The Product Manager’s Playbook: How You Can Build Trust
December 15, 2017

The Product Manager’s Playbook: How You Can Build Trust

by Melissa Hopkins

I do not envy substitute teachers. While most of the class will follow the new leader, there are always a few kids who misbehave in ways they would not dare with the “regular” teacher. It is a job with lots of responsibility yet limited authority. Product managers can probably relate.

As product leaders, you wield significant influence — without the benefit of explicit authority.

Consider the product manager’s areas of responsibility — setting strategy, identifying customer needs, assessing product opportunities, building the roadmap, prioritizing features, and setting cross-functional tasks and schedules.

Realistically, this list barely scratches the surface. Yet most product managers usually do not directly manage all the people who contribute to building a Complete Product Experience. So you must work hard to build the influence needed to guide, cajole, sway, and even guard the team.

Being highly influential is not just a nice-to-have skill for product managers. It is an absolute requirement.

But it takes time and hard work to build that influence. Every single member of our Customer Success team brings years of product management experience to their position. So I asked what advice they have for gaining the trust and admiration of customers and peers as we head into the new year.

Here are nine things you can do to build influence as a product manager in 2018:

Plan “Establish a clear goal for the team and ensure they understand why the goal exists — that is, how it serves the greater vision. Make it clear this is a team effort and show how everyone has a critical role in achieving success. Set expectations about what information will be needed from whom and by when. Use reports and roadmaps to keep leaders in the loop about progress and expected deliverables against that plan. Being clear and focused with your plan is the best way of earning respect from your customers, your peers, and your leadership.” —Randy Ayers

Lead “Own the plan. You are not going to be able to do everything that everybody wants in 2018. But if others understand the plan and see that you are confidently in control, they will be more likely to understand and be confident in it themselves. Aha! makes it easy to keep your product plans in sync with company goals and initiatives and to then share those plans. Leading with this kind of transparency helps everyone understand why you have prioritized certain features over others and how your plan will come together over the year.” — Austin Merritt

Listen “Remember that your colleagues are getting valuable feedback from customers, partners, users, and the market. Listen to their insights and you can better understand your product and the market. This will also help you earn your teammates’ trust and credibility — without these, it is difficult to gain their support. One great way to bring close-listening into your product process is to create an Aha! ideas portal. Although you may not be able to implement all their needs, you can increase transparency — just as important, you can show that they have been heard.” —Amy Woodham

Understand “Take the time to understand other departments and how your work impacts them or how you and the product team can make their lives easier. Make it a goal to have lunch or a meeting with a different department every month or week. Building those cross-departmental relationships will make you a good teammate and an even better product manager — since you will have visibility into how the product impacts all areas of the business.” —Jessica Groff

Communicate “Be honest and frank while using data to back up your plans. If the cross-functional teams you work with suspect that the motives behind your decisions are based on a personal agenda or that you are quick to relish praise while blaming others for problems, you will lose trust. The best way to prevent this is by sharing the “why“ behind decisions. You build influence when you demonstrate that your decisions are based on what is best for the product and business.” —Matt Case

Commit “Product managers are in the middle of a vortex of needs from every different department, user, stakeholder, contributor, etc. Remaining committed is critical to earning the respect of everyone around you. Even when things get chaotic, make sure that you are able to convey that you understand the criticality of something and how committed you are to moving that issue forward.” —Bonnie Trei

Contribute “Be on constant lookout for ways to contribute and add value. The engineering team should be able to count on you to prioritize work and understand the technology and market. The sales team should be able to count on you to understand the business. Especially in high-tech environments, if the product manager does not make the product better and the lives of the teams building and selling the product easier, then the product manager will not have much sway.” —Karen Maslowski

Relax “Never let them see you sweat! Remember that you are an ambassador and spokesperson for your product. Because of this, approaching any planning session or challenge with a calm, cool demeanor and a goal-first approach can set the tone for the organization. If you become unhinged with stress, it can easily be construed that your product is unhinged too.” —Tahlia Sutton

Reciprocate “Pay it back to your cross-functional teams. When they reach out to you to suggest an idea or let you know that the release schedule is not realistic, take the time to acknowledge as soon as possible with a thoughtful reply. Product managers are busy people and I have seen some of them take days or weeks to respond to an email from a colleague. Get back to people quickly because you would want them to do the same for you.” —Deirdre Clarke

Explicit authority does not need to be written into your job description for you to lead by example.

Of course, not all of these tips will work for substitute teachers — but hopefully you are not working with grade schoolers. And on the days where it might feel like you are in a noisy schoolroom full of children, just look to this list to recenter and refocus.

How do you build influence at work?

Melissa Hopkins

Melissa Hopkins

Melissa loves using technology to help people solve their problems. She is the vice president of customer success at Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software. Melissa has more than 20 years of business and software experience. Previously, she managed teams at Citrix across consulting, education, supply chain operations, and IT.

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