The hardest thing about being a product manager is that you rely entirely on influence, patience and integrity rather than formal authority. In theory, it sounds impossible: you’re telling me that these very smart and talented designers, engineers, data scientists, strategists, marketers and salespeople are going to listen to you? They’re going to trust you? They’re even going to like you?
The 2 Pillars of Building Trust
- Shared values. What do you have in common with the other person? Whether it’s past experiences or goals for the future, shared values are how we connect with each other.
- Reliability. Are you a person of your word? Can people depend on you to meet deadlines, include them in important conversations, and be honest?
Your success as a product manager hinges on your ability to earn credibility in your organization. Authority isn’t a given; you have to earn the trust and respect of everyone you work with to be an effective product manager.
Early in my career, I onboarded onto nine teams at three companies in three years. The constant churning was exhausting, but it also provided excellent practice for building trust and earning credibility within my teams. Here’s what I learned.
Build Trust to Earn Credibility
I once knew a product manager who had a great track record of delivering results, but used manipulation, sucking up to the senior bosses and straight-up bullying to whip his team into high gear. Every winter, he griped about not getting promoted.
He was the first person to tell me that credibility is what differentiates successful senior PMs from the novices. As a young PM, I tried to learn from him, but I could never really manifest the tough guy persona that came so naturally to him. Eventually, he moved on to another company, where he was later fired (a friend there told me that he was just miserable to work with).
A few years ago, I had some unexpected free time and studied product management like it was a second job. I thought about this PM a lot, and I tried to understand how someone who exhibited all the traditional dominant traits and carried a strong track record of success failed so dramatically.
His failure stemmed from not understanding what credibility really means. He believed that achieving results at any cost would show the organization that he’s an effective product manager. In reality, credibility is the long-term result of building trust. It takes time, but it is a skill that can be learned, practiced and demonstrated.
How to Build Credibility
Set your product’s success metrics with your team. A product manager’s most important job is to make sure that all teams are working toward a shared definition of success. Try holding a brainstorming session where you invite your engineers, designers, and stakeholders together and welcome their input. How does your customer define success? How do you know if you’ve delivered a product that matters? What metrics will you use to monitor your progress? While these decisions are fundamentally yours, including your teammates in the progress and aligning on goals together will demonstrate your shared values.
Be driven by your customer’s problems. An old product manager adage is to fall in love with your customer’s problem, not a shiny solution. Once you’ve defined your product’s success metric and you understand how you can use your resources to best support your users, it’s important to stay relentlessly focused on solving problems.
Often, office politics arise when a group of people focus too hard on a single solution instead of seeing the bigger picture. Maintaining a clear focus on your user will demonstrate both your shared values and reliability.
Share as much as you can. We all have public roadmaps, but does your broader team know how those decisions were made? What is your process for making decisions? Do you use a data-driven method like opportunity sizing? Is your decision making process rigid or flexible? Your teammates should be able to easily answer this question.
In a past role, I published my criteria for decision-making and prioritization in a shared document that anyone in the company could view. This showed my stakeholders that I had an unbiased method of making decisions and helped them give me the data and information that I needed. This is especially helpful when you transition onto a new team to demonstrate your reliability.
Invest in your relationships. Seriously. Your colleagues want to know that you’re a real person. In a past job, many of my check-ins were actually a walk through the nearby mall. It’s a great way to take the pressure off of coffee chats and get to know the people you work with. This will help you find your shared values.
Do good work. Details matter. Take the time to write up really clear requirements, concise follow-up questions and actionable meeting notes. Sometimes, as product managers, we get stuck in the clouds of a big cool idea and forget that there’s a poor engineer who has to make sense of your notes. People really appreciate it when you show thoughtful work and this demonstrates your reliability.
Ask how you can be helpful. At least once a day, ask a colleague if there’s anything you can help with. Sometimes, we’re afraid to ask for help! Be the person who offers yourself and your time up to take some work off someone’s plate or clarify an ambiguous project. Being a helpful and supportive colleague can demonstrate your shared values and reliability.
Who Are the Best Product Managers?
The best product managers usually are not the ones who execute the most deliverables or come up with the best ideas. The best product managers are the ones who understand their users and cultivate deep, trust-based connections with their whole team of experts to bring the best solutions to life.
While we spend a lot of time honing our tactical product manager skills, we seldom speak about the soft skills needed to be an effective product leader. Earning credibility through building trust is one of the most important differentiating skills in effective product leaders.