implementation details. It will also let you objectively measure the success or failure of your product efforts, which builds trust amongst the team. Remember: this isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong — making a successful product is the ultimate goal.
Answer from Fabiola Carcamo, VP of Product at Vroom.com
In addition to the essential Product Management techniques Katie describes above, it’s equally important to establish open communication channels to deal with difficult situations when they arise. Here are some tips to effectively manage up when working with your CEO or any other senior stakeholder.
Take a Deep Breath
For Product Managers, having a senior leader prescribe a product decision can make us feel they don’t trust our ability to deliver on the essence of our role: prioritizing the user and creating data-informed solutions that are best for the business. This apparent distrust can trigger behaviors like anger, defensiveness, and in your case, misery. Reacting instinctively to these emotional triggers, however, can damage your work relationships if you say or do something you’ll later regret. As soon as you notice yourself responding negatively or experiencing inward-facing feelings like tension, check your emotional state. If you need to, breathe deeply, center yourself, and take some notes to reference when you’re able to reflect back calmly.
Don’t Assume the Worst
Rather than villainizing your CEO for behaving this way, let go of any assumptions or judgments, and approach the situation with empathy. Perhaps your CEO is under incredible stress from the board, or maybe she’s a former engineer who finds comfort in product work. Establishing empathy will reduce bias in your decision-making process as you tailor your product approach to her explicit and implicit needs. Consider this as an opportunity to apply your user interviewing skills to influence behaviors positively. After all, we Product Managers thrive off of solving people’s problems!
Learn What’s Causing the Behavior
Bear in mind that a good leader will assemble a team of experts who are markedly better at their respective domains than she needs to be, thus allowing the leader to focus on the things that matter to CEOs. If your CEO isn’t delegating, there can be many reasons why.
When founders, CEOs, or inexperienced managers are stressed, they can find it comforting to default to what’s familiar and what they did best in their former role. Other potential causes of this behavior include:
- A lack of trust;
- She doesn’t know that she should be delegating and empowering; or
- Product Management is in her wheelhouse, and dictating product decisions is the fallback.
Regardless of what’s driving the behavior, ask open-ended questions to understand your CEO’s intentions and needs during product reviews. Challenge yourself to outline solutions that address them.
Get Down to Those Solutions
By understanding the things that matter to her, you can help your CEO see how much more value she’d bring the company at a strategic level. Steer the product review up several layers around decisions that make an impact on the overall company and industry. Ask questions like, “If I were to deliver on a successful discovery algorithm, what impact would that have on online shopping?” Or “What would that feature enable other senior stakeholders to do in their areas of the business?” Also, “What kind of conversations will you have with the organization about this impact?”
Then, agree on the sign-off signals that matter, like giving her the ability to see that you’ve designed your discovery path to solve for, say, the top two customer detractors while adding the instrumentation needed to correctly track the ROI of a new keyword campaign.
If that fails, suggest an iterative approach, a “You do, we do, I do” plan. Align on a structure where, in Phase 1, your CEO prescribes the solution and walks you through her decision-making process and how she intends to measure success. Next time, progress to the “we do” phase, and craft decisions together. On the third iteration, invert the process, and make the call yourself while demonstrating that you’ve derived your problem solution from user and data-informed signals.
- Remain composed; this should not be taken personally;
- Ask empathetic questions; and
- Create an inclusive plan that outlines solutions that meet your CEO’s communication needs as well as your own.
When it comes to influencing upwards, the best approach is to stay focused on the long game. If you hurdle this challenge well, you will experience personal growth and bring value to the company. Regardless of the outcome, be bold and look at this as an opportunity to gain experience influencing up.
Answer from Annie Dunham, Director of Product at ProductPlan
The field of Product Management comprises a wide variety of experiences and skill sets, but common among all successful Product Managers is the ability to identify opportunities, define priorities, and objectively measure results. Product people tend to do their best work in situations where they can combine the voice of the customer, business initiatives, and team constraints to deliver product solutions. No wonder it’s incredibly frustrating when anyone, especially executive leadership or the CEO, wants to dictate direction on the fly. Since this is a challenge that is unlikely to go away, it’s one we should be prepared to navigate.
Establish an Objective Framework
How do you protect your product and roadmap from on-the-fly changes and individual opinions? The first step is to establish a clear set of measurable objectives for the upcoming quarters and possibly years. Alignment around the goal at the executive and stakeholder level is crucial, whether in the form of OKRs, strategic KPIs, “even over” statements or any other format that expresses clear and measurable initiatives. The more detailed these objectives are, the easier it will be for a Product Manager to measure success and objectively discuss roadmap decisions.
Let’s take the example of a SaaS business team who has decided to focus on increasing market share even over increasing average revenue per customer, or who has a target KPI of increasing market share by 15%. This prioritization framework enables the product manager to tie product decisions directly back to strategic initiatives, implementing changes that are most likely to improve market share. When the CEO jumps in during the middle of a roadmap presentation, the debate can focus on evaluating the likelihood that her suggestion will have a better impact on market share than the other proposals under discussion.
If an objective framework is not already in place, start by trying to understand what the CEO is hoping to accomplish with dictated decisions. Frame questions in the context of “We are working on this project to help improve KPI X. Can we discuss what the goal of this new project would be? And how its associated KPI will measure up to business needs?” This can be a delicate conversation, but with a consistent way to define product priorities, the questions will become more about the reason for the decision as opposed to the decision itself. It’s also possible that a framework does exist but is not explicitly stated. If that’s the case, it may be time to start your discovery work.
Design is Not Objective
The feature prioritization process greatly benefits when you can tie KPIs and product initiatives to business objectives. Design decisions, however, are a different story. Someone has a great eye, or saw another product that did X well, so you should do that too, right? Maybe, but there are great ways to validate that decision.
The real questions are: What is the goal of the design and how will you know if you met that goal? Sometimes, things are easy; a design change may aim to decrease the time it takes a SaaS user to complete a set of steps, or it may be a product design decision that provides a competitive advantage. It may just be that things feel outdated, and it’s time for new colors. Whatever the case, it’s unlikely that the business is looking to make the change just for fun, so start by detailing the desired outcome of the change and how you will measure success.
The customer will have an opinion, and should always be the tie-breaker when there is disagreement among the team. Customers will vote with their wallets, so get them involved in the decision-making process early and often. Once a design decision has made its way into the product, measure the impact — whether through customer surveys, usage metrics, or other insights. Collect this data so you can objectively review your hypotheses against the results and use it as context when similar design decisions arise in the future.
Data, Data, Data
The more a seemingly subjective process becomes an objective process, the easier it will be to build consensus — and eventually excitement — about your proposed product decisions.
Consider the difference between these two statements:
“We are investing in this new feature set because our competitors have done so.”
“We are investing in this new feature set because 18% of our lost sales cite the lack of this functionality as the reason for not buying. The feature set will also increase our total addressable market by 8%. With this functionality, we aim to increase our market share by 3% this year.”
I have seen how the use of data, coupled with repeated messaging of what your team is doing and why they are doing it, can shift the conversation from a stream of requests (or mandates) to a discussion that begins with “Your team is doing great things! Have you ever considered feature request Y? Here’s why I think that could be cool ….”
Transparency and tangible metrics build trust and respect for the decision-making process. Creative feedback and innovative conversations are much more fun than defending what is currently in progress.
If your CEO is currently dictating decisions, you do have work ahead to change the environment. Start by recognizing that change can take some time, then craft a phased approach. Create a roadmap for how you’d like to see this change take place. The first step may be to do some digging around company objectives or to define and share your product KPIs. Finally, don’t forget to take some time to celebrate and re-energize as you start to accumulate small wins!
Thank you to Sara Vienna for editing this piece.
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