Leadership Without Authority on Steroids

Leadership without authority is product management 101. You must master it to succeed, in most cases with developers. But as a product executive, you must take it to the next level - and this time use it with the entire management team.

Last week’s learning session in the CPO Bootcamp was dedicated to product strategy. One of the things I said there is that strategy starts with the goals. To create a solid product strategy you must understand the company goals, but more than that – you must help the company break them down and make sure they make sense. I have said this based on countless times that I have seen the important insights that these discussions have surfaced, and the new level of understanding and focus of the business goals that companies were able to achieve as a result.

Towards the end of the session, a heated discussion started. One of the product executives participating in the program said that he feels this is problematic because it is not humble. Why should we as product leaders know better than others about business goals? It is between the CEO to the CRO, CMO, the CFO. Why should I as a product leader even get into this?

As you can see, these are two different questions: why as product leaders you must be involved in the business goals, and why you have leverage there. I’ll start with the former.

According to Wikipedia, Strategy is “a high-level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty”. A strategy is by definition serving certain goals, and so to form a solid strategy you must understand the goals you are aiming for. However, high-level goals – at the level that most companies would set unless challenged – are simply not good enough. There are usually many more things that are important to the company behind the specific goals, that are impacting the plans of everyone in the company. But if they are left untold, people, and specifically the other executives, cannot act accordingly (unless they somehow thought about it themselves).

The Company Goals Are Your Goals

Another reason is that for the company to meet its goals, everyone needs to work together towards them. By together I don’t mean that everyone should work hard to do what they need to do to meet the goals on their side, but rather that they should collaborate and work under the same assumptions and directions so that they eventually create a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts. Actually, if they don’t work this way, it is usually impossible to even meet the goals at all, and surely not in a way that would serve the company long term. Let me explain this point: this year’s revenue goals are usually meant to reflect two things: the first is to show that you have achieved significant growth or traction compared to last year, and the second is that it is sustainable, which means that you can do even better next year. But if you were able to meet the goals just because somehow at the last moment you scratched revenue from here and there, it doesn’t really put you on the right track to create sustainable success and growth. Next year you will need to meet much higher goals to keep demonstrating growth, but if you didn’t achieve this year’s goals in a sustainable manner, you are actually starting from a lower point than it seems, and the gap you would need to close is much bigger.

Success requires everyone to work together, so you should at least be involved in understanding the goals at a much deeper level than just the general numbers. My perspective though is that as a product leader you should not only be involved, you should drive this discussion

The easy explanation is that usually, nobody else is driving it, so it might as well be you. But that’s not the real reason. The real reason is that as a product leader you cannot succeed without it. Your goals are not to deliver products that your customers will love. Your goals are to drive business success with the product, and to get there you need everyone to work together as I explained above. So it is not just because you can, I say that you must drive this discussion to actually succeed in your own goals, and fully deliver on your responsibilities towards the company.

You Have What It Takes To Do It Well

This leads me to the second question I wanted to address, and that is why you as a product leader actually have leverage in driving this discussion. You have what it takes to do it well. I know that because it takes everything you were already doing as a product manager and brings it to a higher level – both in terms of strategy and in terms of the organization. But the principles and the tools you would be using are the same as you were using all along. Let’s look at a few of them.

Back to the humbleness point that started this article, the participant asked me why he should know better than others. The answer is that he shouldn’t, and probably doesn’t. But since it is his business (pun intended), he should steer the discussion and help others come up with the answers. I am sure that if you look at it, you can see places where you have been using this skill for a while now. One of the common examples is when developers give you time estimates that are much higher than what you can afford for a certain feature. You typically don’t have the answers as to how to do it faster, but if you engage in the conversation and ask the right questions, the solution often surfaces (or at least the trade-offs are clear).

Another tool you have in your arsenal is always seeing the bigger picture, and connecting the dots for yourself and for others. Would you release a feature that isn’t delivering the value that you originally intended for it to deliver? Probably not. You would stop and explain where the mismatch is, and help everyone get in the right direction so that the value is actually achieved. The same goes for the really bigger picture, of how the company is going to make money using the product. Make sure you always understand this area to a level of detail that makes sense to you. You should be able to explain at least to yourself why this is going to work – end-to-end, not just your part of it.

The third tool, that you are a master at given that you are a product leader, is leadership without authority. Usually, it is used to get a development team to willingly cooperate with the direction you are trying to take them in. But the same principle applies also to your work with the company management. As a product leader in a product company, it is your responsibility to lead the company to success using the product. To do that, you need to impact marketing so that they understand which leads they need to bring into the company, sales so that they understand the value that the product delivers to these leads, technology so that they build a product that delivers this value, business development so that they bring the right partners to succeed with, and so on. As a product leader of a product company, everything even remotely related to the product is your business. And to get the entire management team to willingly cooperate with the direction you are trying to take them in, leadership without authority is your skill to use. The same game of leadership without authority you were playing before, except now it’s in the major league.

First Few Steps To Success

If you haven’t been doing it up until now, here are a few things you can do to start.

First, shift your mindset and make it your business to understand how everything works together. You should do that at the company level, not just at the product level (which you are already doing). Make sure you understand and are able to explain why and how the actions that the company is taking today will help it succeed in the future. Most likely you won’t be able to do so in the first attempt, simply because you don’t have all the answers. This is a great opportunity to start the discussions needed in order to look for and align the answers together with the entire management team. Remember, you don’t need to give all the answers yourself, but you do need to make sure the answers exist and are agreed upon eventually.

Second, dive deeper into how the other domains work. Understand the ways in which marketing operates to bring leads, and what are the big questions they need to answer for themselves in order to succeed. Sit with the CFO to understand the financial mechanisms of the company at a high level, and get yourself educated on what is important from their perspective. You should be doing that for each and every department in the company so that you can represent them well in the product work and make sure their needs are considered every step of the way.

Third, make it a habit to always keep the dots connected and the bigger picture coherent. If something doesn’t make sense to you, speak up. Raise it and ask what you are missing. Help others see the gaps in their own plans (but make yourself their partner, not their auditor).

You will be doing a great service to the company this way. Help each and every department succeed, so that eventually you can all bring the company to the next level.

My free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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