ProductFTW #11: Leading Without Authority as a Product Manager

As a product manager, your success requires that a number of teams - engineering, design, marketing, just to name a few - work together in harmony, all marching to the beat of the same product vision. It’s your job to influence how resources are allocated and keep everyone focused on the most impactful initiatives to deliver the most product value to your customers. When conflicts arise, your role is to find solutions that keep everyone moving forward. And you need to do each of these without any formal authority or as a manager of any of the people mentioned. Simple, right? 

While it might not be simple, I believe it can feel less turbulent and challenging and make you more successful at leading without authority if you invest in developing relationships and how you approach influencing others.

Photo by Elijah Macleod on Unsplash

Before diving into these, I want to say that there’s no one right way to be a product manager, and many different approaches and types of people can be successful in this role. That said, I think that leading without authority is one of the softer, more human, and empathy-driven areas of product management. There are certainly strategy and more initiative-focused things that you can do to be successful in this area, but building up emotional intelligence and your ability to connect with people will also take you very far. 

Chief Storyteller

My communications and marketing background may be showing here, but I think one of the most impactful opinions that I brought to being a product manager was the importance of narrative building and storytelling. Building a product vision is important, no doubt, but communicating that vision in a compelling way that brings teams along with you is crucial. The ways to tell good stories apply in this context - use narratives, analogies, and maybe a little humor. All of the ways you would usually help people connect with the things you are trying to communicate can be applied to your work. 

I’m always looking for opportunities to tell good stories, in places big and small - from presentations to updates, in PRDs and user stories with well-considered personas and user journeys. I’ve found that when I’m diligent about keeping myself in this narrative mindset, it helps drives alignment across teams and also helps keep me focused as well. 

That said, I’m not saying that you should just be making up good stories. Data-driven decision-making and storytelling are both important, and the data should help you create your narrative. 

Remember, there's a difference between telling a story and telling people what to do. As a product manager, our role should never be based on telling people what to do but rather on working alongside our teams to accomplish our goals.

Chief Listener

Listening and empathizing are also key components of leading without authority - the more people feel like you listen to them, the more likely they are going to be willing to listen to you. Actively listening to team members’ concerns, ideas, and feedback and striving to understand their perspectives will not only help you build connection and empathy, but you will most certainly learn and improve along the way. 

This is one of the places where product and engineering 1:1s were really impactful for me. How often I had these 1:1 meetings was driven by how many engineers were on my team, but I always made sure they happened at a bare minimum of once per month. These meetings were consistently the place where I was able to address interpersonal issues, understand external factors that may impact productivity, and generally hear about concerns or issues related to team dynamics or our work. And it was my follow-through on the things I heard in these conversations that helped build trust. 

Cultivate a Collaborative Environment  

As a product manager, you're not just a leader but also a facilitator and a bridge between different teams. You should encourage open communication and create platforms for cross-functional collaboration, such as brainstorming sessions or project check-ins. At Wallaby, we made an event out of end-of-sprint demos for the broader teams to see what we were working on. We made them fun with drinks and snacks, and would often follow them with something lighthearted like a foosball tournament or games. On a more serious note though, they were a place for other team members to engage with what was coming down the pipeline, ask questions, and I often would come away from those with notes about team members outside of our sprint team that I should be reaching out to or new feedback to consider. 

Even small practices like demos can give your whole team a sense of ownership and investment in the product’s success. By cultivating a collaborative environment, we not only built a stronger and more cohesive team, it felt like we were able to unlock more of the full potential of our collective skills and expertise - which ultimately led to us shipping more consistently.

Even when the things you are doing may feel minor, the effort to create these opportunities to collaborate contributes to the respect and trust needed to lead your team and product to success. 

Celebrate Wins

Don’t forget to celebrate wins, both big and small. In the hustle and bustle of startup life, it's easy to overlook achievements. Take the time to recognize your team’s successes, whether it's through a nice email or a shout-out in a meeting; celebrating victories boosts morale and keeps your team motivated. Making sure that I was asking for budget to buy the team lunch or doing something that felt special to celebrate went a long way to making team members feel appreciated. (You should be doing more than just buying lunch to make sure your team feels appreciated.) And celebrating together has always helped my teams feel more connected to each other, as you know…people. The times when that connection has broken down or had been strained, there was noticeably more resistance in meetings, in planning, and in our work. 

Put it all Together

Great, so we’re telling stories, listening, collaborating, and celebrating. How does that turn into leadership? Leading without authority is about the impact you make and the relationships you build to influence progress effectively. Through your actions, empathy, and dedication to the team and the product, you’re helping to create a team that is motivated, engaged, and ready to take on challenges together. 

About ProductFTW

ProductFTW is a weekly newsletter about product management, with a focus on real-life experiences in startups. We want to help product leaders be successful by giving realistic approaches that aren’t for giant tech companies. We know you don’t have a full-time product designer on each team. We know your software probably hasn’t been used by millions of people worldwide–yet. We’re here to bridge the content gap from building your product and team to scaling it.


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