It’s in pretty much every product manager job description: you must “establish credibility,” whether it’s with internal stakeholders, customers and technical teams, or more vague targets such as “the market” or “the industry.” Companies don’t include this by accident, since product managers must influence people without a whole lot of actual authority or the ability to order people around.
But as important as it is to establish and build your credibility, it’s just as important — if not MORE important — to hold onto it. And it doesn’t take much; like a game of Jenga, you’ve built things up slowly and carefully, yet one false move can bring everything tumbling down.
To prevent the trust people have in your product management from falling to pieces (along with your career), here are five ways to kill your credibility that you’ll want to avoid:
1. Being a Know-It-All…Especially When You Don’t Know It All
As a product manager, you’re expected to be an expert when it comes to the product, the market, and the competitive landscape, but even the experts don’t have an answer for everything. The most important thing here is to acknowledge your limitations without making them a liability.[Tweet Credibility tip: “acknowledge your limitations without making them a liability.”]
“Product managers lose their credibility very quickly by trying to speak to everything. Be OK with saying ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find the person who does know,’” says Carleen Hawn of Healthspottr. “In other words: have command of your expertise, but defer to those who know more than you do about other things. This conveys good judgement.”
Product managers are constantly challenged; there’s no assumption that won’t be questioned and no request that doesn’t need supporting data. Being unprepared for that daily dose of inquisition does you no favors.
“We spend a lot of time in front of busy users, project managers, and developers, who are smart and know their business well. At times, they are intense. They will ask tough questions of us, and probably even more challenging than that, they will state things that we need to be able to understand quickly and ask questions back intelligently,” says Joy Beatty of Seilevel. “Too many blank stares, uncomfortable silences, and ‘uh, I don’t know’s’ will help us lose your credibility fast.”
2. Choosing the Wrong Path for No Good Reason
There are seldom guarantees in this business, but most decisions can be based on data, whether it’s competitive intelligence, analytics, or customer interviews. When you make a call using information you’ve collected, analyzed and socialized, even if it doesn’t pan out, everyone knows it was made on a foundation of understanding and good intentions.
But sometimes, product managers can get a little greedy, requesting things they “think” users will like or “listening to their gut.” If your thoughts and guts haven’t done their homework and a feature flops, you’re likely to suffer some negative consequences in the trust department.
“We all know that engineers hate to work on things that customers don’t care about, and the fastest way to lose credibility with engineers is to waste their time and effort,” says Tony Lapolito of SevOne.
Issues like this can really balloon when you keep changing your product strategy. While it’s key to react to changing market dynamics and feedback, people want to feel like the final destination doesn’t change too often.
“Agility and adaptability should not be substitutes for a clear, cohesive, and consistent focus. Product managers who can not settle on a strategy do themselves and their product a disservice and lose credibility with the product development team and product stakeholders,” says Jeff Lash of the site “How To Be a Good Product Manager.” “Good product managers set a clear vision and keep focus on it, tweaking and adapting the strategy proactively but only when necessary.”
3. Being a Little TOO Passionate About Your Product
It’s natural to be proud of your work and your product is in many ways a representation of you. But your product itself is not the end game — it’s about what it’s doing for your company and your users.
“If product managers should be passionate about anything it should be about RESULTS (revenue, gross margin, market share…) and not about a product. Passion tends to blind humans to the limitations of their product,” says Doug Ringer of LogicMark. “The PM is spouting-off, to anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot, about how great the product is while all of the salesman and customers know of its shortcomings. This diminishes the credibility of the PM and the product in their eyes.”
Acknowledging the realities of your product’s imperfections is essential to both your product’s success and your own. If you’re not constantly looking for flaws, it will never reach its full potential.
“Somebody who has too much passion, who doesn’t shut-up enough to listen, or who doesn’t want to hear that their baby might not be ‘perfect,’ will also lose his/her credibility quickly. You need other people’s perspectives, and criticisms. So don’t be the kind of product manager who won’t stop to hear that the baby isn’t perfect,” Hawn says. “Be enthusiastic but not so overzealous that you lose track of what the mission is: To succeed. Passion motivates you to execute, but passion is not execution. And without execution there is no success.”
4. Calling Yourself “CEO of the Product”
A common coping mechanism for the inherent insecurities and oddities of product management is to think of yourself as the “CEO of the Product,” since you’re responsible for (or at least will be held accountable for) nearly every aspect of its existence. This is a great way to think about the job or to explain it to your parents when they are trying to figure out what you do all day, but it can be a terrible thing to actually say out loud to your coworkers.
“The word CEO carries a connotation of authority and ultimate decision making power. The Engineering Manager already has a boss who reports directly or up the chain to the CEO. So does this mean now you’ll be bossing him around? Does it mean you’ll veto all his ideas, and that he has to run everything by you?,” says Daniel Elizalde of Stem. Inc. “You can see how it easily gets out of hand, and people start doubting how collaborative you’ll be.”
Keeping your ego in check, respecting the reporting structure of your company, and not overstating your importance are all healthy choices to keep your credibility intact.
5. Tripping Over Your Own Personal Technical Debt
Whether you’re a former engineer, designer, business analyst, or marketer, once you’re in product management you can no longer focus solely on the technical aspects of your product. That said, you should at least look like you know what you’re talking about.
“To say ‘Explain it to me like I was a five-year-old’ is to say ‘I’m too ignorant to work here.’ The fastest way to lose credibility in a technology company is to say that you don’t understand technology,” says Steve Johnson of Pragmatic Marketing. “It’s okay to say that you don’t understand a new idea or a new implementation but to be effective in technology marketing and product management requires domain and technology expertise. People who tell you otherwise probably aren’t very effective in working with technical products.”
Beyond perception, skimping on technical ramifications can also be a trust and career killer. Be sure you have at least a basic understanding of how things work to avoid disastrous decisions and prevent making life miserable for your technical teams.
“If you do not understand the technical implications of the choices you make as a Product leader, either you will lead the engineering team down a wild goose chase, or you will lose credibility almost instantly with the engineering leadership. And I know no examples of great product leaders who do not have the trust of their engineering counterparts,” says Punit Soni, an ex-Google entrepreneur. “Do not get into the business of technology without learning technology.”
Knowing more about how and why your product was built in a particular way is also key to your ability to be the face of the product to the rest of the company and your customers.
“A great product manager should be curious about how the product is technically built, this will allow you to understand why some features take long to implement, why some pages take forever to load, etc.,” says Robin Dindayal of Horizon Studios. “Furthermore, you should be able to explain to others why certain architectural decisions were made, just as good as those that made the decision. If you’re unable to do this, you’ll quickly lose credibility as the owner of the product.”
Remember, as your stature rises and your credibility grows, it can all be diminished in a heartbeat with a foolhardy misstep or two. So keep these traps in mind as you navigate the treacherous terrain of product management.