Product Leadership Skills: Influence Without Authority

This month, we’re focusing on all things Product Leadership. Keep an eye out for events, podcasts, blogs, and more!

Anyone familiar with Product Management will recognize the immortal phrase ‘influence without authority.’ As a Product Manager, you’re a team player who guides product development along its chartered course, but you have to do that without being the literal captain of the ship.

You somehow have to bring together a rowdy bunch of tech professionals (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.”

Some like to compare a Product Manager to the CEO of the product, which we’ve been over before. The key difference between these two roles is authority…the CEO has all of it and you have none of it.

Influence without authority is the skill of driving product development and ‘telling people what to do’ without formally being authorized to do so. You need to lead and guide, without having the power to snap your fingers and make things happen, and the only way to do that is to build up your influence.

The Product Hierarchy: Who Does a Product Manager Answer To?

Product Management is still quite a fluid and subjective title. Adding that to the fact that Product Manager is a role within many different types of business with different structures, we’re left with a lot of uncertainty over who a PM should report to.

You could be a lone PM in a tiny startup with no Product Management team, meaning that you only report to the CEO, or maybe a CTO.

In slightly bigger operations, you’ll probably find yourself as part of a larger PM team, answering to a Senior Product Manager, and maybe a Head of Product, Director of Product, VP of Product etc.

Unless you also happen to be the founder of the company, then you have to manage the product team without having the power to hire, fire, or make high-level decisions.

Confused? Check out our breakdown of how to decode Product Management job titles.

What Does ‘Influence’ Mean?

In this context, influence refers to a PMs ability to achieve the end result they desire. It’s a nice word which essentially means ‘telling people what to do.’

It also means influencing the opinions of others, to make sure you have alignment. For a product’s success, you need all key stakeholders to agree on so many different things. From prioritization to vision, you need everyone on board and moving in the same direction.

Product Managers like to joke that ‘with great responsibility, comes no power.’

Influence is built up by a mixture of how you behave with your teammates, your track record of success, and how you present your decisions. You influence affects how long it takes you to convince people to go along with your ideas, and how much trust they place in your decision-making process.

How to Influence Without Authority

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Influence is like a muscle that needs to be trained and flexed periodically throughout your career. It takes time to develop, and doesn’t just appear overnight.

That being said, it’s still a learned skill which you can begin exercising today, no matter where you are in your career. Here are some of the best ways to begin becoming a more influential Product Manager:

1. Always bring the data

Numbers don’t lie. (OK, sometimes they do, but that’s a topic for another day!) And without data, you’re just another person with an opinion. By using research and data to back up your opinions and decisions, you’ve come armed with evidence that you know what you’re talking about. It shows that you’re informed, you’ve taken the time to make sure your instincts are right, and that you’re basing your choices on objective truth.

2. Show that you’re listening

To be a leader, you need to be an active listener. You need to create a safe environment where people feel their ideas can be shared, with no risk of feeling stupid of under valued. You can start building this environment by actively seeking opportunities to hear fresh ideas. This could involve a team brainstorming session, shared ideas documents, and open invitations to collaborate.

When your teams feel like they’ve been heard, and that they’ve been actively brought into the project, they’re much more likely to back it.

You can also show that you’re listening to your teams in a more inter-personal way in your one-to-one meetings. Active listening can mean asking questions, following up on points, or even taking notes. Show your teams that what they tell you has an impact and isn’t just falling on deaf ears.

3. Think about your personal brand

Everything you do as say, especially in front of the people you work with day-to-day, affects their opinion of you. When you’re just starting out in Product Management, you need to build relationships with these people and make the human connections that will allow you to be more influential.

Many product people like to increase their credibility by working on their personal brand. This could involve writing an eBook, starting a blog, giving a talk, taking part in an AMA, or building your own side project.

4. Be a keeper of the vision.

If you have a strong vision, which everyone is on board with, one of the best ways to be influential is to keep everything you do laser-focused on that vision.

Whatever you do and everything you aim to achieve in your teams should always come back to your north star.

This north star, the product vision, is your greatest tool for achieving alignment. That means it’s one of your greatest tools for building up your influence.

5. Appeal to people’s self-interest.

To a certain extent, people are always going to be in it for themselves. Of course a well-chosen team will care deeply about the product and about the vision that everyone is working towards. And if you’ve built a strong team culture, they’ll also care about each other.

But when you’re working with people from difference disciplines, they’re always going to advocate for their own perspective. For example, the marketing department might be pushing for a pop-up banner that your UX designer thinks is ugly.

In this scenario, the UX designer is principally thinking about creating a great user experience, and they find pop-ups to be harsh interruptors of the user flow. The marketing department need to get the word out about their latest promotion, and the data shows that pop-ups work.

To work through this conflict, you need to understand where both sides are coming from, and respect that both are advocating their own point of view. Neither are wrong, but they also can’t both get their own way. Appeal to their self-interest by recommending a compromise that benefits both parties at the end of the day. Maybe you could ask the UX designer to recommend something other than a pop-up that’ll get the results that the marketing team needs, or give them final say on the design of the pop-up if there are no alternatives.

6. Embrace resistance

No one likes to be disagreed with, especially when you feel you’ve earned the right to be right. But that’s not always how it works in business – someone is always going to have a voice that’s louder than yours or an opinion they feel more strongly about.

Instead of pushing back against it, embrace it! While it’s tempting to bat away every piece of criticism and hope everyone forgets about them, this does both you and the product a disservice. This is for two key reasons:

  1. They might be right. You know a lot, but you can’t know everything. If there is resistance, take the time to understand what it is and where it comes from. You might find yourself agreeing with it in the end, and avoiding future problems.
  2. You need to show them they’re wrong. Think of it like a presidential debate. If you are faced with resistance to your ideas, you need an opportunity to explain yourself, and to debunk the criticism.

7. Explain your ‘why’

‘Just Do It’ is a great slogan, but not for a Product Manager! The people you work with are smart, and they’ll want to know the reason why behind all of your decisions. Bring them into the conversation, and help them to understand what drives you. Show them the data, the research, and explain your reasoning.

This works for you in two different ways. Firstly, you’re able to make a better case for your own decisions. Secondly, they may be able to poke some holes in your thought process and offer a more useful perspective.

Explaining your ‘why’ is the easiest thing to do to fast-track both alignment and trust between yourself and your teams. It shows that you respect your teams enough to explain the reasoning behind your decisions, and it opens the door for further communication.

Bonus: Influence Builds Over Time

There’s another important factor that can’t be taught, which is a proven track record. As you start to build your reputation within your team, company, or even industry, people will be more open to hearing what you have to say.

Do your job right, and over time people will start to trust you and be influenced by you of their own accord. The best influence comes from a place of earned respect.

As you grow in your career, you’ll have more people advocating for you, and being in your corner with you. When you have to make those decisions based on instinct, you’ll have people around you to whom you can say “just trust me on this, I have a good feeling about it.”

How to Lose Your Influence

Think about any co-worker from your past or present who sticks out to you as someone you didn’t get along well with, or someone who you lost respect for. Or even a celebrity or politician who you don’t think very highly of. What is it that they do that has turned you against them?

Could it be that they speak too loudly and interrupt other people? Or are they incredibly resistant to any kind of criticism? Walk your way back through people you’ve worked with in the past who have rubbed you up the wrong way, and see if there’s anything you do that feels similar. That’s how you lose your influence!

If you find yourself interrupting people, because you’re too excited to talk, make a conscious effort to reign that in. Or if you know that you react badly to criticism, work on not taking it personally and instead taking it in.

There’s also a big difference between influence and manipulation. If you treat your position as a chance to manipulate people into doing things your way, you’re definitely in the wrong job! The product world is vast, but it’s also a pretty tight-knit community. Gaining a reputation as manipulative will cost you valuable job opportunities in the future.

Being an influential Product Manager is about working with people by earning their respect, not through seeing them as puppets.

You might also be interested in: How Soft Skills Can Save a Business

Moving Up The Ladder

As you grow in your product career, the amount of formal authority you have also grows. But being able to influence without it remains an incredibly valuable skill. Even CEOs who have more than enough authority to make their ideas happen need to be able to convince people to back them. After all, nobody wants to fund a venture or work for a business that has to force them to do things they don’t agree with.

As you move up the ladder, you’ll naturally gain more authority, but that doesn’t mean you need your influence any less. Whether you choose to continue as an individual contributor, or go down the people-management route, your life will be much easier if people believe in you not because they have to, but because they choose to.

Further Resources

It’s easy enough to talk about how to influence without authority, but we know it takes more than one blog to master it! If this is something that you’re wanting to learn more about, we’ve hand picked some of the best resources out there to help you along:

Books

If you like a good book, there’s a huge selection of books on influence and persuasion to choose from! For starters, How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age by Dale Carnegie is a modern update on the 1930’s classic. Millions have sworn by Carnegie’s age-old advice for the last 80 years.

Speaking of classics, if you’re a leader and you haven’t read Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, where have you been? Sinek is well known for providing impactful and deceptively simple advice that you can start implementing into your leadership style right away.

Specifically written for people like you, Petra Wille’s Strong Product People is THE guide on how to build great Product Managers. Wille doesn’t just get into how to coach the PMs working under you, but why coaching is such an important part of the job. Check out our interview with the author and our review of the book right here.

Blogs

For more short-form reading on all things leadership, we’ve got the blogs for you! First, check out Product Leadership Skills: Conflict Resolution. If you’re starting from zero, check out our started guide on What Is Product Leadership?

Talks

If reading isn’t really your style, and you want to binge watch some great talks, start off by watching Christine Li, a Google Product Manager, as she talks about Influence Without Authority. If you’re a leader in a hybrid organization, there’s a whole chapter just for you in The Hybrid PM Playbook.

If you’re looking for something more specific, like How to Influence Your Engineering Team, Expedia Group

Product Owner Akshata Pai has the talk for you.

Finally, we have one of our old school talks by Google Product Manager Tyler Odean on How to Be Persuasive.

Product Podcast Season 7

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