Anyone in a position that requires convincing others to help them can lead through influence rather than authority. To explain what this turn of phrase means, let’s start with what it means to lead with authority. This is when an individual believes their role in an organization entitles them to make demands of others. We’ve all experienced someone trying to lead through authority; for example, your mom telling you to clean the dishes “because I said so!” is an example of leveraging authority to get things done. Another example is the military, which largely operates on a chain of command in which a subordinate is expected to follow their superiors’ orders simply because of seniority.
Product managers don’t have that luxury — generally speaking, you don’t have direct reports whom you can tell what to do and from whom you can expect blind obedience. Rather, you have to establish and cultivate relationships with your coworkers and company stakeholders. You need to convince people to follow your lead not because they have to but because they want to.
Influence-based leadership is a necessity for product managers because of the nature of our jobs. You need to collect information from stakeholders, customers, and the market — which means you need access to those people. That access is gained through trust and influence. You need to drive decisions about your products through people with different goals, agendas, priorities, and needs. Every single day of a product manager’s life involves interactions with multiple people across different levels of seniority. Getting things done without the explicit authority granted by a corporate hierarchy requires working with influence.
To do this, we must focus on establishing, building, and maintaining strong relationships with others throughout the organization, from the C-level decision-makers, to the middle managers, to the front-desk staff. You need to take the time to consider what motivates each person, what goals they have, and how you can help them achieve those goals so that when you need their help, they’re willing to offer it.