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Boost Your Product Leadership Power

Published on 19th April 2017

As product people—product managers and product owners—we usually don’t hold any transactional power. Unlike a line manager, we cannot reward people by offering a pay rise or bonus, for instance. We cannot tell people what to do either, as stakeholders and development teams don’t report to us. This puts us in a challenging position: We must lead others to achieve product success but we cannot leverage traditional management instruments. Luckily, there are other power sources you can tap into to increase your authority, as I explain in this article.

Increase Your Referent Power

Your first power source is your ability to influence others, which in turn is dependent on your interpersonal skills and your capacity to build trust with stakeholders and development teams. To trust someone means to have faith in the person, to believe that her or his intentions are good and that acting on the individual’s advice will be beneficial. There are several factors that help you earn and increase people’s trust:

To boost your referent power, I recommend focussing on one aspect at a time and practicing it repeatedly—without expecting too much too quickly. For instance, if you find yourself getting impatient when talking to a development team member or if you dislike one of the stakeholders, then recognise this as an opportunity to practice patience or empathy. Next, consider how you can take a small but concrete step to change your behaviour and strengthen the virtue. For example, take three deep breaths before answering a question from a difficult team member, try to understand the other person’s needs, and communicate without any aversion or ill-will. (See my article “Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders and Team Members” for more guidance on this topic.)

Challenging situations are great opportunities to grow as a human being and by doing so, you increase your leadership power. As Superman puts it, “You are much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.”

Strengthen Your Expertise

Knowledge is power, and your expertise is your second power source. The more you know, the more people will listen to you, trust and respect you, and follow your suggestions. To increase your expertise, strengthen your understanding of the market or domain and the product, as well as your product management savviness.

Get to know your (target) users and customers, observe them using your product or competing offerings, talk to them about their experience, and analyse any relevant analytics data you have to see how people interact with the product. As a rule of thumb, make sure you get out of the building at least once every three months. Nothing beats meeting real users.

Additionally, keep an eye on market developments, new trends and technologies, and the competition. Do regular research, attend trade shows and conferences, and consult journals, magazines, and user forums, for example. You may want to combine reviewing the market development together with the product performance in form of regular strategy and roadmap review meetings (as I discuss in more detail in my book Strategize).

But that’s not all. It’s great to know your product and market. But if you are not able to formulate a coherent product strategy, develop an actionable product roadmap, or prioritise the product backlog, then people are unlikely to regard you as a true expert. You should therefore also work on your transferrable product management skills and become a well-rounded product professional. Check out my product management test that helps you assess your product management knowledge and indicates gaps and weaknesses, so you can make a focused effort to strengthen your expertise.

“Intelligence is a privilege, and it needs to be used for the greater good of people,” says Doctor Octopus in the movie Spider Man 2. Who could disagree with that?

Secure the Right Management Support

Your third power source is the support and you receive from management and the decision-making authority that is granted to you. Ideally, your appreciates product professionals and understands that the individuals require ownership over their products. Additionally, you have the right management sponsor, someone who is senior enough to act as an escalation partner, if required.

If you work for a company that doesn’t have a dedicated product management group (yet) or that doesn’t fully understand the value product people offer, then it will be much harder for you to influence, guide, and align stakeholders and development teams. Similarly, if you don’t have the right management sponsor, then you may lack the ability to align senior stakeholders.

In the first case, I recommend building rapport with the decision makers in the organisation and explain to the individuals why you need their backing and the necessary authority to achieve product success. In the second situation, I suggest that you ask the head of product for support. As a rule of thumb, the more important the product is, the more senior the management sponsor should be. But unlike the other two power sources, you cannot control management support, as it depends on the individuals involved and the degree to which product management is established in the organisation.

Once you’ve secured the right authority and support, remember that “with great power must also come great responsibility” (Spider-Man, Amazing Fantasy #15).

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