A Product Manager’s Authority is Earned, Not Granted

This post originally appeared as a guest post on On Product Management blog.

When was the last time you had to soothe your wounded ego with thoughts like these:

  1. I raised it to senior management, but couldn’t get them to commit to the project. My job is to identify opportunities and to point them out to the powers that be. I can’t do the impossible. There is only so much I can do.
  2. I’ve let Engineering know that they need to scrap three months worth of work and start on something completely different. This decision came down from my bosses, and I had no say. I’m totally clear of any wrongdoing, and that’s what I’m telling engineering.
  3. I know the website for my product sucks. I brought it to the attention of our web admins but they won’t even consider my suggestions. They don’t want to implement the changes. I’ve done my best, but that part of the organization is totally impervious to my requests.

Sounds familiar? The uncomfortable truth is that a product manager’s job is a carefully disguised exercise in the most excruciating kind of professional impotence. An authority over no one, we are tasked with performing  feats of coordination among insubordinate, obstinate groups, entirely unmotivated to heed your opinions or to collaborate.

Welcome to the darkest moments of product management, and here is a piece of advice:

Stop being everyone’s whipping boy (or girl)!

Yeah, that’s harsh, but the key thing to keep in mind is that there are two types of authority:

  • authority granted
  • authority earned (or asserted).

Due to the nature of product management’s function, namely that of being the connective tissue between the flailing arms of the org chart, the second kind of authority is what you should be after. It’s rarely the case that product managers possess any a priori, granted authority over anyone they deal with on the daily basis.

Persevere, try again

It may be tempting to give up tooquickly. This is the trap created by the very loose coupling between the performance of a specific product manager  and a specific product. Even the sharpest of managers would be challenged to trace a particular product manager’s actions to any product metric that matters, which not only harms the Product Management’s credibility in general, but also permits individual inaction.

Illustrate your value by example

If you’ve done your homework, you already know how to do this. The key here is to leverage the cross functional perspective of the product manager. Remember, no one else will see things quite from this angle. Effective product managers are often uniquely positioned to put a spotlight on things that no one else can see.

If all else fails, apply your unique perspective in retrospect to show how some project or program gone awry could have turned out if you had your chance. Nothing helps to grab everyone’s attention as much as a possibility of failure averted. An articulated example of failure that you could have averted, if you were given a chance, is a compelling way to get the attention you really deserve.

Win allies and convert the skeptics.

Are you continuously tossed around? Are you failing to gain meaningful traction in areas where your responsibility connects you with other corners of the organization? Are you finding yourself on the wrong side of someone’s whim, someone who neither reports to you nor you report to?

There is always going to be someone who trusts you, who believes in your ideas and shares your perspective. Work that connection to try to get personal leverage across the organization. A personal connection is an effective kick starter to professional influence, clout, and eventually leadership.  Getting someone to listen to you is difficult enough. Use any means at your disposal to make as many stakeholders as possible aware of your existence.

Are you continuously tossed around? Are you failing to gain meaningful traction in areas where your responsibility connects you with other corners of the organization? Are you finding yourself on the wrong side of someone’s whim, someone who neither reports to you nor you report to?

Use the comments to chime in, and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.

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