We’ve all heard that product managers are “mini CEOs”—or words to that effect. They have to influence a lot of stakeholders. To do so, they have to be credible. How can you build credibility? Roll up your sleeves and earn it. Here are a few ideas to help you.
Do Your Homework
Product managers deal with strategies and tactics. Big-picture issues and small details. Broad market demands and individual customer nuances. Internal politics and external realities. It’s hard work, and cutting corners rarely succeeds. Relevant information on customers, product plans, and financial projections are staples of your job.
Industry knowledge is a must. Learn the broad “rules” in your industry, along with detailed knowledge of competitive positions. Pay attention to trends that could impact current and future product sales. Categorize competition into direct and indirect, and most to least threatening. Then compile data—relevant facts, statistics, trends, and opinions. The most credible (and valued) product managers are those who can interpret and explain data in meaningful ways to different audiences.
Share an Inspiring Product Vision
While the facts and statistics from doing your homework are critical, try to weave them into a story (or scenario) that moves people into action. The most carefully researched insights face cynicism when PowerPoint slides and dry hyperbole obscure the message.
Storytelling is one of the most powerful inspirational tools used throughout history. Product managers who can paint a vivid picture of the future may transform a colleague’s viewpoint and motivate the desired action. In Business Horizon’s “Organizational Storytelling” article, the authors point out that any vision has to be something people can commit to, not just numbers to pursue:
Long renowned for its story-intensive culture, 3M cultivates tales of past successes. Stories about winning innovations help inspire employees to keep new ideas coming. Sales reps are trained to use narratives to explain the advantages of using their products to customers. Recently, 3M leaders began to use stories for strategic planning, having found that this generates more excitement and commitment.
Be humble. The success of your product requires the efforts of people in many functions, from purchasing through manufacturing and sales. These people are more likely to support your plans if they feel respected and listened to. This doesn’t mean agreeing to every contradictory opinion. Rather it means avoiding condescension. No matter how talented you are, remember there is wisdom beyond your own.
Some people criticize humility as a capitulation. Jeff Boss, in a Forbes article, disagrees. “Humility is frequently associated with being too passive, submissive or insecure, but this couldn’t be any further from the truth.” He explains that humble people are confident and competent enough to not need self-boasting.
Build a Track Record
An early challenge for product managers is to build—and build on—a successful track record. While humility is important, product managers cannot assume that everyone in the organization has knowledge of their expertise. Sometimes telling a short anecdote about how a recommended approach worked in a prior position in another company not only provides some credibility for the idea but also for the individual. Social scientists refer to this as the principle of authority, a critical component of persuasion.
Position yourself as an expert in that area—but don’t stretch your expertise to everything! Volunteer for side projects that enable you to reveal your abilities. Look for quick wins that showcase your contributions to the company, and your product manager credibility will flourish.
The task is more difficult if you are still trying to establish a track record. In that case it becomes important to work with allies in the organization who can support your product vision and jump-start implementation throughout the company. Select allies who have already gained respect in the firm.
Trust flourishes in a climate characterized by several components. The first is honesty—no lies and no exaggeration. Do everything in your power to present fair, objective information. Second, share ideas openly. While some people hoard information to increase power, it is a bad policy in the long run. Third, practice consistent and predictable behavior. While the element of surprise is useful in competitive strategy, it shouldn’t be part of organizational behavior. And finally, accept and respect the individual differences and perspectives of the multitude of people you deal with as a product manager.
Past successes can translate into future failure—and vice versa. Challenge yourself to gain new insights about the market. Be proactive in trend-watching. Interact with people different from you. Learn new hobbies. Get involved with futuristic organizations. Read voraciously. Laugh at your mistakes and learn from them rather than being depressed by them. Listen—really listen—to people who have different perspectives, without automatically discounting what they are about to say. Whatever you do to accomplish it, just keep learning. It helps with both product manager credibility and creativity.