Influence is probably one of the most valuable currencies as a product manager. Because you likely don’t have a lot of authority, you have to rely on your ability to understand others and help them understand your perspective and ideas.
A key part to influence is having and inspiring confidence. You must first be confident in what you’re doing and what you’re proposing to do. You also have to gain the confidence of your product team, since they are relying heavily on you for the success of the overall product. You need the confidence of your stakeholders and users as well.
So how do you gain confidence in yourself and inspire confidence in others?
Confidence in Yourself
No one will have a lot of confidence in you if you don’t have confidence in yourself. So be incredibly confident, but also incredibly self-aware. Because taken too far, you’ll lose a lot of credibility if you’re unjustly overconfident or arrogant.
Gaining confidence starts with a big dose of humility. I talk a lot about this process in my post about credibility deposits. By definition, you aren’t an expert initially. But you can get there. And as a product manager, you are expected to get there. It starts with acknowledging that you have a lot to learn and then setting out to learn it.
I’ve personally come into almost every product and project as somewhat of a novice. Years ago when I was working with the Money Markets and Liquidity team at Goldman Sachs, I knew very little about the products and environment. But I became an expert in the products we were offering as well as each piece of regulation and how it would impact our products. When new rules were released by the SEC, I went through nearly 1,000 pages in the course of a few days in order to review and understand the implications.
The same can be said for current products I work on. But as I’ve first sought to understand everything from start to finish, I’ve been able to build up not only credibility, but confidence. As you really dive in and get out of your comfort zone, you’ll be incredibly uncomfortable for a while. But that’s what it takes.
Another real key in this process is taking ownership. While the CEO analogy for product managers isn’t perfect, it is an apt comparison in terms of the knowledge you should have and the care you should take with your team, product, users, and stakeholders.
Confidence from your Team
As a product manager, it is critical to gain the confidence of the entire product team. You will be working together day-in and day-out. The success of everyone in that group is tied together. You succeed or fail as a team. So how can you gain the confidence of the group?
Understand. Take time to understand the team. Understand how they work and who they are. Every team is different, so don’t assume that you understand until you’ve taken the time.
Dive In. I’ve found that one of the best ways to gain confidence from the developers, designers, and fellow product managers you’re working with is to dive in. Head first. Get your hands dirty in any way you can. You’ll likely make some missteps, but that’s okay. That’s how you learn.
One thing that I’ve found to be incredibly valuable is to really be in the trenches, even when it’s not necessarily where you add the most value. I’ve been on the late night pager duty, taking the 2am phone calls when something breaks. And even without being able to really fix anything, staying up all night until it’s resolved. Really being part of a team means being part of it all the way.
Develop Technical Expertise. There is certainly a lot of debate on how technical a product manager needs to be, and it depends on the role and company. But more technical skills are rarely bad. And being able to code and understand the nuances of development go a long way in helping you gain the confidence of the other technical folks around you. Just don’t forget who the experts are.
Confidence from Stakeholders
Depending on the size of your organization, you may have a few key stakeholders or you may have dozens. Certainly as the size of the group increases, so does the complexity. But the principles remain the same.
Again, you need to gain an in-depth understanding of each stakeholder. This time it goes beyond the understanding that you gained for your team though. Because each stakeholder will have different priorities, needs, and styles of working. You won’t necessarily be aligned completely like your development team is. As I’ve worked with a wide variety of stakeholders across different organizations, I’ve founds that I have to continually tailor my approach. Here are some key considerations:
Understand the Business. As a product manager you need a broad understanding of the organization. That includes not only how your product impacts different groups, but how those groups then impact other groups as well. Without understanding the business and how everything aligns, you won’t be able to gain the confidence you need from the stakeholders in those areas.
Understand the Priorities and Constraints. Each group, department, or stakeholder will have different priorities. Hopefully these all align broadly with the business, but the reality is that they may not. You need to understand this. Often there may be competing priorities in different groups that can impact your product or team. You have to also understand the constraints that your stakeholders are operating under. Often there will be budget implications, results they are responsible for, or other difficulties they have. How can you expect to sell the vision of your product or get a stakeholder on board if you don’t understand the constraints they are under.
On the flip side though, by showing that you understand stakeholders priorities and constraints, you can gain a tremendous amount of confidence. For example, in one product launch that I did, we had to coordinate closely with another team in order to be successful in our release. However, they were incredibly short-staffed at the time. So working closely with the key stakeholder in that group, we were able understand their constraints, find the right level of help, and coordinate the right timing. It was a tough process. And it set us back from our target. But it was the right decision and ultimately earned us a great deal of confidence not just from that group, but from many others across the organization.
Understand the Individuals. Understanding individuals means understanding who they are, how they prefer to communicate, and what level of involvement they have or need to have.
This could potentially be one of the most difficult areas to navigate. And I’ve found that no matter how careful you are, you’ll likely run into trouble here (so don’t beat yourself up). Because everyone is different. Some stakeholders are very hands-on while others are largely detached. Some prefer quick summaries of highlights, others want to know all the details. Very much like tailoring roadmaps, you have to tailor communication and involvement.
A word of caution as well. Don’t assume that little involvement or delegation means that the stakeholder doesn’t need to be involved. It may seem that way, but there are few things that grind a product to a halt as quickly as a stakeholder coming in from the wings because they haven’t been involved enough. Err on the side of too much communication and too much follow-up.
Confidence from Users
Finally, and maybe most importantly, you need to gain the confidence of your users. This is such a broad reaching topic that it could likely be many posts all on its own, especially across a product’s life cycle. But we’ll hit a few key points here.
Understand your Users. You need to understand your users. Empathize with them. Know what their problems are and what they need from your product. This will not only help you deliver a great product, but will help you gain confidence along the way.
Get them Involved. Do user testing early and often. Find your users or potential users and watch them use your product. Get their feedback. This is probably one of the best ways you can truly understand your users and deliver value to them. It goes beyond the metrics and gets to real understanding by watching real people really use your product.
Err on Their Side. If there is ever a choice between erring on the side of the business and erring on the side of the user, err on the side of the user. Every time. For one, you won’t have a business for long without users, but it will also show how serious you are about their experience. It will build their confidence in you and what you’re doing for them. Hopefully you won’t have to make this type of call often. But you definitely don’t want to be remembered for selling out your users for the sake of your business (*cough* Facebook).
Deliver Value. Ultimately it comes down to delivering value to your users. Knowing what problems they’re solving and helping them solve those problems. Once you’ve done that, you’ll already have gained the confidence of some users. Build on that value and continue to deliver.
Inspiring confidence as a product manager is critical. Without it, you won’t be able to accomplish much. But as you gain confidence in yourself and inspire the confidence of your team, your stakeholders, and your users, you’ll be able to work magic. And that’s what keeps most of us here, and what makes the role of product manager so exciting.
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My personal musings on a variety of topics.