Regardless of the industry you work in or the size of your company, becoming a CEO is a pinnacle of success in the business world. You’ve proven your leadership, you’ve done things right, and you’ve been successful. 

Once you take that seat in the corner office, the way you choose to lead varies. Perhaps you’re a completely open door-style leader who makes it a point to know every employee’s name. Or maybe your door is closed and you choose to focus solely on the business of business. Regardless of your approach, there is one universal truth: There are things that your employees won’t tell you because you’re the CEO. After all, most people have a strong sense of self-preservation. It’s natural to be cautious when sharing with The Boss.

Earlier this year, Pragmatic Institute released its 2019 Annual Product Management and Product Marketing Survey. Among the questions asked was one that CEOs in particular will want to pay attention to: “If you could say one thing to your CEO without fear of retribution, what would it be?”

As a CEO, I was curious and nervous to read the responses. But it proved enlightening. And, from the more than 800 open-ended responses to this question, five key themes emerged. 

Focus on strategy

Many of the respondents to this year’s survey said they had a clear understanding of the company’s mission, vision. and go-forward strategy, which is good. A resounding request, though, was for CEOs to stick to important strategic-level work. This means CEOs need to stop thinking up solutions. Don’t introduce new initiatives when commitments for existing initiatives haven’t been met. Don’t prioritize short-term tactical wins over the longer-term business goals of the company. Some of the direct quotes we received from respondents included:

  • Expand your vision to be less tactical, more strategic.
  • Leave the day-to-day tactical to your subordinates.
  • Either get behind the product strategy you pretend to adhere to or step aside. You are driving the business deeper into the past, always prioritizing tactical wins and short-term revenue.
  • Focusing on near-term revenue opportunities is hurting our long-term product strategy.
  • Stay out of product strategy and focus on your CEO tasks!
  • Turn away non-strategic sales.
  • We need to be more strategic in the projects we take on without as much distraction from shiny objects.

Frequently, stepping away from tactics can be a challenge for CEOs, particularly ones who are newer to the role. It’s tempting to hold onto the things you used to do—especially the things that earned you the accolades that got you to where you are. But the organization needs you to let go of those tactical job duties to make way for new responsibilities (not to mention new opportunities). Take yourself out of the day-to-day of running the business and focus on the bigger picture.

Listen to the market

You’ve established the strategy to drive your company’s success. Now it’s time to step back and let your product team do what it does best: listen to the market to identify what customers need and are willing to pay for. This means setting expectations with your senior leadership team, board of directors, and other key stakeholders.

Just because a board member is worried about a competitor’s new product doesn’t mean your company should act on that worry. One of Pragmatic Institute’s core philosophies is: “Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.” While you don’t need to be that blunt, the spirit of the message holds true. Product professionals who have a strong understanding of how to develop and build the right products for your portfolio know to follow the market, not the HiPPO (highest-paid person’s opinion). Survey respondents want their CEOs to know that, too. Here are some of their responses:

  • Allow product teams to be more strategic and solicit input from the market rather than allow business to dictate solutions.
  • Let’s really do outside-in thinking and apply what we learn. We need to move away from “that’s how we do things.”
  • Stop being engineering-driven. We need to solve problems that actually exist in the market, not scramble to find use cases for (admittedly interesting) but unvalidated tech.
  • Love the direction of our company, but some of the individual teams and leadership need to work on their product management fundamentals (understanding customer/market needs, prioritization based on value) and revisit agile basics.
  • Our company does not yet understand the complexity, value, and importance of product management for business success. Our CEO is opposed to qualitative customer interviews and only relies on quantitative surveys. He quotes customers (one customer he has talked to) as if it was the insight of the entire customer base.

Invest where it counts

Armed with a strong understanding of business strategy and a clear, market-based path to follow, the next thing product professionals said they want from CEOs is a commitment to invest in the technology and development tools—as well as the people—to get the job done. This also translates to committing to innovation and recognizing that being best, first or fastest doesn’t happen with out-of-date tools. 

  • If you set big growth goals, you have to be prepared to make big bets. Current resourcing on product won’t allow for big growth.  
  • We need to continue to invest in innovation and other tools that help us to defend our business and keep a moat around our product portfolio.  
  • We need to invest in our development team now to reduce our technical debt if we’re ever going to beat our competition.
  • You can’t do it all. Make the hard choice and invest for the future even if it will cost some near-term revenue.
  • Find more funds to invest in innovations, the people that drive them and the infrastructure and environment that fosters this approach.
  • For true product differentiation, we need to double our investment in development.
  • If we want to see product growth, we need to make the investment to offer continuous improvement. We can’t let products sit stagnant and then be surprised by revenue decline.
  • Invest in your core products with skilled developers, don’t try to cut corners by hiring low-cost developers.

Empower a qualified product team

As mentioned before, effective product teams spend time with customers and the market. Our survey respondents identified key strategic business activities as part of their roles, but when they were asked how much time they spend engaging customers and the market, the results were surprising. Three-quarters of respondents said they spend fewer than five hours per month working with customers and the market—much less than Pragmatic Institute’s recommended eight hours per week.

Instead, product professionals are spending their time on things like supporting development and sales. And they’re spending 40 hours a month in meetings and another 25 hours managing emails. This certainly isn’t an ideal state—and product professionals know it:

  • We are measured by the amount of project/product releases, not how the customer experiences that project/product release. The product marketing team has implemented market and competitor intelligence monitoring services, product analytics services, win/loss interviews, customer advisory councils – yet you don’t support those efforts, so no other manager cares. All that work has gone to waste. No one listens to us until YOU validate it. It’s time to step up and listen.
  • The effort required to make good business decisions should be left to the product management function. It should be positioned to be strategic in order to extend the capabilities of the executive team. Anecdotal meetings with customers to validate your assumptions about their needs is not the same as conducting discovery interviews with customers to determine their top priorities for problem resolution.
  • The product management team should be managed by experts in product management not just anyone within the company. For example, our leader used to be in the support organization so all we do is respond to customer complaints about our product.
  • Trust our analysis and the recommendations. We should be your right-hand side. Empower us and provide the proper support
  • Let product be strategic instead of placating the loudest complainers.

Solving for this request is not just about the time for product teams to do what they need to do, but also involves your strong and clear support in educating the organization about how the product role can positively affect top- and bottom-line performance.

Be patient

The last key theme that emerged from this year’s survey focuses on CEO patience. It can be hard to sit back and wait for new products to launch or to see revenue start flowing when you have a board of directors, big customers, Wall Street and other key stakeholders watching your profit and loss statements. But it’s critical to take that long-term strategic view and trust in your team’s abilities to deliver on their initiatives. Remember: good things come to those who wait. And that’s what product professionals want CEOs to remember.

  • Allow enough time to execute our strategy.
  • Allow us time to do our research and our work so we can deliver on the outcomes you require and accurately and completely solve market problems with our product.
  • Allow us time to do our roles properly and get out of firefighting mode
  • Trust that your people are competent and will do the work to achieve the desired results.
  • Focus on building good, market-ready products rather than rushing to take products out to market to increase revenue and dealing with the repercussions later.

Their success means your success

More than 800 product professionals told us how CEOs can better support their teams––and isn’t it ultimately the role of the CEO to help people excel? After all, that’s how our businesses excel. By stepping back and letting people explore and discover their successes (as well as their failures), along with providing the right kind of support, we allow our teams to take ownership of what they produce––and that builds trust and loyalty.

About the Author

Philip Alexander is the CEO of Pragmatic Institute. He has been on the front lines of senior-level and international marketing for more than two decades, and previously founded BrandMuscle Inc., a technology-based marketing services company that he grew into a multi-million-dollar organization.