We’re often told that Product Managers “lead through influence” — that we don’t generally have the direct authority to get things done, but rather do so through convincing others of the best option available from the myriad choices they have. The bad news is, that’s really damn hard. The good news is, we’re not alone — in any given organization there are many different teams and members who lead through influence rather than authority…and identifying who they are and how we can work together with them is an essential tool that every Product Manager needs to have in their back pocket in order to be successful. Here are some clues that we can look for to identify those fellow influencers so that we can work with them and not against them.
I was working with a future mentee last week and we noticed a recurring theme to some of our discussions — that a large part of good Product Management results from limiting the number of choices that our teams and our executives have to choose from, so that they make decisions that reflect the actual priorities that should be driving our next moves. In most organizations, there is an almost unlimited number of ideas, concepts, directions, and motivations from which to choose — and trying to manage all of them at once is certain to drive any Product Manager insane in very short order. Rather, in order to ensure that we’re doing the right things at the right times, we need to be constantly limiting the possible permutations upon which we drive decisions so that we can be sure that we’re moving in the right direction while being open to new ideas and concepts!
I’m often asked what I think makes a successful Product Manager, and after giving it some thought, I’ve narrowed it down to one key factor: Clarity. When applied to our daily jobs, this can mean any number of things: clarity of communication, clarity of purpose, driving discussions to clarity, or even insisting on clarity from others. But to me, clarity is perhaps the number one indicator of whether or not something that you’re doing is going to be successful. After all, if it’s not clear why, how, or for whom you’re doing something, can you actually measure your success or failure? Some companies thrive on a culture that lacks clarity — perhaps because a lack of clarity often goes hand-in-hand with a lack of responsibility and accountability.
Let’s look at some ways that clarity drives us to be successful in everything that we do…
We’ve all been there — whether you’re a Product Manager or not, you’ve sat in a meeting that’s going far longer than it should, horribly off-agenda, listening to people bicker about some minor point that’s preventing anyone from moving forward and actually making an actionable decision. Usually what happens is the loudest person in the room wears down everyone else until they feel that they’ve achieved some perverted form of “victory” before either the meeting runs out of time, or (even worse) they think that their decision is that of the group and there’s nothing more to discuss. This is especially a problem if, as is the case in many smaller companies, the loudest voice in the room also just happens to belong to the CEO or COO of the organization. These meetings are the bane of everyone’s existence, not only because they’re ultimately pointless and a waste of everyone’s time, but because they contribute to a culture of direction from the top and not innovation from the ground up. If the CEO is always right, then there’s no point in anyone who’s not the CEO making decisions.
But that’s not how these meetings should happen, and it’s not how they have to happen. With a little bit of planning and preparation, any good Product Manager can run an effective meeting where people feel like their voice has been heard, their positions understood, and everyone leaves the room with a mutually-agreed plan in place.
Know Your Players
I like to think of a meeting as an opportunity to exercise my directorial skills — and I mean that in the theatrical sense. Every great director knows not just which parts his performers will play, but how they will play them. You don’t cast someone meek and quiet to play Sky Masterson in Guys & Dolls, and you don’t cast a loud, obnoxious diva to play Christine Daaé in Phantom of the Opera. You know the roles, and you know the players available to you — and it’s your job as a director to place the right people in the right role at the right time to see them shine onstage. Similar considerations need to be given when planning your meetings. Who’s the person on the exec team for whom nothing is ever good enough? Who’s the manager always looking to promote one of their team players over themselves? Who’s the director always looking for the next innovation to try out? By knowing the players in the meetings that you’re scheduling, you can predict to a high level of certainty how that meeting will play out, assuming that you structure it correctly, anticipate objections and concerns, and facilitate the shit out of that thing!
The Meeting’s Not the Meeting
Regardless of how well you know the players, you have to realize that the meeting isn’t actually the meeting. The meeting is the opportunity for everyone to get together and air their grievances — kind of like Festivus. But the real meeting happens outside the “meeting”. Any time you just get a large group of people into a room, you’re going to have chaos — sometimes it’s controlled chaos, but it’s chaos nonetheless. This is why we meet with every stakeholder who’s going to influence the decision before the meeting. This is where we do the heavy lifting, where we figure out what it’s going to take to move the person to a “yes” and to eke out all of the objections that they might be holding onto, waiting for the right opportunity to cast their die on the table. If we fail to meet ahead of the “meeting” we’re doing nothing but throwing our direction to chance. We don’t do that — as Product Managers we play the role of the House, and the House only gambles when they know they’re going to come out ahead.
Drive to Decision
It’s so easy to just give in when a meeting starts to go sideways — when you have your CEO staring at his phone, and your Director of Marketing writing emails to their subordinates, and your VP of Sales reviewing their weekly numbers. So don’t let them. Demonstrate to them that you value their time, and require that they value theirs. Focus the meeting, focus the discussion, pull people out of their laptops (by force, if necessary), but drive to a decision. Make outrageous statements, make a declaration that a decision has already been made, don’t show more than two options — one if at all possible. Structure your entire meeting, from beginning to end, around making a decision that matters and take the time after that meeting to confirm it and to plan the next steps. We had a rule at one company I worked at that if you walked out of the meeting, you walked out of the decision — a rule that our CEO tested once, probably inadvertently. Needless to say, he never left our meetings early again. Make rules, stick to them. Make an agenda, stick to it. Take only as long as you need to come to a decision — if everyone agrees in the first 5 minutes, that’s 55 minutes they have to go do real work.
If you can demonstrate to others that you’re dedicated to respecting them, respecting their time, and making actionable decisions, they’ll naturally follow. If you let them run roughshod over you every chance they get, they’ll happily do that as well. The decision is yours to make, so do the right thing.
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.
There’s no Product Manager alive who hasn’t spent time dreading a HiPPO attack; the sudden derailing of well-laid plans by a management or executive-level stakeholder who insisted that their direction was the right one simply because it was their idea – regardless of whether or not they’d actually done any research or validation.
This is the HiPPO problem – the moment when the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion” is asserted as fact and intended to be directional. Often, these HiPPOs come from the executive level, from the CEO who has a new “vision” for the company or from the CTO who wants to take the company’s technology in a “new direction.” HiPPOs can also pop up in other contexts, such as sales management trying to ram through a hypothetically big sale, development managers asserting that they know the “only” way to solve a problem, or service delivery management teams insisting that the way they use the product is the way all customers use the product.
HiPPOs usually come with good intent – rarely does the HiPPO represent ill intent or a desire to be obstructive; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re right or that they should be allowed to dictate product direction without further investigation.
It’s often stated that Product Managers “lead through influence” rather than through position. And people smile and nod, and occasionally clap their hands in agreement.
But how many people really think about what this means, and how to achieve it?