No product leader should be surprised how much their new job features coffee meetings and impromptu chats. There will be plenty of leaders at your level (sales, support, success, marketing, etc.) and while you may be the one given domain over the roadmap, your stakeholders take these peers’ opinions of your work into serious account. How do you build solid, open relationships with these key peers, and what can happen if you let this important step slide?
- Relationships Matter
- Work is a social space
- Different people, different goals
- Leading through influence is hard
- Building Strong Relationships
- Understand the lay of the land
- Identify those with influence
- Establish common ground in & out of the office
- Proper Care and Feeding
- It’s not enough to just establish relationships
- Understand your social capital
- Give & take is the key
- Picking your battles
One of the most challenging things about being a good Product Manager is the fact that we are often charged with the responsibility of making things happen without having any direct authority to “make” them happen. We don’t have the luxury that a director of development or a vice-president of sales does, to just tell their direct reports what to do and expect it to get done; we have to convince people that the things that we think are important really are, and provide them with incentives to be internally motivated to help us do the things we need to in order to delivery delightful products. For someone new to a role — either as a newly-minted Product Manager or as a veteran in the field taking a new job — it can be difficult to figure out where to start in building these relationships, knowing how to build those relationships, and understanding the necessary care and feeding to keep them alive and strong.
It can often be easy to forget that any work environment is a social space in addition to being a professional space — any context in which human beings are brought together for a common goal is going to has some amount of social complexity to it, it’s just how we’re built. Even in companies that claim to not be “political” or who say that they have a “flat organization” still have social context to the things that they do; they still have leaders and followers, it’s just not formalized as a part of the work culture itself — it’s a natural result of putting a group of people together.
Product Managers in particular ignore this fact at their great peril — we don’t usually have the ability to just tell someone what to do, we need to convince them that it’s in their own interest to do it. And this requires that we understand, even to a facile level, the different goals and motivations that other people and teams in the organization might have.
Some of these are going to be obvious, based on the actual stated goals of the team or in some structured form like a compensation plan for Sales teams. But other goals and agendas might be a little bit more difficult to understand and ascertain — because, frankly, not everyone is always honest and upfront about their own motivations. Throw in the interpersonal angles and occasional power struggles that take place at the levels that we need to influence, and it can be either exceedingly obvious what we have to work with, or it can be deceptively complex.
As a Product Manager, we need to be able to understand these permutations and how they affect the decisions being made so that we can identify the relationships that are most important to establish and maintain.
Don’t let yourself be fooled — leading through influence is hard work. It requires an understanding of the people involved, the interpersonal dynamics involved, the power and political structure of the organization, and the skills of negotiation and persuasion. These are abilities that can take years of crafting and honing, yet any newly-minted Product Manager needs to hit the ground running, or risk falling behind from the starting line. Never underestimate both the importance of and the time and effort required to build these strategic relationships in your organization. When push comes to shove, if you don’t have the voice and pull of others behind you, your work as a Product Manager becomes nearly impossible.
Building Strong Relationships
As noted above, the very first step toward building strong relationships with the right influencers in your organization is to understand the lay of the land. Ironically, this is where coming into a new company as a shiny and fresh Product Manager might actually have the biggest benefit — as a new person, you’re coming into the organization without the baggage
that someone internal might, and can look at the political and social reality around you without any of the rose-colored (or dark-shaded) glasses that others in the company might be wearing. You want to be watchful for clear signs of political buggery as well as more subtle indicators about who influences who and where decisions are actually made.
When figuring out who we need to build relationships with, it’s not enough to just look at the company org chart and pick out the managers and above, and focus on them. There are many times when the influencer in the organization might not be a director or manager — where the people who make decisions rely on the advice and knowledge of someone “lower” on the corporate ladder.
This can be particularly true of development and technology teams — some people simply don’t ever want to manage other people, so they never move “up” on the org chart while their influence grows throughout the company. These are the nuances that we need to focus on as a Product Manager — if you ignore the grassroots influencers, you just might wind up shooting yourself in the foot.
The practical side of building these relationships is far less complex and difficult than the discovery of who the influencers really are. Establishing relationships with people at work basically follows the same rules that apply to any other relationship in your life:
- Identify common ground and interests;
- Initially engage in neutral, informal settings; and
- Build rapport through repeated engagement.
The biggest mistake that many Product Managers make is limiting their relationship-building activities to the four walls of their organization, sticking to formal meetings or informal coffee-room opportunities to engage with their co-workers and influencers. While this can work, the relationships that come from such engagements are rarely long-lasting, nor are they very deep. Instead of relying on these in-office means, step outside the office — company events work, but even better is to take someone out to coffee or lunch, or even some beers after work. Strong relationships are established not by formality, but through informal connections that we build with each other as human beings. The more we can help others in the organization with influence understand who we are as a person, the more effective we will be when we need to rely on them or leverage their influence to get something done. As a general rule, people are more likely to help someone whom they like and know than someone who has just gone through the formal motions of establishing a day-to-day working relationship.
Proper Care & Feeding
Relationships are tough — and I’m not just talking about romantic relationships. Friendships, family, clubs, or other social groups — they are all an investment of time, effort, and energy. Work relationships have the same needs, and similar impacts if we decide to neglect them. It’s never enough in the work environment to just go through the motions to set up a few strong relationships. If we don’t proactively reinforce them, they will disappear — and we don’t usually know they’re gone until we need them the most!
One concept that really resonates with me is the idea of “social capital” — basically a virtual “bank account” of influence that we all carry with us in every aspect of our lives. When we do something nice for someone or help them out, we’re making a deposit into that social capital account. When we ask someone for a favor, or refuse to help them, we’re taking a debit against that account.
The goal of any good Product Manager should be to have as many net-positive social capital accounts across the organization as we possibly can. This doesn’t mean that we don’t say no to requests, but we do so mindful not only of the exact request at that point in time, but also about the ecosphere of influence and how that choice may affect future needs of our own. Realistically, you’re not going to have a net-positive social capital account with every person in your company; further, you’re not always going to have a net-positive social capital account with the same people in the company.
Sometimes we have to say no even when we think it will hurt us in the future; sometimes we have to ask for things that we know are above the pale; sometimes we’ll have to annoy or anger someone because it’s the right thing to do for our product or our customer. But we should always be mindful of where we sit with each influencer, and take on as many opportunities to deposit social capital so that it’s there when we really need it.
The key to influencer relationships at work is the same key to any other relationship — there must be a give and take involved. Sometimes, you’re better positioned to help them out; other times the shoe is on the other foot. Product Managers have a great role in the organization that often opens doors for this give and take that might not exist in other roles — we can help Sales out on customer calls, we can help Support out by prioritizing defects in a way that makes their jobs easier; we can help Marketing by providing drafts of collateral or by traveling to help set up or tear down presence at conferences or other events. Because we have our fingers in every piece of the pie in the organization, we can open doors to improve our relationships with influencers in different departments on an almost daily basis.
The last thing to note about maintaining influencer relationships as a Product Manager is the importance of picking your battles. As you become more familiar with the way that a company works, you get a feeling for when it might be better to simply not push your agenda even if it’s the “right” thing to do. This is an essential skill for any great Product Manager to build — and it usually only comes through trial and error. Sometimes, we push too hard because we overestimate our social capital — and where we thought we had a positive balance we discover we were tapped out. Other times, we push too hard because we know that it’s the “right” thing to do, with data and compelling customer needs — but the entrenched influencers remain tied to some alternative theory of the situation or are focused on some other initiative that they feel is more important. And sometimes we push too hard because we’re too in love with our own ideas to see the failures and faults in them — this one is easiest to avoid, by reviewing the ideas with others in the organization and listening to their feedback.
Pushing when you shouldn’t is perhaps the worst thing that we can do when it comes to maintaining our relationships with influencers — it challenges our fundamental ability to lead through influence, and too many missteps here will make it extremely difficult to perform well without significant investment in rebuilding trust with those influencers. Pick your battles carefully — there are some mountains worth dying for in the world of Product Management. But there are also many molehills that can trip us up if we’re not paying attention to the reality surrounding us.
Leading through influence is hard work — because it depends not solely on our own skills and talents as a Product Manager, but because it relies almost entirely on others’ perceptions of us and on our ongoing, mutual relationship. There is very little that a Product Manager can get done and be successful at without the backing of others in the organization, a reality that often strikes us blindsided when it hurts the most. By being diligent about understanding the nature of the organization, identifying and building relationships with the right influencers, and by taking proper care to feed and nurture those relationships, we stand the best chance as Product Managers of making our product and our company as successful as possible.