I’ve spent a lot of time in big offices in cross-functional roles that have required me to navigate troublesome political waters. Others don’t necessarily report to me and they may not even be in the same department or business unit. Often, there’s very little wiggle room for influence. I have learned over time – through instinct, trial and error – how to influence outcomes in my favor despite grossly variable personalities, loyalties and motivations.
The Product Management role is very much in the same position. Product Managers are experts on the market but are not Marketing. Product Managers need to deliver product on time but don’t oversee Development. Product Managers need their product to deliver the numbers but the Sales Team has its own motivations and goals. The role of Product Manager, then, requires a high degree of diplomatic skills in order to be successful. You have to deal with people in a sensitive and effective way. You have to be a diplomat.
Here are our top 5 tips on how be the diplomat your market and business needs.
Be everyone’s friend
I mean it sincerely when I say that you want and need to be everyone’s friend. People like to do things for people they like personally and who they like working with. When faced with a never-ending to-do list, who would you go out of your way for? Bob from accounting who scowls when you walk by? Or Frances in sales who did you a solid last week?
In a Product Management environment, you live and die by your relationships with cross-functional partners. Go out of your way to deliberately foster these relationships. Have lunch with the team. Ask a cross-functional partner how that project landed last quarter. Drop everything from time to time and put out a fire for a partner who needs it. In a nutshell: do something nice for a strategic subset of people in the broader business. And do this across the whole business.
The key here is to strategically give without a hint of wanting to get something back. You’re doing it because it is just plain good business to do the right thing. As Marcel Mauss tells us, “gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity.” Essentially, once you have gifted your energy, effort or time to the service of a cross-functional partner, they are more likely to return the favor. Now whether what they return ends up being of any actual value to you will have to wait. In the meantime, you have someone that you can call upon at a later date.
Grease the Squeaky Wheel
You will invariably encounter people who are not happy with the way things were or how they’ve been done or how things are being done now or how they’ll be done in the future. You know the type: they are passionate and vocal and perhaps even well-meaning. But this is often a two-sided coin. If they’re gossiping to you, they will gossip about you. And in Product Management you can’t afford to have dissenting opinions about you floating around the office. After all, you live and die by your relationships in the business.
I was once warned of a colleague in Sales who had it out for our team. She was constantly blaming us when things didn’t work out for her. She would complain up her chain of command and ours — she’d pretty much complain to anyone who would listen. Every day when I would walk toward her desk she would exclaim “oh great, you people!” and then give me a hard time about the terrible job my team was doing. It was relentless.
But the goal in diplomacy is not take abuse. Rather, your goal should be to turn every relationship to your advantage. So one day I said to her, loudly enough and clearly enough for neighboring desks to hear, “here’s something I want you to remember: if you ever need someone to yell at, someone who can do absolutely nothing about your problem but will still listen to your concerns, I’m your man.” This flipped the script. Now I wasn’t the enemy but rather a friend who understood and sympathized. We were always on the same side after that, no matter what happened.
This point is this: you can get a handy reputation boost by turning vocal complainers into vocal advocates. There’s no single way to do this but, by listening and learning, you can get an idea of what they don’t like and what you can do about that given your limited resources. Whatever the case, find an absolutely top-drawer soother that you can cram in their mouth right away. These people can damage your reputation before you’ve even built it, so solve these problems as soon as you can.
Stay cool, Daddy-O
Product Management work is a lot more about adapting to changing conditions than it is about sticking to plan. Let’s be real — if you’re the kind of person who likes planning out their day in the morning and then acting out that plan without interruption, chances are that you won’t enjoy Product Management. No matter how well you plan, Upstairs will want a surprise report; Sales people will go into a big meeting with a new lead and they want you there; a disaster on the trade-show floor will need someone to fix it now.
Here’s the thing: That’s everyone’s life in business. No one has a job where they don’t have to deal with exceptions and problems. We all still have to push our work over the finish line. I thus work with two rules in business:
Refer to rule #1
The successful Product Manager lives and dies by their relationships. Would you rather have a reputation amongst your colleagues as a never-ending dumpster fire or would you rather be seen as cool-under-fire? Which opinion of you would get you more of what you want? Which one gets you the respect you need to get your job done? Maintaining flexibility and going about your day with style and grace in the eyes of your cross-functional teams will give you more leverage.
Don’t let them take advantage of you
They’ll try to take advantage of you. This is inevitable. If you do good work, chances are there are people around you who will keep coming to you instead of someone else simply because they know that you’ll deliver. But using the power of good diplomacy in your life as a Product Manager doesn’t mean being a doormat.
A diplomat’s relationships can be viewed as investments that should pay dividends more or less when you need them. But being real, there are still bad investments to be made in business relationships. Some people will just plain never pay out what you’ve put in. I liken these people to casino slot machines. They seem nice. They’re bright and pleasant and approachable. Sometimes you might even get a fiver’s worth of quarters, just enough to keep you playing. But most of the time they’re happy to just keep on taking forever.
Don’t let these people take advantage of you. Your relationships with cross-functional team members are levers to be pulled to your mutual advantage. If you’re not getting enough out of it, take action to protect yourself. The scale of the action should match the situation though so think it through. The diplomatic Product Manager never burns a bridge, no matter how useless it may seem on a given day.
You can’t be everyone’s friend
Okay, so I lied. You can’t be everyone’s friend. Every office, no matter how large or small, will always contain a number of people who will never be on your side. They may even put on the veneer of accommodation while still harboring disinterest and self-interest. That’s okay. The diplomatic Product Manager uses even this to their advantage.
Knowing where people stand is much more valuable to you than those who are unpredictable. And people who are reliably counterproductive have just that weakness: they’re predictable. You can use this predictability to the benefit of the greater good by pre-planning counter-arguments to their dissention. Diffuse the bomb before it has the chance to go off, so to speak.
Additionally, something a lot of people in business forget is that dissenting opinions are your friends. We are not all always right. Sometimes we chase the wrong thing or believe things in error or are otherwise wrong. It helps then to counteract our built-in confirmation biases with people that will reliably offer dissenting opinions. Hopefully they maintain useful dissenting opinions.
Product Management is exciting. You work with all parts of the organization. you work with Sales Teams and Development, Finance and Marketing. You work with positive people and negative ones. Use facts to overcome opinions. Your goal is to drive the business forward, to guide the product from idea to success.