Influencing without authority
One of the most valuable soft skills to have as a product manager is being able to influence, even without authority. Read on to find out how to develop this skill
My husband loves watching war movies. To be honest I find them a bit boring but I guess he needs to have a turn every so often - we can’t watch rom-coms all the time. However, this one evening while watching a movie about World War II, it got me thinking about influence.
The army general or chief has to convince his squad to follow his lead and come around to his way of thinking in order to generate a result. Yes, sometimes this is done purely based on his authority - he says you fight, and you salute and say “Yes sir!” But what happens if you don’t have explicit authority in a scenario, how do you use influence to win support?
The importance of influencing skills has increased over the years and it’s - in my opinion - one of the most valuable soft skills to have as a product manager. In many organisations, I suspect yours included, product managers have to ‘fight’ for limited resources and being able to secure the go-ahead for your project or initiative will require persuading senior management.
If the idea of this fills you with some anxiety or dread, here are some tips to help you develop this soft skill.
When trying to influence senior management or C-suite stakeholders, it’s useful to first figure out what their motivations are. They are typically responsible for a department’s goals and objectives being met - how does what you’re proposing to do help them achieve that? If you can find the link between your project or initiative and their overall goal, you’d find it easier to bring them to your side.
Inspire with storytelling by explaining the ‘Why’. Why is this important? Why should we do it now? Explain the reasoning and logic behind your proposal. Bring relevant evidence to support your case - user insights, data and metrics. TIP: Also think about how you can make the story short and memorable. People take your stories and tell them to others to validate that their approach is correct or valid.
Include ‘friendly’ stakeholders in the creation of your proposed solution to get their buy-in. It always helps senior stakeholders when they have a peer who’s also in support of your proposal.
Anticipate challenges or pushback from stakeholders, and prepare for these. Where are the risks with your approach? Explain upfront how you plan to mitigate them. If they bring up a challenge you haven’t considered, really listen and understand the issue they’re raising. If you can demonstrate that you’ve truly listened to their concerns and considered them, then it’s easier for them to trust your proposal.
In my role, I’m typically brought in to a new team to lead product for a few months before moving on to another area or department. There may already be a PM on the ground that is likely to feel threatened if they feel they could have led the project I’ve been brought in to run. I try to ease any tensions quickly and become an ally instead of an adversary.
When trying to influence colleagues or peers in this instance - and this can also apply to fellow product managers but in different teams or squads - it’s also helpful to think about their motivations too. Could they have objections linked to the success of the project or initiative?
Take the time to observe and actively listen, so you can leverage their expertise in the space. They’re most likely to be your Subject Matter Expert (SME) in this area and so their experience will be invaluable to help you quickly get to grips with the new space.
Involve them in the creation of the solution and arm them with stories to explain the why. This way, they are also empowered to influence internally, including in rooms where you may not be present, or have access to.
Influencing the team in the round
Similarly with your team, you want to inspire and create excitement in the problem you’re solving and the proposed solution by explaining the why. However, take them along the journey on defining the what and how so they can also have a sense of ownership. If you can, inspire commitment to the product being built by getting every team member to engage.
Be open to feedback and constructive criticism that helps make the product or service even better. Your team doesn't want to feel as though they are just task monkeys, and that they can’t critically evaluate the proposed solution and bring their opinions and expertise to the table. Create a space that encourages transparency and collaboration, which will ultimately help the team to trust you and each other.
This next one may seem a little left field but show honest and sincere appreciation to the team regularly. In his book on How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie states that people want sincere appreciation, not just empty flattery. We all want to be appreciated, and when people feel appreciated it will be easier to bring them to your side.
A common thread
You’ll notice that a common thread in all this is that you have to master the art of communication. This includes both verbal and non-verbal communication. You have to be able to deliver your points confidently and tailored to the audience in question - whether these are senior stakeholders or your team mates.
But I hear you ask: how do I influence in spite of my imposter syndrome?
Many of us have moments of feeling like an imposter; where despite the years of experience you’ve had building and launching products, you experience self-doubt in certain situations. In those moments, it’s difficult to feel like you could influence anyone to do anything!
What you can do to combat the imposter feeling is to work on building your confidence and credibility. Confidence and credibility often go hand-in-hand because as you build credibility, this will also help to build your confidence.
Make sure you’re always learning and improving your craft, so that you’re truly working on becoming the product expert in your organisation. Finally, be trustworthy and follow through on what you’ve said you will do. When people trust you, you become more credible in their eyes.
Influencing is an important skill to master as a Product Manager, especially because we often have to influence without authority. Whether you’re trying to influence C-suite executives or your fellow team members, there are a few things you can do to win people to your idea or initiative. Ultimately, it comes down to clear and strong communication, and you trusting yourself so that you can be assertive and inspire people to follow your lead.
I would love to hear from you too! Do you have any tips to share on how you’ve flexed this soft skill of influencing as a product manager? Let me know in the comments below.
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