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Advice for New Product Managers: You Are a Sailor With No Ship.

You have virtually no formal authority over the people, resources, and assets needed to actually execute your product vision.


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Curtis Savage

3 years ago | 3 min read

Here’s the advice I wish I would have received as a new Product Manager when first starting out: You are a sailor with no ship.

You may have an exquisitely detailed map of where you want to go, but it won’t do you much good if you can’t wrangle resources to take you there.

Yes, you are the Product Manager, and yes, you have the authority to set the product direction. However, here’s the rub: you have virtually no formal authority over the people, resources, and assets needed to actually execute your product vision.

And remember, the product is not simply a set of features; the product is the way you talk about the product, it’s the way you acquire customers, it’s the way you close a customer, it’s the way you support a customer, it’s the full experience someone goes through.

That’s all part of the product, at least in the customer’s mind.

In other words, you are in the unique (and unenviable) position of trying to achieve an outsized impact, while having almost no formal authority over the teams that build, market, sell, and support the product.

So if you want to successfully execute a holistic and customer-focused product strategy, you need to figure out how to influence and lead teams across your organization beyond just product, design, and development.

It’s your responsibility to ensure marketing, sales, operations (and even finance) are all bought-in, aligned, and helping you reach the utopian world that you got them excited about.

Yes, the latest methodologies, frameworks, tools, and techniques of the day may all provide some benefit, but don’t lose sight of the big picture. Don’t go down the rabbit-hole of undue process or scrum theatre.

Save some of your time and energy to learn the soft skills needed to ensure you are the glue that holds everyone and everything together. This will ensure you get the help and support you need to execute your product strategy.

This is the big takeaway:

Product leadership is more about leading people and less about managing things. It’s more about inspiring others than writing user stories or administering project schedules.

Always try to remember that you don’t have actual authority to demand people to do certain things. Sure, you can influence and persuade, but you can’t walk into a room and threaten people to do something or they are fired. Authoritarian leadership is going the way of the dodo, anyways.

Great product leaders lead by influence and example. Authority is now earned through positive behaviour.

The hard skills are the easy part. The soft skills are the hard part. This is especially true for PMs coming from more technical backgrounds who aren’t used to dealing in this fuzzier world.

The real challenge will be learning how to lead people without authority by using your communication and leadership skills — especially when faced with things like competing priorities, differences of opinion, disgruntled stakeholders, and other daily tensions.

So how do you do this? Read books. Get a mentor. Ask for coaching. Learn from your mistakes (and you will make mistakes).

Just don’t get discouraged. Do everything you can to level-up your active listening and empathy. Learn how to influence others.

Master the art of negotiation. Understand what motivates people and how you can use a healthy mix persuasion, collaboration, and co-creation to advance your vision, roadmap and agenda (all for the good of the product of course!).

Be patient. It will take some time. Likely the better part of your career. Always be learning. As long as you do this, you‘ll be able to get to where you need to go — even when seas get stormy!

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Curtis Savage

Product Leader based in Toronto, Canada https://medium.com/@curtis.savage https://twitter.com/CurtisSavage https://linkedin.com/in/curtissavage


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