Product Leadership

Leading without Being the Boss: Tips for Product People

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The Need for Guidance and the Lack of Transactional Power

Product success is not something you can achieve on your own as a product manager or Scrum product owner. Instead, you rely on the contributions and the support of the key stakeholders, the development team members, and possibly other product people who help you manage a large product. For example, a marketer has to create the marketing strategy, and the development teams have to design and build the product.

What’s more, all deliverables must fit together to achieve the desired outcome. For instance, the marketing strategy, the user experience (UX) design and technology choices have to align to successfully acquire new users, increase conversion, or meet another product goal. Consequently, the stakeholders, development teams, and product people require guidance and alignment—they must all move together in the same direction and work on the same overarching goals, as the picture below illustrates.

On top of everything, you are usually not the boss, and the individuals in the picture above don’t report to you. You therefore lack transactional power: You cannot tell people what to do and make them follow your decisions, and you typically cannot offer a bonus, pay raise, or other incentive. To make things worse, some of the stakeholders might be more senior than you. How can you then effectively guide and align them?


Influence and Trust as Leadership Building Blocks

Effectively leading others requires that they trust you. To trust someone means to have faith in the person, believe that their intentions are good, feel safe in their presence, and be comfortable to speak one’s mind.

Once you have earned someone’s trust, the person will be open to your suggestions and advice. This, in turn, enables you to influence the individual and help them achieve the desired product outcome.

If the opposite is true, and someone doesn’t trust you, then they are unlikely to follow your lead. They will be inclined to do what they believe is right. This may result in people moving into different directions and producing deliverables that don’t create the desired value. Gaining the trust of the stakeholders, dev teams, and other product people is therefore vital so you can effectively align and guide them and achieve the desired outcomes.

It’s important for me to point out that effective leadership must be based on the intention to support the people you want to lead, not on the desire to control or manipulate anyone. The influence you exercise should therefore be a positive one, see my article Should Product People be Servant-Leaders?

What’s more, there is not one right way to lead. For example, groups that haven’t worked together require a different leadership approach compared to those that have developed into a closely knit unit, as I discuss in more detail in the article How to Choose the Right Product Management Leadership Style.


Measures to Build Trust with Stakeholders, Dev Teams, and Other Product People

As trust is crucial to lead without being the boss, it’s important that you take the right steps to earn the trust of the stakeholders, the development team members, and other product people. The following nine measures will help you with this.

Empathise

Take a kind and warm-hearted interest in the people you want to lead, their views, feelings, and needs, as well as the goals they want to achieve. This allows you to better understand them, and it shows the individuals that you care about them, which encourages them to trust you. Attentively listening to people with an open mind and getting to know them will help you empathise, as I discuss below. You can find more guidance on empathy in my article Empathy in Product Management.

Get to know people

Learn about the individuals’ job role with its specific demands and challenges, their backgrounds, family situations, and interests to better understand why somebody thinks and acts in certain ways. This, in turn, increases your ability to empathise and to earn the trust of the person. There are many ways how you can get to know people and build effective relationships. These include having informal chats over a cup of coffee or at lunch as well as organising team building activities.

Practise active listening

Give people your full attention and listen with the intention to understand when you are in a conversation with the stakeholders, development team members, and your product management colleagues. This makes people feel valued, and it encourages them to be open and trustful with you. You can find more guidance on active listening in my article Listening Practices for Product People.

Cultivate an open mind

Be respectfully curious and open-minded. Don’t prematurely judge an idea or reject an individual’s concern. Be grateful for someone’s contribution, even if you disagree. This shows people that you value their ideas and that you are interested in their views and needs. Additionally, it makes it more likely that you’ll receive everything that is being said instead of suffering from confirmation bias and ignoring information that does support your views and ideas.

Speak and act with integrity

Be truthful and do what you say. Honour your commitments and don’t make promises you cannot keep. Admit if you are wrong. This tells people that you are honest, reliable, and trustworthy.

Involve people in product decisions

You might do this, for example, by running collaborative product strategy reviews. Be transparent, share the relevant information, and appreciate the individuals’ suggestions—without making the mistake of saying yes to every idea. Practising collaborative decision-making shows that you value people’s input and care about their views and needs. Additionally, it increases their commitment to implement the decisions, as I discuss in more detail in the article Making Effective Product Decisions.

Be supportive and offer help

Whenever that’s possible and appropriate. For example, make time during the sprint to answer urgent questions from the development team members. Ensure, though, that you help people become self-sufficient as quickly as possible, address any underlying issues, and don’t take on additional roles.

It would be a mistake, for instance, to keep answering questions during the sprint instead of involving the team members in the product backlog refinement work and helping them acquire the appropriate knowledge. Similarly, it would be wrong to fill a vacant Scrum Master role and carry out the role’s tasks like organising sprint meetings and coaching the development teams.

Deepen your expertise

The better you are at product management and the more you know about the market and users of your product, the greater the chances are that people will agree with your suggestions, trust your advice, and follow your lead. Becoming a t-shaped product professional and using a learning roadmap to develop your skills will help you with this.

Secure the right management backing

When management supports and trusts you, others are more likely to do the same. Conversely, it’ll be harder to lead the stakeholders and development team members when you lack management sponsorship. If that’s the case for you, explore how you can earn management’s trust. The measures discussed above should help you with this.

Additionally, consider asking your Scrum Master to help you address the issue, especially if product management is new to the organisation or if its maturity is low. Remove impediments and facilitating organisational change should be part of the Scrum Master’s job, as I discuss in more detail in the article Why Product Owners Need Effective Scrum Masters.

Roman Pichler

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