Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

An Effective Leader Leads by Influence, not Authority


Guest Post by Ken Sandy

The earliest mistakes you make in your career are often the most memorable and where you learn the most. In one of my first product management roles, I was delighted when a C-level executive tasked me to lead an important and urgent project and assemble a team for it.

I called a meeting together with people from the marketing, engineering, and design teams. I gave what I thought was a rousing speech, in which I asked that they drop whatever they were doing and commit themselves to this new project — it was of great importance to the c-suite, so it should be our top priority.

Following our meeting, the team agreed to switch gears and focus on what had been asked of them. They were reluctant, but as long as the goal of pivoting to this new project had been accomplished, that’s all that mattered — right?

A few days later, the c-level executive approached me and asked to speak in private. He was visibly angry. He explained that several team members had come to him to complain that I had steamrollered them into working on this new initiative.

I protested. “But you asked me to. This is something you want, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I want this, but no, I didn’t ask you to operate that way,” he replied. “Instead of pushing them into doing something, I wanted you to motivate them. You should have explained why it was important — provide business context and discuss the customer need. Just because I want it and asked you to lead it, doesn’t mean you can suddenly direct others. You used my position and my seniority to transfer authority to yourself. I want to inspire my team, not simply order them to work on something.”

It hit me: A successful leader leads by influence, not by wielding authority.

Influence is most effective when you see it primarily as creating the context in which everyone understands and shares an appreciation of the same goals, data, approach, and constraints — and their unique contribution but interdependent roles — in pursuing the vision.

Context describes the underlying reasons that guide a specific course of action or direction. It is “why” you are doing something, not “what” or “how.” Inexperienced product managers can be prescriptive on the “what” and “how” but not provide enough of the “why.” That’s a problem: teams that don’t understand or don’t believe in the “why” tend to be unmotivated, even rebellious. They don’t feel connected to or valued by the business. They aren’t convinced that they are working on something useful to the business or to customers.

When a team understands the “why,” they can rally around a shared goal, making the organization the glue that binds people together — even if there are disagreements.

Here are four actionable ways you can set context in your work environment. 

  1. Start with a Product Vision and Clarity of Goals

Don’t assume that everyone understands and appreciates the desired outcomes. Ensure that your team understands why they’re doing what they’re doing, and how it affects the business — ideally with a measurable target. Periodically revisit your progress toward the goal and share the results.

  1. Introduce change and constraints clearly

Change is inevitable. It may be that business performance is off-track or you’ve discovered something during product testing that requires a reset. Or decision-makers set a new priority or reallocate resources away from your product. You may or may not understand and support these changes. And even when you do, the rationale may not be evident to others. Seek clarity as to why the changes are needed, consider what adjustments you’ll need to make, and share the underlying causes with your team.                                                                                                  
Every team believes they could achieve so much more if only they had more time and resources. But every business has constraints, especially with allocating scarce resources across competing priorities. Help your team understand constraints, appreciate the value of the perceived overhead activities, and find constructive ways to work within the limits.

  1. Share quantitative and qualitative data liberally                                                       

Just because you’re charged with making prioritization decisions for your product doesn’t mean you can make decisions based on your own “expertise.”

Rather than simply present and argue for your opinion, arm yourself with persuasive, supporting data—quantitative and qualitative. Likewise, when stakeholders present choices that seem based on opinion alone, listen to different points of view, and ask yourself what data you need to validate or invalidate them. Remain objective and open to being challenged. Do not react emotionally. Keep your ego and personal goals in check. By introducing the relevant data into the conversation and presenting a compelling case, you can effectively align others behind a course of action.

  1. Encourage open discussion and feedback — even if it’s uncomfortable               

Senior stakeholders love to feel useful. Figure out ways to recruit them in your efforts. You might use them as sounding boards or involve them in problem-solving sessions. You might want their help in getting the support of their teams or have them boost morale by reaching out and thanking hardworking team members. The more they feel involved, the more they’ll provide support.

The product management perspective: Leading through influence is a subtle but essential skill to master if you are to be successful. For others to willingly follow your lead, they must trust you, fully believing in the purpose behind your actions.

As a product manager, you have no direct authority over those you depend on—a team that will include engineers, designers, marketers, product support personnel, executives, and more. None of them report to you, and they may be more experienced or senior, or of longer tenure, so it’s important for you to motivate them with a clear product vision.

To achieve your goals, you will need to rely on persuasive power, not positional power.

Questions: How do you lead by influence? What are you doing to bring out the ‘why’ in your product context? Please leave a comment in the space below.

Ken Sandy is the former VP Product for MasterClass and Lynda.com, author of “The Influential Product Manager,” and industry fellow and lecturer at UC Berkeley, where he teaches the engineering school’s first product management course.

Learn more techniques in The Influential Product Manager – How to Lead and Launch Successful Technology Products (Paperback or eBook) or visit https://influentialpm.com.

3 thoughts on “An Effective Leader Leads by Influence, not Authority

  1. Pingback: Leading product strategy and execution | Lead on Purpose

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