How to Influence Without Authority, A Product Manager’s Guide
Influence without authority is the skill that turns a good product manager into a great product manager. Learning this skill is necessary to set you apart.
Connie Kwan (Product Maestro)
A Product Manager needs a diverse set of skills. Great communication, an eye for design, technical capabilities, analytical thinking, and more.
But above all, influence without authority is the ‘soft skill’ that drives a successful product launch, fosters organizational alignment, and gets you a promotion from a senior product manager to a director of product.
The challenge ⛰️
As a Product Manager, you have a unique challenge. You are responsible for the product, yet do not manage the people who are executing.
There are pros and cons to this organizational design, which I won’t debate here, but most companies I’ve come across have this structure. Which means, to be a great product manager you need to learn to influence without authority.
The Four Quadrants of Influence 4️⃣
There are four groups that product managers commonly need to influence without authority to accomplish their objectives:
1. Your Product Team
This includes the analysts, engineers, designers, testers, and product marketers who work in your same product area. Often the group forms a scrum team together. Influencing this group is table stakes for the job, and most product managers learn to manage this group pretty quickly.
You probably have this one locked down. Other team members are assigned to the same product, so even if they are not directly reporting to you, you can lean into the same-goal dynamic to exert your influence.
2. Other Product Teams
You’re likely one of many product managers competing for resources. As companies scale, product areas are split up. The product areas often turn into customer-facing product areas and platform products areas. Customer-facing products have an interface that serves customers.
Platform products support a similar functionality across the company, for example, a common data analytics API. As a product manager for customer-facing products, your ability to influence the platform product is critical for getting your features shipped.
For platform product managers, your ability to maintain a unified experience requires the ability to influence customer-facing product teams. Everyone works hand-in-hand to ensure the success of the whole.
3. The Silos
Marketing, Sales, Customer Support, Finance, Legal, and sometimes HR. For specialized industries, this can include Clinical for a health-tech company or Policy for an energy company.
The success of the product relies on your effective collaboration with these other Silos. I call them silos deliberately because they often act as such.
Your job as a product manager is breaking down these silos. For example, when you’re launching a campaign with Marketing, or tackling the latest DGPR requirement with Legal, working with these stakeholders is the real test of your influence mettle.
These stakeholders often have differing or even opposing goals to yours, so framing your story according to their lens is paramount to success.
It could be the difference between launching an overkill 5-minute onboarding journey vs a smooth onboarding journey in your product. These decisions have real implications on driving conversions.
4. The Executives
Priority and Resources are key for moving a product forward, and continuous buy-in from the executive team is critical for supporting successful products.
A good product manager knows how to align their team’s goals with organizational objectives.
A great product manager is in tune with the executive team and tells stories that demonstrate their accomplishments and value. Your ability to tell a great story will help influence up.
The Art and the Science 💛🎤
Most people will say that influence without authority is an art that is mastered over time. Actually, it is both an art and a science.
The art component takes time, but you can learn the science to accelerate your career. What are the art and science components you ask?
The Art is Relationship Building.
The Science is Storytelling.
The Art of Influence is Relationship Building 💛
There is no substitute for investing in relationships. The deeper the relationship the more trust you build. Trust is the foundation upon which all teamwork is enabled.
By spending the time to get to know your teammates as individuals, you build shared respect. In turn, others will be eager to help you achieve your own goals. When conflict arises, your colleagues are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt and trust your judgement.
Relationship building is done one day at a time. It’s very difficult to scale.
You can build a relationship faster with one individual by increasing time spent and ensuring that every interaction is positive. You can scale somewhat by building relationships with a group, but the trust extended in a group dynamic may not go as far.
At the end of the day, relationship building is done one interaction at a time. A weekly lunch, a daily walk, a monthly check-in.
The Science of Influence is Storytelling 🎤
Inspiring your team with your vision, motivating the executives to invest in your project, these and more are all storytelling opportunities. Since we lived in caves, humans have been connected by stories.
There is the neuroscience behind this concept: our mirror neurons are fired when we listen to a story, which helps us better step into the shoes of the storyteller.
Capturing your audience with good storytelling is a shortcut to connection, creating a deep understanding and building influence without authority.
Storytelling could be learned by trial and error, but I’ve done the work for you. I built a storytelling system to help craft the perfect story for every situation. In Storytelling for Leaders, I teach the skills that make great product leaders stand out.
The demands on a product manager are significant and diverse. On top of all of the technical demands of your job, you’re also asked to manage without authority across the organization.
Lucky, the people skills that you need to thrive can be taught as easily as a product roadmap. Use the right tactics in each quadrant of influence, and you will see your career take off.
Connie Kwan (Product Maestro)
Connie Kwan is a Storyteller and Fractional Chief Product Officer from Silicon Valley who works with B2B SaaS companies. Her 17 years of Product Leadership experience spans AI, crypto and blockchain, digital health, energy, hard tech, and software (Atlassian, MSFT, CY, SPWR). Previously the CPO at Khosla-funded healthtech startup and Series C Analytics company, she advises CEOs on becoming product-led. Think of her as your fractional CPO and sounding board for areas of Design, Marketing, Product and Engineering.