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Influence: A Product Manager’s Secret Weapon

by Marissa Fong

As a product manager, there are a number of soft skills that you need to master to be effective at your job. One of the key skills is Influence. It’s a known fact that product managers have the responsibility, but not the authority to deliver product results, so influence often becomes a key to success.

But how does one learn the art of influence?

The concept of influence has always been interesting and fascinating. How do you get someone to see your views? Maybe change their behavior or course of action? And without authority? It changes with different contexts, people, and situations. The same tactics that work for one person may not always be effective for another. And influence becomes even more important as product managers advance in their careers.

Recently, I transitioned into a role at Produx Labs and I now work with Insight Venture Partners’ growth stage companies on scaling product. It’s an exciting opportunity, and also one where I see that influence plays an especially important role. Data sometimes may not exist to support decisions and relationships may need to be forged quickly or virtually.

So what are ways to garner influence? I thought about past experiences and polled some respected product practitioners. Here are the most important things I have learned about influence, and tips for others to do them.

  • Listen. To forge a relationship and understand the other person, you have to listen. One of the product practitioners I spoke to stated that he spends his first conversation with each stakeholder listening. Just with this simple act, he learns about the concerns, motivations and thought processes of each stakeholder. And it becomes the foundation for future interactions.
  • Be Empathetic. Defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”, empathy (which is not sympathy) is about being able to consider your stakeholder’s position and tailoring your message to his or her concerns. It can be about giving the person the benefit of the doubt, and to understand that maybe there are underlying concerns or issues that may be resulting in a negative response. It can also allow you to be vulnerable with your thoughts and concerns too, which creates a foundation for a shared experience.
  • Figure out what motivates each person. Everyone has a motivation and it’s important to frame your thoughts and actions with those motivations in mind. I once had trouble getting a key stakeholder to meet with me. It was weeks and weeks of emails, cancelled meetings, and light begging. When I learned that the stakeholder was focusing all her time on her key delivery for that year, I was able to get a meeting (the following day!) simply by letting her know that my resources would be a key dependency for that delivery.
  • Treat the other person with respect. How many times have you felt disrespected and just shut down or dismissed what the other person was saying? The same is true of your stakeholder. If you treat your stakeholder with respect, you’ll have a better chance of successfully communicating your message. Even if you disagree, make it clear that you’re going to consider what the other person has to say.
  • Keep an open mind but don’t be a pushover. As a product manager, your job is to gather ideas from all sources and to prioritize them. Actively soliciting ideas from your partners and accepting them, assuming they are better, will help you go the distance as a team. But, don’t feel that you can’t stand your ground and support your perspective.
  • Help (and earn trust). I once managed a product in which I had a cross-functional partner that was antagonistic and would engage in discussions aggressively and defensively. After a few meetings, I realized that this partner and her team were struggling with reporting to and delivering for a mercurial leader. With that knowledge, I was able to share the product initiative I had in my pipeline and we were able to jointly present the plan to her leader successfully, which earned her brownie points. Although we were not besties, we were able to engage productively afterwards.
  • Enlist an ally. Sometimes you may not be able to directly get your point across, no matter what. In these cases, it may be beneficial to get an influencer or an ally to step in to help your case. A Tech partner of mine once failed to make the case for a particular vendor to be used on a shared platform. He and I reviewed the data and I made the case from a product perspective for the vendor. Through the joint effort, we were able to get the decision reversed.

So how would you translate this into some actionable tactics in your day-to-day?

  • Schedule regular meetings with your partners. You can use these meetings to learn about your stakeholder, provide regular updates, discuss shared goals, and strategize for how you can achieve them together. As a product manager, I held bi-weekly meetings with functional partners. I also ensured that I had regular updates with key stakeholders. There’s no way you can influence, if you don’t engage on a regular basis.
  • Go into meetings and conversations as informed as possible. Preparing for meetings with the context, needs, and goals will not only demonstrate your knowledge and capabilities but also show that you respect others’ time. Addressing any information needs or gaps may also help you be more confident as you approach difficult situations.
  • Tailor your message to the audience. People like to communicate in different ways. When presenting to leadership, I highlight points at a high level, and with data and visuals that are pertinent to the key business goals and metrics. With team members that need a lot of context and details, I’ll present at a deeper level and spend more time on explaining or coaching.
  • Use their language. Particularly with those in different roles (e.g. Sales, Marketing, Finance), It is immensely helpful to have a shared language. With cross-functional partners, for example, I use language that are familiar to them and share data in their tools of choice (e.g. Confluence for devs, Google Slides for Marketing) in order to quickly get to a point.
  • Document and roadshow. As a product manager, it is your job to work in a way that is partnership-driven, with the philosophy that you and your cross-functional teams are in it together (because you are!). To reinforce that, I use to share and make accessible the team’s work and progress, in our internal team pages, demos etc. I also made sure that there are opportunities to highlight and share joint achievements, whether it be a “thank you” on Slack or jointly presenting key upcoming initiatives in Town Halls.
  • Repeat and potentially in different formats. People are busy and sometimes you have to relay data multiple times and in different ways in order to get your point across. Reinforce your stance in written format and in public spaces, sharing it in a presentation, and mentioning it in an aside in conversation.

People exert influence differently. I hope that these are helpful tips, and if you have more, to share so that the broader product management community can learn and be successful in their day-to-day.

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Marissa Fong, Director at Produx Labs

Marissa Fong

Director at ProdUX Labs

Director at Produx Labs, focused on scaling product at growth stage companies with Insight Partners. NYC resident.

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