Ep. 8: How Do You Say No to the CEO?

Ep. 8: How Do You Say No to the CEO?

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Hope Gurion: Have you ever had your CEO swoop in with a great idea or a big customer commitment and completely derail your product roadmap? Then you are going to want to watch this episode of Fearless Product Leadership. In it, we are going to hear from not five, but six experienced product leaders and they are going to share exactly how they recommend you say ‘No’ to the CEO. In it we are going to hear their very specific stories and recommended tactics for how you can deal with things like ‘Shiny Objects Syndrome’, a big customer promise and how you can expose the practicalities of opportunity cost, if we were to say yes instead of no to the CEO’s request.

What is awesome about the perspectives on today’s episode is that this CEO and VP of Product negotiation plays out in every organization. Why? Because most CEOs are ambitious and want to accomplish many goals for their investors, customers and employees and the need for the head of Product to focus on the most critical, impactful goals with finite resources. It often comes to a head and then head of product must figure out to what and how to say NO.  I also love the fact that 6 of 7 of the leaders on today’s episode who successfully say no to the CEO are women!

Let’s get right into it.  In this episode we hear from:

  • Amanda Richardson, CEO of Rabbit who formerly led Product at Hotel Tonight, Prezi and Snagajob

  • Ezinne Udueze, VP of Product at Bazaarvoice

  • Laura Marino, SVP of Product at Lever

  • Troy Anderson, Chief Product Officer at SPINS

  • Lucinda Newcomb, VP of Personalization at Walmart and former VP of Digital Product at Sephora

  • Lauren Antonelli, former head of Product and now Chief of Staff at evite, 

Hope Gurion: First up, Amanda Richardson shares her two criteria that most often led her to say No to her CEOs and now as a CEO herself, what she wants her head of product to bring to the table when saying No.

Amanda Richardson: To say no to the CEO is hard. I guess I'll start by talking about when I ran product and I did this reporting to three different CEOs and most the time when I wanted to go against the CEO or  say no I mean it's a delicate balance right there are always ideas. He or she, CEO will come up with ten things a day and they probably send three your way and so, you have to pick and choose what you can actually say no to versus what's worth exploring. But generally speaking, when I'm saying now it's because the idea really doesn't fit in for two reasons: one, it either it doesn't align with our user or the user problem we're solving or two, it doesn't fit in strategically. And so, if it doesn't really fit either of those, I think you have to just try it and see if it works and find a way to rapidly iterate or prototype or test out what's possible. I think of different features that would come up at hotel tonight around. Things that Jason is doing a hotel booking which wasn't part of our strategy. But people would say wouldn't it be cool if I'm a lot of time in  the roadmap for ‘wouldn't it be cool if’ or ‘I'm really happy to do but wouldn't it be cool if’ I could get ten engineers to  work on the ‘cool if’ that doesn't really exist. So, I think the biggest thing you can do is just set out your criteria for all ideas and it's not just the CEOs idea, the CEO is treated just like everybody else in any organization. And it’s certainly as you know, a head of product you get to say no more than you get to say yes which is a tough part of the job. But I think it's an important part of the job. That said now that I'm CEO, I have a totally different perspective. I still think my answer was the right one and I still think I want my head of product to say, no Amanda that doesn't fit with our strategy or no you actually that doesn't align with what our users want. I just came out of a meeting actually where we were talking about a new bookmarking feature here at Rabbit and you know I had, “Oh wouldn't it be  cool if it did this thing” that solved all these problems around  bookmarking, all of your content across different services and credits and my  designer who looked at me and said, “Yeah, that would be cool, but that's not what  we're trying to solve with this feature” and I was like, “Damn! That hurts” but it's absolutely the right answer it. So, aligning with the strategy and knowing the user and I think if you can bring that both in terms of data as well as kind of words or kind of a story about your features that you are building versus what you're not building, I think it'll help you say no to the CEO. 

Hope Gurion: Next, Ezinne Udueze VP of Product at Bazaarvoice shares her story of when a CEO faced demand pressure for a new product from partners and customers that the product team couldn’t support and how she navigated that tricky situation.

Ezinne Udueze: As a product leader, you're going to have to know how and when to say no to the CEO and I've had a few opportunities to do that. I don't know if they're good opportunities, but it has happened. the story I like I'd like to share with you is, one of building out our API ecosystem with our partner. So, the team had built out what I've call an MVP or prototype for what an API that did what you'd call a response function, would look like. And we were able to get some of our big clients on it. We asked three really big clients on this MVP. We are also on boarded a partner, who was using the API to serve these three clients. Over time we realized that what we had was really going to be a big deal for our clients and there was going to be a heavy adoption. However, the architecture we used to build, it wasn't the right one so, we need we knew we needed to really build this and build out the scaffolding for this and ensure that it would be reliable and extensible in the long run. So, we moved on and decided we're going to do this the true version the new version of the API. Our partner was excited about the opportunity and was willing and ready to start selling on this API. And they were a very important partner to us. My CEO got a call from the CEO of this VAT company as well as some of our biggest clients, asking for us to open and extend the ability for this partner to make available this API or the yeah, the application would use the API to them. This would have made money for us and for the partner, it was fantastic. But the demand also meant that we would be tasking what I call our, MVP API and it wasn't the right thing to do so, our C's that would have gone up like, my team would have spent a lot of time onboarding new clients, it was the wrong decision. So, I just spent some time with my CEO, talk him through it and he got it. However, he got more calls from our clients as well as the CEO of the partner and put a lot more pressure and it's just having him see the data of how long it takes on board on a prototype API as well as the cost. To me the opportunity cost of building the future thing, it took a little bit of time, helping him see it but he got it eventually I was able to come around and let us give us the time necessary to build an API. Now we have three vendors on-boarded and can serve many more clients in a more reliable stable way. So, that's my story of saying no.

Hope Gurion: Next Troy Anderson, who leads product and technology at SPINS, shares his favorite technique for saying no to the CEO by saying yes. 

Troy Anderson: [Inaudible] Another example is you know, one of the things that C is are they good at typically is having a strong vision. And part of having a strong vision is seeing the connections between all things. And so oftentimes there's kind of a shiny object thing that occurs like oh! it was nothing about x-ray I read this article why aren't we doing. And my answer to the shiny object and money no back to the CEOs [Inaudible] absolutely I'd love to, all I mean it's twelve people and we'll get you that shiny object. And usually the ask for resources is the thing that gets you to agree. Oh, yeah most public the right answer because and what can we give you twelve people. Now, oftentimes she'll get pushback saying, well, why can't we just have the existing people do that. Well, these are all the priorities that we've already kind of set up. So, you know if you'd like to say no to one of those, I'm happy to say yes. So, it's always trade-off and make available it [Inaudible] for your CEO to you know, explore something they knew that's completely fine. But they have to say no to something else or they have to say ‘Yes’.

Hope Gurion: Now we’ll hear from Lucinda Newcomb, who leads personalization and discovery products at Walmart.com describe how she exposes unrealistic expectations and opportunity cost when reconciling ambitious goals with real constraints.

Lucinda Newcomb: To manage expectations is hard on any day. It is insanely hard when you're talking about a CEO. Because the way CEOs become CEOs is, they have unrealistic goals and expectations and they can get everybody rallied around, this is the right thing to do. So, they have two things usually: number one, is an ability to ignore reality in order to get everybody rallied around a goal to actually move a huge ship and get everybody aligned on having to go figure something out as well as they aren't in the details. If they were in the details and understood all the constraints, then they wouldn't be doing their job they'd be doing your job. So, when you find a CEO who has unrealistic expectations which to be clear, they always do. Number one: don't be surprised and number two: help them understand what it about their expectations is that is in fact unreasonable. I had one situation where you know, we have been working on this one initiative that I won't name for probably two years and well, we've been talking about it for three we've been working on it for two we've been making significant  investments but all along I've been saying, look this is hard and this is something that is actually requires insane investment and foundational work. It's also a huge change management aspect, changing how all of our business  partners how everybody needs to work and yet there are other people in the room  who are saying hey, we're going to find 50  million dollars of revenue upside out of this and you know there's CEOs. The thing that they're going to hear and that is, okay I can go get free money and they're not going to hear it's hard to get it  and you actually have to work your way to get it, there's no free ride they're  hearing free money but that's what their board is asking about that is what their what their stakeholders and their bosses want to see. And so you know, in this particular situation, I had to explain to the CEO that you know, this is a little bit like going to Louie Vuitton with a hundred dollar gift card and being surprised you can't have the new purse, like you don't get something amazing for free and  that's just not how it works and if there were such a thing as a silver bullet we would all be packing them. So, the first thing is to you know, help them understand what really it is because if the more you just sit there and say this is hard, it's really hard, you know they stopped listening. So, I always look at it and say okay so, if our long-term strategic goal is X, this is what's going to take to get here. But what are some of the quick wins that we can be doing in parallel so how do we have a portfolio approach to both give you the confidence that we are going to see the benefit, the long-term benefits that we hope to by proving it out with some of these quick wins. Well, in parallel investing in the longer-term strategic that's that we need to make in order to have long-term success. So, it comes down to the fact you can't just say “No”. “No” doesn't really get you where you want to be. But you also can't just say “Yes” and then not be able to deliver. So, how to hear from them what is it that they need in order to show progress and find ways to problem-solve to come up with the progress in ways that they can give that confidence and by you the credibility to be able to make sure that you hit their long-term goals. 

Hope Gurion: Next Laura Marino, SVP of Product at Lever, shares her story of that time when her CEO made a customer promise that Laura had to unwind and her 3 recommendations to product leaders when dealing with this situation.

Laura Marino: So, Have I had to say no to my CEO? Yes, more than once! But there were two specific situations that I wanted to share because I think that those are not uncommon for heads of products especially in b2b. In the first one, I had to say no to building a feature that our biggest customer wanted and that the CEO had committed to. When you're in a b2b startup, it is very important to secure those very valuable early adopters who will help you define the product, who will be your partners and who will provide those very important reference. And so, it's a head of product during those early days, you will have to accommodate unique requests from those early adopters even if you don't think that those are the most important things you could build. But if the company starts growing and you start bringing in hundreds or thousands of customers, you can no longer accommodate every request that every single one of your early adopters had. Because if you do, they will take over your entire roadmap and you will probably miss the market. So, this was pretty much the situation we were at. We had this big long-term customer who had a whole list of things they wanted us to do, we had accommodated many of the things they wanted, we had accelerated things in the roadmap to accommodate them but they have this one request that we knew nobody else in the market wanted. So, we were not going to accommodate that one. We were planning to explain to them that that would be something that we might consider in a couple of years. So, we were having our quarterly call with the customer and the CEO decided to join the call and in the middle of the call, she essentially promised that we would deliver on this feature and she said that she would get back to them as soon as possible, telling them exactly how quickly we could deliver. Of course, I wasn't very happy. I waited until the end of the call and then I went to talk to my CEO. And I explained to her, I said if we were to accommodate this feature, we're going to be pushing out things that are way more important for our sales team, for our prospects and for most of our existing customers. So, once she realized the big trade-off that we were going to have to make, she agreed. So, we had to go back in backtrack with the customer which is never fun. We were able to accommodate a few things by offering them to do stuff through our professional services team, not ideal but at least we were able to not derail the roadmap to accommodate that feature. So, I think that for me, the biggest takeaway or the biggest recommendation for heads of product is: first of all, be aware of which ones are those early customers that have this direct line to the CEO. Then make sure that the CEO while keeping a relationship with those customers, starts delegating to you anything that has to do with conversations about product roadmap and product commitments. And third, be prepared to say no to those customers and it's not easy up but I do have one recommendation that has worked well for me and it is bring together in a customer roundtable or a customer council, some of those big important customers. Bring them together and let them talk about their priorities. It is very powerful when one of your customers who has this very unique request, starts hearing this that his or her peers really don't care about it. So, then they kind of realize well, maybe this isn't as important. That's kind of my recommendation there.

Hope Gurion: Finally Lauren Antonelli of Evite, shares her story of a situation when she and her CEO were not aligned on what to do next, how she navigated it through honest conversations and the critical importance of working with a CEO who is open to the ideas of others.

Lauren Antonelli: If you're the head of product or your coaching PMS in a small company, they're probably going to have some kind of interaction with the CEO and especially if your product is your business you know, he or she will have opinions on it, they might have feedback, it could be informed or not informed, it could be “this happened to me at a kid's birthday party” this weekend kind of thing so, fix but you know, I do think that having it is a really hard thing just to  walk in and just say no to CEO. Okay if you're one year in your career or you're like 10 years in your career. So, I almost think that a better way to approach it is to ask questions to your CEO and make sure that you feel comfortable being able to do that and even asking permission to ask a question opens up a completely different dialogue between two people. So, we call it using inquiry or advocacy and really making sure that you use questions to get to where you need to go. Nobody wants to walk into a room and have somebody tell them “no”. If you're a CEO or not you know, if I say to PM's all the time like you don't like walking into a room with developers and then telling you now so, why would you do that to somebody else right? So, I say the figurative "no” to my CEO all the time and I call it figurative because I use sort of questions to get to a place that he sort of makes the decision that I am looking for him to me and I realized that you know, one of the hardest things about being a CEO and I'm realizing this too as I move up in my career is the higher you go the less information you get and  so for you to make a decision, you really do need to rely on the people around you in the subject matter experts throughout the company. So, when I'm coaching PMs on how to have these interactions with our CEO, I tell them you usually have more information than he has. So, how are you able to communicate that so that it can get to the outcome that you're expecting? I am lucky and I realize this, and I realized this from talking to a lot of my colleagues that to have a CEO who listens, I understand that not everybody has that benefit. I'll say that's a game changer in terms of how to work because the time that you can spend managing up, can really kill a team. So, when we talk about getting the organization on the same page, it's got actually start top to middle in a lot of ways because if you're on different pages about what something could be or if you are have a different point of view of what something should be, then you're going to  spend all of your day and your cycles, trying to fight that battle. It's less stuff out the door, it's less work getting shit done, it's more annoying political stuff that just people hate and Drain people emotionally so, you know I've made a personal promise to myself that you know even when I leave evite, I will always work for a leader that I believe in and who is passionate about their product but listens to the people around them. Because I've just seen it so many times work the other way and it's been terrible for people, it's terrible for morale, you know people are checking in and checking out and it's just really not a high-performing organization. So, you know I think it's important to teach PMs how to feel comfortable and giving them tools to be able to challenge anyone or to ask  questions to anyone regardless of where you are you know, on the totem pole.

Hope Gurion: and do you have any examples or stories of like a time when there were so that maybe a strong belief from the CEO and how you were able to use that inquiry method to get him to make the right decision?

Lauren Antonelli: Yeah, I'm thinking about a time earlier this year where we wanted to go a certain way with the product that the product managers in the developers felt really strongly about working on our project. And what they wanted to get out of it and the KPI that they were solving for was it was very customer based, it was definitely what people were saying to us. But our CEO really wanted a different project to be worked on for more of a business KPI. So, you always are going to have this like tug between what the business needs and the customers need and with a finite amount of resources, this is where prioritization gets super hard, right? So, CEO was on just different page and everyone else and I really needed to sort of get him back to where we were on it. And honestly for somebody who listened and as amazing as my CEO, like it was tough, and it took almost like a week of me following up and having different meetings and talking with the same topic with him. Sometimes with other people sometimes just the two of us, being like let's have an honest conversation about this, you and I are not on the same page that's okay we're not always going to agree on  everything but we have to get to a point where we can agree that this is a way that we feel comfortable moving forward. Because we're sitting on this stack capacity, that's very expensive and no one is moving so, neither one of us want that so we really need to get to the same point, and it took a lot of conversations. It took a lot of sitting there and saying okay well if that's what you're solving for that makes sense, but your approach is lacking the throne thinking of this over here. So, what if we did this and this and I presented different ideas, it was a lot of brain stormy talking rather than like this is what we should do a presentation format because he wanted a conversation. In the end of the day he didn't want to just make the decision, he wanted a conversation and he wanted to talk about his idea. Because everybody gets very passionate about their ideas from CEO to a product man there to a developer. So, again like not only is it important to have a CEO that listens, it's important to be a product manager that listens. Because half the time people really just want to share, this is how I'm thinking about it and I think I got something here, taking part of what he wanted and incorporating it into what the rest of the team wanted was really the way that we got past it. So, we didn't [Inaudible] idea but we did take the nugget of what he wanted to solve for and make sure it was part of that product requirements document and he felt much better about it.

Hope Gurion: As a product leader it is inevitable that you're going to encounter a situation where you are trying to reconcile a need or want of your CEO with your very well considered product  strategy and plans. And so, to navigate that situation the things that will help you be successful is first of all:

·      clear company strategy

·      clear product vision 

·      agreed-upon outcome goals and

·      the stakeholder relationships and support for your product strategy and roadmap. 

And then, one of the tactics that wasn't mentioned that I've always found helpful is when you have these competing needs to put forth a presentation of options to be able to accommodate the  CEO’s request but also expose the trade-offs and when you do it, make sure that you include the other members of the leadership team, other CEO direct reports, so that everybody can have a conversation and hear and recognize the pros and cons of what will happen if we take this new input and forego or delay the other things that we had planned on doing. That way it doesn't become a power struggle between you and the CEO. It’s much more around a collaborative and effective leadership team, making a hard choice in given the fact that there's only so many things that can be accomplished in any given time frame. So, that is the advice that I have that you can use in addition to the great advice that we heard from our other product leaders today.

And as always if you've found advice in this episode useful, I'd love to know about it, please reach out on LinkedIn or Twitter. And if you know other product leaders you think you’d benefit from their advice, please be sure to share the fearless product leadership series with them and be sure to subscribe if you haven’t done it already that you can be notified every time we have a new episode about particularly challenging aspect of being a product leader. And good luck saying no to your CEO!

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You can find me, Hope Gurion, on Linkedin and Twitter or subscribe to “Fearless Product Leadership” on your favorite podcast platform to be notified of new episodes.  You will find transcripts, videos versions of each episode as well as more information on my Fearless Product coaching and consulting services by visiting my website, Fearless-Product.com.

Hope Gurion