A Piece of Advice for Junior Product Managers

I was in a discussion with a group of experienced product managers and someone asked, “What’s the best piece of advice you could give a junior PM?”

My first response was, “Surround yourself with people smarter than you, and push appropriate decisions to them (while not chickening out on the hard decisions you need to make).”

But I realized that the number one thing I find myself trying to get across to younger PMs is how to treat people who aren’t on your team. It’s usually pretty easy to get along with your team, since you are in the trenches together. But the people outside of your team can make or break you.

As a PM, you are the nexus point for countless stakeholders, power dynamics, and capabilities. Usually these people do not report to you. Some might be senior to you in the organization, or even in an external partner or client organization. Everyone is going to have an opinion and an agenda. These will rarely align — not only with each other but also with what you and the team want to do. You are going to have to say “no” or “not yet” a lot.

The most critical thing you can do is make people feel respected and heard. This means giving them time to air their opinions and ask their questions (within reason). It means listening before you talk. It means looking them in the eye. It means being humble, realistic and transparent about the unknowns and risks implicit in *your* plan, while still having a backbone about what is going to happen next.

Most people are willing to accept not getting their way, as long as they feel respected and heard. Of course, it helps to have a reasonable rationale for why. What they can’t stand is being ignored or tuned out. A passive aggressive approach. A “yes” that invisibly turns to no. An arrogant “we know better than you” tone.

Any of these attitudes will create enemies and unnecessary politics that will likely bite you at some point. As a product manager, you *need* the resources around you. You don’t need them trying to go over your head, or creating coalitions against you. Most PMs get what they need through influence, not explicit power.

Is this time consuming? Yes. Can it be annoying at times if the characters are difficult? Sure. But it is a necessary use of time. Do it. Don’t wait for people to come to you. And be transparent with your team as to why you are taking the time, and why it is necessary. Typically, they will be grateful that you are insulating them from that task.

What I am not suggesting is being buddies with everyone or abdicating your and your team’s judgement. People don’t respect a weak leader, and frankly being weak will also trigger politics around you. It is good to be liked, but far more important to be respected. So make others feel respected too. Lead with strength and humility.