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Many paths lead to the CEO chair, but one individual role best prepares people to be a CEO — product manager. This job is a great training ground for chief executives, at least in technology companies. In fact, it’s arguably the single most important individual contributor position in the company.
Similar to the CEO, the product manager’s primary function is to coordinate among various groups, leveraging the skills of others to produce a great product. This is in contrast to most individual contributor roles, where the focus is on doing some specialized skill, working largely alone or within a small group.
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To come up with great products and services, the product manager assesses the needs of customers and the market. This involves a strategic approach by analyzing competitors and anticipating what could be on the horizon. It also requires a tactical element by working with different groups to execute on the plan.
On any given day, the product manager is coordinating with executives to sell a product vision, with R&D to create viable products, with marketing to promote those products and with sales to explain product capabilities and benefits as well as obtain feedback.
CEO Barak Eilam credits his time as a product manager for best preparing him for the job. He became CEO of $1.3 billion company NICE three years ago after working for the company for 15 years. “For me actually the most important part of my career at NICE was when I became a young product manager,” the first-time CEO said. “Product management in a tech company, if you are positioned at the right place, is a very interesting junction. Because if you do it well, it allows you to be the bridge between customers and their requirements and market needs and R&D.”
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Eilam had worked in R&D at NICE, so he had the experience to interact with that group well. “It takes special skills to make the transition from R&D to product management and become the liaison between customers and R&D,” Eilam said. “Obviously there are other things you need to be a CEO, such as finance, general management, managing people, managing managers, etc. These are all important as well, but this was pivotal for me, and I’m talking about something that happened for me 15 years ago.”
The parallels between a good product manager and CEO are many. For example, the CEO is always working with multiple stakeholders to deliver a product — high company performance. Like the product manager, the CEO must understand the entire market landscape as well as what is happening across the organization. With this insight, he or she creates a vision, a strategy and a plan.
Then, the CEO must communicate all this clearly and compellingly to get buy-in from everyone involved. He or she also ensures that everyone executes according to plan. At the same time, the CEO must be looking forward to identify threats or opportunities and pivot the company accordingly.
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The CEO job is unique in many ways, but anyone who wants a taste of the responsibilities should consider becoming a product manager.