It’s a common truth that’s discussed in Product Management circles that we generally do not lead through direction, from a position of direct power or authority; but rather through influence, indirectly and by convincing others to go in the direction we want or desire. But what does this really mean, and how can we best explain the concept to people who are just starting out on their Product Management careers with some feeling that they’ll be the “CEO of the Product”, delivering dictates and orders and just sitting back and watching things happen? How can we help these poor souls to adjust to the reality of the modern Product Management world, which is that you have zero ability to force your perspectives, and must rely on others to take your plans and buy in to bring them to fruition?
In the Beginning…
I’ll admit, back in the early days, I was one of those neophytes who saw the Product Manager as the “God” of the product, but that’s because I was watching exceptionally good Product Managers work the system as though it required no effort, no extraordinary means, and who made it look easy. Of course, once I actually got the job, I very quickly learned how the realities of the role conflict with the appearance that one has from the outside. Fortunately, those same Product Managers whom I looked to as effortless creators were also excellent mentors, and took me under their wing to show me the “truth” of Product Management — that your ideas and direction and strategy mean nothing unless the other people around you can see the same vision and buy in completely.
What “Leading Through Influence” Really Means
There’s a common misconception that a “true” Product Manager is the “CEO of the Product” — but that’s not usually the case. Rather, the CEO is usually the “CEO of the Product” and the Product Manager is one of many important voices that have input onto the direction of the product. But, while others have direct lines of authority, the Product Manager must build coalitions among those decision-makers in order to move their own agenda forward, and at the same time keep the tactical execution teams engaged and motivated to bring the product efforts to fruition. This is what it means to “lead through influence” — to have no direct authority but ultimate responsibility for the performance and delivery of the product.
Leading through influence means building up a network of strong relationships built on trust and respect, and understanding how to present your ideas and your research in the right way to the right person at the right time to lead them in the direction you believe that they should go. It’s about understanding the power dynamics within the business and knowing which decision makers need to be on-board with a direction before any group discussions begin. It’s about leveraging your own knowledge and experience in a way that makes others feel comfortable relying on you for insight and information that they will use to make their decisions. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s about being transparent in your own work so that others know and understand where you’re coming from and why you’re suggesting the direction and strategic goals that you are.
“Leading Through Influence” in Practice
Chances are, if you’ve found yourself in a role in Product Management, you’re actually already quite capable of leading through influence. It’s pretty rare that someone lands a PM job without demonstrating some capability of influencing others — in fact, that’s how most people wind up with the job, expressing their desire to move into the role and convincing the hiring manager(s) that they’re up to the task. In the day-to-day world, though, there are really two main contexts in which Product Managers need to lead through influence: managing up and managing down.
By far the most grueling of the two, managing up through influence requires a lot of political savvy, a strong background in research and analysis, and a whole lot of soft skill networking to build up the coalitions that you’ll need in the future. The easiest part of this is the latter part — building your coalitions; this is done simply by “showing up” and being present, both in work and at work-related events. You want to ensure that each of the decision-makers that you’re going to need to work with (and at some point, rely on) knows who you are as an employee and as a person. They need to know what you bring to the table, why you’re an important asset to the company (and to them, by proxy), and how you approach problems and propose solutions. They also need to know that you’re not just some market-driven automaton, but that you have personal interests that in some way, shape, or form, interface with theirs. This is the process of building social capital — and it’s what will set you up to succeed later on, when you need something from one of these decision-makers that they may not be initially inclined to give.
And that’s where the politics come in. You need to understand how decisions are made in your company, when they’re made, and who’s involved in those decisions — at every level of the organization. Is you CEO the hands-on type who drops into daily scrum meetings and randomizes your developers? Or is she the hands-off type who delegates everything but analyst meetings, press briefings, and investment presentations to the other leaders in the organization? How much influence does Sales have on the strategy/tactics of the company? Marketing? IT and Development? You need to maintain a mental map of all of this when you’re trying to bring people to a decision that you want them to come to — and you need to exert your influence wherever it should go to optimize your chances of the “right” outcome. You need to meet with each of these decision-makers individually, and assess their interest and backing in your direction. Only then do you bring them all together what is (hopefully) simply a head-nodding exercise where everyone sees that everyone else who matters backs your play. Bringing these folks together without having done your due diligence is a recipe for disaster — just like no lawyer asks questions of a witness they don’t already know the answer to, not good Product Manager should bring a group of decision-makers together without already assuring the outcome.
This part of the job is, thankfully, the easier of the two — though it starts out the same way. To effectively managed downward into the tactical execution, you need to make sure that you have strong relationships both with the management as well as with the individual contributors that are going to influence the outcomes that you want to achieve. This doesn’t necessarily mean knowing everyone by name, or knowing each employee’s favorite drink (though that wouldn’t hurt), but because there’s a larger pool of people in the trenches, it’s about cultivating relationships with the people whom others trust and respect, so that you can leverage the influence already built in achieving your strategic goals.
The other difference between managing up and managing down is that managing down is usually best done humbly, while managing up requires a certain amount of self-assurance. The people in the trenches are probably doing things that you can’t actually do yourself (or at least not to the level that they are doing so). They’re the ones who spend all their day behind code, or on the phones, or planning marketing events — all so that you don’t have to. Respect that. Be curious about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and show a willingness to learn and an honest interest in their day-to-day jobs. Use your Product Manager hat to figure out things that you can do or that the product teams can do to make their jobs easier, then deliver something out of the blue that they weren’t necessarily expecting. Show them that you care, that you understand what they do, that you’re willing to share with them the why as well as the what, and they’ll follow you to the ends of the earth. Treat them like automatons or order-takers in a virtual kitchen, and your work will never see the light of day.