Influence is the product manger’s best tool

The product organisation is unusual in that it achieves its goals through influencing other parts of the company rather than through a managerial relationship with individuals that sit with its direct reporting line.

A typical product group will have a leader reporting into the CEO who then has product managers reporting into them. The number and complexity of those products will determine how deep that org chart is but the people actually doing the implementation are usually part of another reporting group e.g. engineers report up to the VP, Engineering (or perhaps the CTO).

This is of course a generalisation, but it’s rare to have engineers reporting into the product manager, for example. The same applies to other aspects of the company – marketing reports though the VP, Marketing or CMO. Sales is led by the VP, Sales or CRO. And so on.

Despite this, the product manager is working very closely with all these areas of the organisation. They define large parts of what the work is (but not the how) but are unlikely to be directly assigning tasks or “managing” the team they are working with.

This means that good product managers must rely on their powers of influence and persuasion to make a case and explain why something should be implemented. They have no direct reporting authority or rank, so must take care to build up respect and authority by the quality of their work.

In practical terms, this means:

  • Understanding the customer better than anyone else. Sales might know best about what prospects are looking for before they become customers, and support might understand key pain points in product usage for existing customers, but it is the product manager who should have the best understanding of the customer as a whole, across their entire lifecycle using the product. Product manager activities should involve bring on sales calls, visiting customers on-site, participating in UX reviews, dipping into support tickets and chats, running feedback sessions with sales and support, and triaging customer feedback.
  • Understanding the market better than anyone else. Marketing probably know how to generate the widest reach in the most targeted way and finance truly understand how margins should be optimised, but the it is the job of the product manager to understand why one marketing idea might be better than another based on an understanding of how customers consider alternatives, buy and then use the product. And to give finance the input they need about competitive pricing and operational costs. Product manager activities should involve collaborating on the go-to-market plan, reviewing funnel statistics, engaging with analysts, understanding infrastructure costs, testing competitor products, positioning product pricing packages against features and customer personas, discussing deal win/loss reasons with sales and understanding churn reasons.
  • Communicating across the organisation. Communication is the biggest challenge in any company, and only gets more difficult as it grows. There are so many levels of granularity in delivering a successful product so it is crucial that everyone understands the long term vision and how that translates into each feature release. Product manager activities should involve discussing the strategic plan with the CEO/executive team and with the wider product manager group, testing out pitches with real customers (can you articulate how you got to where you are today, and where the product is going?), sending out regular product updates to customers (newsletters) and internal groups (changelogs), building training decks for sales/support, then delivering the training itself, writing up roadmaps, converting feedback into product specs, helping debate the prioritisation of key initiatives and explaining to sales/support why something is going to be done (or not done).

Product management truly is the job with the most cross-company influence but is least able to rely on rank and position to derive authority. It means it is one of the more difficult roles to start from scratch in, but has the most opportunity to build influence and authority through results.