To me, the role of Product Management is to identify opportunities presented by users, customers, or the market, and then to capitalize on that opportunity by leveraging the collective capabilities of the company (by building software, designing a shoe, offering a service, etc). Notice that Product is merely working with other divisions to accomplish the ultimate goal of seizing opportunity. While Product Managers (PdMs) tend to be intelligent, well-rounded people, they are not experts in all areas required to make a product successful, nor should they be.
Steve Jobs famously said “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” It’s typically not Product’s job to hire the entire team, but PdMs should follow the same sentiment when working across the company. The PdM won’t necessarily have direct “authority” (in terms of reporting structure) over engineers, marketers, or designers but will need to leverage all of their skill sets and input in order to make their product initiative a success. Enter the need to be able to lead without authority.
Before diving into how to effectively lead without authority, it’s worth highlighting a few day to day examples of why Product must lead without authority. At the highest level, Product may need to rally people from several teams behind an idea or opportunity. Perhaps there is an opportunity for much needed revenue or an idea for a new feature that a PdM feels strongly about, they will need to gain buy-in from people across the company, above and below them, to drive their initiative to success. Once an initiative is off and running, PdMs play a key role in motivating all parts of the team to execute and maintain a consistent cadence. While this is also a shared responsibility by those involved, the PdM should keep the team focused and engaged to move the project forward. Finally on a more micro level, PdMs help lead and facilitate smaller decisions on a daily basis. For anything from a design change to an adjustment in priorities, the PdM will need to help ensure proper due diligence is done and provide insight/direction from their point of view.
Given this context, I believe these are three of the top techniques for leading without authority:
Evangelize your vision and desired outcome
In order to lead a team to achieve your product goals, you must provide your view of the future first. I like to think of this in the form of a vision, showing how you see this particular plan playing out, and in the form of a desired outcome, providing a more tangible end goal. The former is not a prescription of how the product/initiative must look in the end, but a story about the potential of the initiative, which should energize the team to participate. The latter is more solid; it gives everyone a tangible metric or goal to work toward and gives context to why the project is important. This will become more important in point two.
As you convey your vision, try to tell a story that will resonate with your audience and that goes past the conclusion of current project. You want your team to be energized by the impact that this project will have and where it will take the company in the future.
When providing a desired outcome, I find it best to accompany it with solid reasoning and data about why it is the right thing to “chase” right now. Many times, this ties back to a company goal, tactic/strategy, or vision, and it’s important for everyone you’re working with to understand that.
Leave it to the experts
As we’ve already noted, it’s most effective to allow experts in each area to own decisions in their particular domain. That is why point one is so important. It allows the PdM to think deeply about the vision and desired outcome for a given initiative, and then leverage the collective and individual expertise of each team member to make decisions in their space. A PdM that tries to dictate solutions or approaches in others’ areas of expertise will likely make suboptimal decisions and sour relationships along the way.
To do this effectively, present your end goal to each stakeholder, and then ask a lot of questions about how they think they’ll help achieve the goal from their perspective. Try to understand what they see as critical, then help them formulate a plan to achieve that. The most important point here is to put your faith in their decision, while making sure everyone knows how all of the pieces fit together.
Celebrate the hard work
After all of the releases, campaigns, tests, cold calls, and mockups the product has achieved its desired outcome or at least you’ve learned a ton along the way. Along that journey it’s important to celebrate the team’s accomplishments but even more important to put the emphasis on those that you’ve worked with. After all, they likely did majority of the leg work and they typically aren’t the first to be recognized when others think of the product or initiative. Showing this genuine praise will help you gain trust from those on your team, and will attract others in the organization to want to work with you on future projects.
Praise can come in a lot of ways. It could be giving someone credit in a meeting with other leaders, a post in your #general Slack channel, or an explicit callout at an all company meeting. As long as it’s authentic, praising your team’s work will return dividends when you’re in the trenches together. Honorable mention for this point: get to know your colleagues on a personal level and don’t be an jerk.
While leading without authority is a less technical Product Management skill, I contend that it is the most important skill for a PdM to have. So much of the job depends on coordination across the company (which cannot be made up for with intellect or time), that it’s hard to make progress without it. Experiment around with these techniques to see what works with your leadership style; you’ll know you’re on the right track when you no longer feel like you’re fighting for control.