Friend, does this ring a bell? Some of your co-workers treat you as you’re like the kid in high school who thinks he or she has the answer to every question. Even if and when you’re the data-driven product manager who actually backs your assumptions with data, you’re being stereotyped, even bullied into thinking that the know-it-all is you, often arguments that don’t describe you at all but are designed to turn people against you:
There are one or two things that can have happened here. First, it might not necessarily be you: in organizations, as soon as you’re good at what you do, you turn into a target for mediocre know-nothing co-worker cliques. Second, this can be simply inexperience in emotional intelligence, which isn’t something you learn at school. Ask yourself: do you speak too loudly or you find yourself interrupting people because you’re too excited to talk? Are you taking criticism personally?
Bottom line is that none of this is good – it will eventually become toxic to you and your reputation and eventually this can lead to a career dead-end.
So, here’s a few pointers on how to influence as a product manager, without dictating and most importantly without manipulating (this is definitely not the point) and in time, turn foes into friends, meanwhile not losing your talent and your soul.
Anyone familiar with product management has heard the phrase ‘influence without authority’ at least a million times, because as a Product Manager, you’re guiding product development along, but you have to do that without being the captain of the ship.
In other words, you somehow have to bring together a bunch of tech professionals such as data scientists, UX and UI designers, software engineers, etc. and make a valuable and functional product happen. That’s difficult enough without also not being their boss. That’s when the analogy of being “The CEO of the Product” fails: a CEO has all the authority in the world and the product manager has none of it.
Indeed, influencing in the context of product management is the essential soft skill of driving product development and ‘telling people what to do’ without formally being authorized to do so. In other words, Product managers need to lead and guide without having the power to snap their fingers and make things happen, and the most effective way to do that is to build up influence.
So how do you achieve the end result you desire without overtly “telling people what to do”? How do you shape the opinions of others, make sure that there is alignment between all key stakeholders, from vision to prioritization, and keep everyone on board at all times and moving in the same direction?
In a nutshell, influence as a PM is built over time from interactions with team members, especially how you communicate your decisions in order to convince people to go along with your ideas and your track record of product success, which will inform how much they can trust your decision making process.
A good PM is an excellent influencer and diplomat, and honing this soft skill takes a lot of time to develop and polish. Here are a few areas that are critical to your success:
1. Overact on listening. it’s all about creating a safe environment where people feel that their ideas are heard and valued. The best way to get there is to hold brainstorming sessions very regularly, be intent on having collaboration sessions and have repositories for ideas for discussion. In other words, you need to work hard to bring people in at all times and make sure they know that what they say has an impact
2. Always explain the ‘why’. All the reasons behind a product manager’s decisions are very important – people are smart they want to see the data, the research, understand the reasoning, They want to have perspective on the thought process. So make a point of giving it to them.
3. Always back up your assumptions and reasoning with data. it’s all about honesty not opinion. Using the adequate research and data also shows that you’ve taken the time to make sure that your instincts are to the best of your knowledge, correct, at the time that you’re making the decision, and your only bias is objectivity.
4. Your personal brand matters. Thought leadership matters, human connections matter, anything you do shapes other peoples’ opinion of you. The best way to generate lasting credibility is creative work such as designing an e-book, writing your own blog, giving talks, or anything that’s on your own time and shows your passion for product.
5. Be a visionary. The north star, the product vision, is your greatest tool for achieving alignment. And over time, build a proven track record with your team, company and industry.
6. Bribe ethically. Always think about the “what’s in it for me?” with your teammates. For example, the UX designer cares about the user experience, and less about the sales process. So if you’re asking them to do something that mostly benefits the sales team, find a way to bring it back to how they’ll also benefit from it.
7. Resistance is futile. In organizations you’ll always find people who disagree with you and vice versa. If there is resistance, do take the time to understand what it is all about (yes it’s most certainly always cumbersome and time consuming) and where it comes from. You then need to find all the opportunity to explain and debunk the criticism. V important. It’s won’t go away so instead embrace it and deal with it. In the end, you’ll also avoid future problems.
In conclusion, being an influential Product Manager is about working with people by earning their respect, and, as you grow in your product career, the amount of formal authority you will have will grow, but being able to influence without resorting to power plays will always remain an critically valuable skill.
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My name's phil mora and I blog about the things I love: fitness, hacking work, tech and anything holistic.
Head of Product
thinker, doer, designer, coder, leader