When we say that Product Managers “lead through influence,” most people think of building rapport with the execution teams to ensure that you have the personal and professional leverage required to get them to do something without challenging things for their own reasons. But that’s really only a small piece of the overall leadership puzzle, and in many ways it’s also the easiest part — assuming that you know something about the market, that you know something about the users, and that you know something about the problems they’re facing, most of the “management” of delivery teams will come rather easily over time.
Where things get trickier, and where many of the career land mines lay for the unwary Product Manager, are those who sit above you — those in leadership positions within the organization. They often have (or claim to have) more product knowledge than you, more market knowledge than you, more customer knowledge than you, and more direct authoritative power than you. Knowing and understanding how to build your own relationships with your leadership team is an essential skill for the successful Product Manager, and here are a few tips that you can use to ensure that you’re growing your influence among the leadership team and not ceding your limited authority to that team.
Humility Works Wonders
The first, and most important thing to remember as a Product Manager who wants to “manage up” is that you are not a member of the leadership team (at least, you’re not really a member, in most organizations). The team that makes the C-level decisions are people who have worked really hard to get where they are, and whether you realize it or not, there’s a lot that you can learn from them — even if it’s the things not to do. The point is, if you approach a member of a leadership team with an air of superiority or arrogance, you’re going to get cut down like a weed in a field of grass. Just don’t do it — even if the team member is clearly in the wrong; even if you have reams of data showing that they’re wrong; even if you personally talked to the customer they’re referencing and heard the exact opposite thing. Take the tack that works best — invite them to share their knowledge with you; invite them to have a discussion about the topic, outside the eyes and ears of others. Show them that you’re willing to learn, and interested in what they know. From there, you can correct and discuss in an environment that’s actually productive without them feeling as though you’re attacking them, their credibility, or ultimately their authority.
A little bit of humility goes a long way — even if it means swallowing your pride on occasion to move the company or the product in the right direction.
Do Your Homework
Working with strong personalities requires that we engage ourselves in the kind and depth of research that might seem redundant or unnecessary. If you’ve got three customers all indicating that there’s a major feature missing in your product, that seems like directional input. And that might be sufficient. But it might not be if your CEO has talked to four customers in the past six months, all who told him something else because they were hand-picked for that feedback. When working to establish trust, respect, and credibility, we have to over-analyze things so that it’s clear that (1) we know what we’re talking about, (2) we’ve made the effort to collect supporting data, and (3) we’ve anticipated objections and roadblocks and can already account for them.
The classic quote I’m reminded of is from Jim Barksdale of Netscape fame: “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, we’ll go with mine.” Don’t allow the discussion to be based on opinion; otherwise you’re pre-destined to lose.
Not every thing that you want to do or plan will rely on the same group of key leadership stakeholders. Different leaders care about different things at different times. And while it’s good to get a consensus around direction, you’ll also want to make sure that you have different groups of leadership team members available to you for different needs at different times. It’s also important to know who thinks what about your (and others’) plans before you get the leadership team into a single room to discuss important topics. As a PM, you should have regular 1:1 meetings — both formal and informal — with these key stakeholders, so that you maintain your finger on their pulse and can understand and anticipate how they’re likely to respond to any change or proposal that might come down the pike.
You should always try your hardest to work with the members of your leadership team; any choice to work against them, even for the right reasons, should be carefully considered against potential future losses you may incur.