CEO disregards PM's Inputs for roadmap creation

Recently joined a small startup (~10 employees) as a PM. The CEO wants me to develop a roadmap quickly, but she hasn’t been fully engaged in the process. Despite claiming that much of the thinking had already been done, she hasn’t shared any documentation or verbally articulated the mission, vision, goals, and strategy.

She rarely attends our working sessions and ignores my attempts to communicate. When she does show up, she dismisses the importance of mission, vision, and goals, considering them unnecessary for our small company. She wants me to focus on building without providing direction.

I’m unsure how to move forward and get her buy-in on the roadmap development process. I’m beginning to question if she actually values the role of a PM.

Any advice on how to navigate this would be appreciated.

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Find out the vision and goals from the rest of the team, then deliver them (likely in several ways) to make sure everyone is on the same page. Do you have a precise definition of what a product vision, for example, is attempting to accomplish (and how the team will benefit)?

The CEO of such a tiny team may need to do some education, and if she isn’t giving feedback or showing an interest in learning, it’s possible that she is too busy to do so. I’m being the devil’s advocate, but that’s a small crew for a dedicated PM. Perhaps she actually required a project manager?

Is there a finance role as well? To fill in the blanks with the necessary information, I’d question them about the product and any budgeting, etc. Good luck!

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Quite agree to @AngelaBlue, This is a good idea. You have a window of opportunity as a new presence to survey the group and ask open-ended questions, such as what they perceive the aims to be. It should be evident that a precise articulation of goals is required as long as you don’t credit those words to them directly. Instead, you should give them in summary form as what you have heard.

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Deliver random features in some semblance of a logical order, then go about preparing your resume and portfolio because that thing will blow up and you won’t be there to witness it.

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Thank you for the advice @AhmadBashir! Logic seems to be lost on this CEO. I’m currently doing what is logical to me / other staff while starting to apply for other jobs.

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Leave, I was in that situation for about 8 months because of a lack of vision CEOs are just egomaniac wealthy kids who think they know everything. Their arrogance blinds them to the valuable insights and perspectives of their employees, hindering the growth and success of the company. It’s frustrating to witness such a narrow-minded approach in leadership, as it stifles innovation and hampers collaboration within the organization.

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It can be challenging to pin down long-tenured executives because they gradually rose to the top by remaining uncontroversial and instinctively hedging whenever possible. This occurs not only in start-ups but also in big, established businesses. For some executives, articulating a specific vision entails taking a chance and committing to a result. Instead, they will make a number of hazily encouraging statements that are not prioritized (to prevent any negative fallout) but offer enough texture for different groups to project their hopes upon (ensuring some amount of support).

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Navigating a situation where the CEO is not fully engaged in the product management process can be challenging, but there are steps you can take to address the issue and move forward. Here’s some advice on how to navigate this situation:

  1. Understand the CEO’s perspective: Take the time to understand the CEO’s viewpoint and their reasons for being disengaged. It’s possible that they have different expectations or a different understanding of the product management role. Speak with them openly and try to gain insight into their thoughts and concerns.
  2. Educate the CEO about the value of product management: Share information and resources that explain the value of having a well-defined mission, vision, goals, and strategy. Emphasize how these elements help align the team, provide clarity, and guide decision-making. Show examples of successful companies that have effectively used these frameworks.
  3. Highlight the benefits of a roadmap: Explain to the CEO that a roadmap provides a clear direction for the product and helps prioritize work. It can align the team, communicate priorities to stakeholders, and ensure that everyone is working towards a common goal. Demonstrate how a roadmap can increase efficiency, reduce ambiguity, and ultimately lead to better outcomes.
  4. Start small and build iteratively: If the CEO is resistant to creating a comprehensive roadmap, propose starting with a lightweight version. Begin by identifying key objectives and priorities for the immediate future, even if it’s just a short-term plan. This can help demonstrate the value of having a roadmap and gradually build momentum for more strategic planning.
  5. Establish regular communication: Request dedicated time with the CEO to discuss product-related matters. Make it clear that regular communication and collaboration are crucial for your role as a PM. Highlight the benefits of involving key stakeholders, including the CEO, in the decision-making process.
  6. Seek support from others: Engage with other members of the team, such as engineers or designers, to gather their insights and perspectives on the product’s direction. Their input can help validate the importance of product management and provide additional support when discussing the roadmap with the CEO.
  7. Be persistent but adaptable: Keep pushing for the involvement of the CEO in the roadmap development process, but be willing to adapt your approach based on their feedback. Find ways to address their concerns and demonstrate how the product management function can contribute to the success of the company.
  8. Evaluate the fit: If, despite your efforts, the CEO continues to dismiss the role of product management and shows no interest in collaborating, it may be worth evaluating whether this is the right environment for you. Consider discussing your concerns with the CEO or exploring opportunities where your role as a PM is more valued.

Remember, effective product management requires collaboration and alignment between key stakeholders. While it can be challenging to navigate a situation where the CEO is not engaged, your efforts to educate, communicate, and demonstrate value can help shift the dynamics and promote a more productive working relationship.

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Excellent advice and explanation @Pankaj-Jain.

OP, (@CarolynMiles) I hate having to tell you to flee, but do so as quickly as you can. Although I am aware that the advice is unhelpful, it is absurd that the CEO/Founder is responding to you in this way. What is a PM supposed to be doing if not carrying out the mission, vision, goals, and strategy?

Aside from my counterproductive advice, you’re right on the money with this. It appears that the CEO/Founder is under the impression that the PM position adds little or no value to her company. Many business owners are under pressure to employ product managers (at any level) in order to appear to be product-led without actually following the methodology. Why do you inquire? because it appears appealing to VC firms and investors.

You need to play a game of “20 Questions” with her in order to proceed. In order to determine whether your assumptions and theories about the product’s vision and purpose are accurate or incorrect, you must first lay out the requirements. It’s more along the lines of the shotgun theory, but that’s all you have right now.

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It’s also important to keep in mind that, even if you make an effort to draft a roadmap, the CEO won’t be satisfied unless you completely nail the good ideas she thinks are worth pursuing (explicitly or implicitly). She almost certainly expects you to make educated guesses about her preferred ideas. This expectation can be challenging, as it requires a deep understanding of the CEO’s preferences and priorities. Therefore, it is crucial to gather as much information as possible about her preferences through previous conversations or by studying her decision-making patterns. Additionally, seeking feedback and clarification from the CEO throughout the roadmap creation process can help ensure alignment with her expectations.

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Such an insightful remark—thank you! The funding component is especially useful. That could be a motivating factor in this case, in my opinion. I don’t know much about our current funding strategy, but I’ve been told that money isn’t an issue. Even though we can’t sort out product requirements by ourselves, the CEO has expressed interest in hiring “above” and “below” me to build out a product team.

The 20 Questions section could be helpful. As I fill out other job applications, I’ll try that with her.

Fantastic post @Pankaj-Jain. Thank you so much.

Agree @DaveKim

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Given the size of the company and its current state, it seems a little silly from a logistical standpoint to hire people above and below you. This sounds like the typical “pump up the view, superficially, to entice investors/VCs” technique that many startup CEOs tend to jump into, regardless of whether revenue and funding are or aren’t an issue.

Dealing with absurd inquiries and challenges from the CEO/Founder is a challenge with the “20 Questions/Shotgun Approach.”

Just be ready to take some blows. It will become a mess if you become combative (ex., “This is based on what you told me!”). She wants you to create a roadmap of features, not objectives or key results (a major red flag). Features are important, but there should also be objectives for the product to reach that indicate success or serve as alarms when things aren’t going as planned (and to fix them).

Even though I’m sure you’ve heard it before, I’ll say it again to emphasize how serious and crucial it is: LEAVE IMMEDIATELY. By trying to play the cards you’ve been dealt, you can keep the CEO or Founder invested enough, but it doesn’t foster a positive culture or atmosphere for the product.

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Run, like others have advised. However, if you decide to stick around, this can be a chance for you to pick up a new skill or learn something new.

Here’s what I would do. Set aside some time to write your own purpose, vision, and OKRs. You’ve spent enough time there to understand what they ought to be. Fill up your roadmap with those, then break down your initiatives from there.

I wouldn’t work on this for more than 2 to 5 days. After getting the CEO’s consent, present your entire idea. She will either provide comments for you to modify or update, or you can continue through with your plan and rejoice in your newfound independence.

I’ve discovered that it’s more simpler and quicker if I just produce it myself and then ask for comments rather than asking a stakeholder to actually cooperate with me if I need something similar from them.

Good Luck

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@KaranTrivedi, I appreciate your advice. I have personally drafted and presented the CEO with several iterations of the mission, vision, and OKRs using user interviews, staff interviews, and previous documentation. She expressed her disapproval of each draft, but she was unable to tell me what she would have preferred in its place. She has said that she doesn’t think having a mission and vision are important for a company as I have asked for more clarity from her and tried to create clarity in partnership with her. We switched to SMART goals and metrics at her recommendation because she also “doesn’t believe in OKRs,” but now she doesn’t believe in those either. Typical example of goalposts being moved.

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According to my experience, you shouldn’t worry about your vision, strategy, OKRs, or smart metrics at first. Make sure you are carrying out and making progress toward something (even if you change it later).

Giving the CEO a list of three to four goals should come first. Call out the recommendations from you and other stakeholders, even if they differ, and explain why. Ask her to make the final decision after consulting with the important parties.

The key here is to concentrate on the what and write them down in English with great clarity. For the time being, don’t worry about specific metrics or how. a few instances

  • Increase organic new customer growth (Good)

  • Obtain new clients (ok)

  • Twice as many sessions (bad)

You can come up with various approaches and metrics for measuring success once the option is presented. It’s an FYI at that point.

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Simply put, I would start looking for a new job.

She is incredibly naive if that is how your CEO runs a small startup. It won’t float or be successful in the future, I can assure you of that.

Being open and honest about the company’s objectives, mission, and vision is essential to a startup, I can assure you having worked for both small start-ups and large technology companies. A startup will be made or broken by it. It doesn’t sound like she is interested in building the right product, which should be your top priority.

Without any guidance, you can’t make a roadmap out of thin air. She wants you to create the direction by determining what your users want or need, unless there really isn’t any direction from her incompetence.

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The best course of action is to leave, but during the hopefully brief time you are still there, you should seize the chance to develop these things independently since the CEO is not handling them for you.

It’s not always clear why people you work with want the things they ask you to do, so learning how to get that information out of them without making them angry is a very useful skill to develop.

In the department I worked in, initiatives were simply handed down rather than actual OKRs or goals that fit the SMART acronym. As a result, I went backwards and determined why each initiative was on their roadmap, after which I set my own departmental goals and shared them with my team. Your most frequently used sentence will be “So it sounds like you want X because it will deliver Y outcome, do I have that right?”

By saying, “We were planning to do X to get Y outcome, but if we do Z we will get 2Y outcome,” you can push back against their plan.

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I’m trying to see if there’s a version of answers that don’t involve running away (that is probably what you might need to do at the end anyway, still). Have you attempted to reach agreement on goals with the rest of the team? When I’ve previously run into resistance from an obstinate noob leader, a gut check—does the rest of her team comprehend what they’re creating and where they’re going—has proven to be extremely helpful.

I can imagine a conversation in which you “confront” the CEO by stating that you talked to the other team members as you were creating the roadmap and that it became clear that no one understood why they were doing it, so they instead just concentrated on adding building blocks without making sure they fit together. Use this chance to ask her if she understands the distinction between a TPM/Project Manager and a Product Manager, two terms with very different definitions.

She may be in over her head, like most founders, and is (often appropriately) concentrating on execution and putting things together piecemeal. You might learn the true need for and validity of your position at this company through this process, and when you leave, you won’t have any regrets.