As product people—product managers and product owners—we usually don’t hold any positional 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 the development team members and stakeholders 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 boost your leadership, as I explain in this article.
Increase Your Referent Power
Your first power source is your ability to influence others based on your personality and interpersonal skills. It’s the capability you can immediately boost simply by being a decent person. To do so, cultivate skilful qualities like empathy, compassion, courage, truthfulness, patience, humbleness. This will earn you the respect and trust of your followers and at the same time, it will make you a happier person. How cool is that?
Stating a list of wholesome qualities is easy, of course. But putting them into practice when faced with tight deadlines, ambitious goals, or difficult individuals is hard. It’s all too tempting to fall back onto less skilful habits and become impatient, tense and stressed, say something we regret afterwards, or pass on the pressure to the development team.
To boost your referent power, I recommend focussing on one virtue 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 kindness—don’t view it as a weakness or deficiency. 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 the problem the product should help them address or the benefit it should provide, and analyse any relevant analytics data you have to see how people currently 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 product management skills and become a well-rounded product professional.
“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?
Get the Right Management Sponsor
Your third power source as a product leader is the support offered by management. With the right management sponsor, you have a powerful ally at your side and a much better standing in the organisation. Consequently, you are more likely to be respected and followed. But unlike the other two power sources, you cannot control management sponsorship—it depends on the individuals involved and the degree to which product management is established in the organisation.
In companies that have not yet created a dedicated and effective product management function, management sponsorship is usually harder to obtain. It may require that you lobby for support and patiently explain to the decision makers why you need their backing to achieve product success. Ask your ScrumMaster or agile coach to help you with this.
Additionally, make sure that the sponsorship comes from the right level. The more important the product is, the more senior the management sponsor should be. A good test is to ask if the sponsor can act as an escalation partner and will be powerful enough to help align senior stakeholders. If the answer is yes, then that’s great; you’ve found the right person. But if the answer is no, then look for someone more senior.
Once you’ve found the right sponsor, remember that “with great power must also come great responsibility” (Spider-Man, Amazing Fantasy #15).