Powering to Success as a Product Manager

The Product Manager Role

The product manager role has taken many shapes and forms, but the one constant I have seen in my experience is that when product managers are assigned total profit responsibility for their products and they are adept at exercising certain unique “powers” they possess, they inevitably achieve success for their product lines and become successful business leaders and business builders in their own right.The one distinctive aspect of the work of product managers who are assigned profit responsibility for their products is that these responsibilities are not matched with commensurate authority over the functional teams – sales, engineering, manufacturing, distribution, and more – on whom they depend to achieve their primary goals.How a product manager handles this imbalance between responsibility and authority determines their true success or failure.  How does a product manager get people who do not work for him to do his bidding?

Product Manager Powers

I have seen great product managers…and they are great influence peddlers!  The key is their ability to use various forms of influence to gain support for their goals and actions.  In this, I have found that great product managers know how to use (even wield) four distinctive powers they possess:

  • Expert Power – functional mastery of the essential tools of the trade: forecasting, pricing, positioning, demand generation, technology assessment, market analyses, and more which ensures their functional expertise distinct from the other teams.  

In addition, good product managers must also earn respect for their judgment about how the products are built and sold.  In this, for example, product managers for technical products need to have sound knowledge of the technology.  Why? “So you can call them out when they try to bluff you. You have to know how to ask the right question.  Do it a couple of times and you have their respect and confidence.”

  • Market Power – an imaginative understanding of users’ needs: as the central point for information about the users, competitors, trends, technologies, and buyers in their markets, good product managers develop insights which are highly valued by the other functional teams and can drive innovation.  These insights enable great product managers to introduce new ideas, stimulate sales, cause market disruptions, and fuel creativity across the product lifecycle.  
  • Social Power – leveraging a winning personality:  Good product managers have the ability to create friendships and have excellent persuasion skills.  Often, they possess attractive traits of charisma, energy, empathy, willingness to share/encourage/coach, and a bias for action.
  • Position Power – taking advantage of a seat at the ‘top table’.  Product managers have access unlike any others in the organization at their level.  They have access to operating internal information from finance, engineering, manufacturing, sales and more for their product lines and understand the interdependencies of budgets and performance goals.  And, they have almost unfettered and regular access to senior management.  This is where truly good product managers excel.  How they use this access to reward or coerce people in their product line spheres is an invaluable skill and is a key factor in encouraging people who do not work directly for them to follow them.

Expert Power and Market Power in combination form the substance of every product manager. They give the product manager the greater systemic perspective which enables others to defer to his opinions and decisions because they feel he is in the better position to assess what actions will best contribute to product line success.  These powers are strengthened even more if the product manager has prior experience in one of the other core functions s/he is influencing, such as engineering, sales, or manufacturing.Social and Position powers are the velvet glove and iron fist of every product manager.  Social power creates natural attraction in the form of friendships, shared identities, perception as a success model, and even hero worship!  When coupled with a smart and judicious use of Position power with senior managers, where product managers can dispense meaningful rewards and exercise effective coercion, the two give product managers a unique advantage for organizational leadership and personal growth.  In my experience over thirty years in the tech industry and as a CEO for half that time, I have noticed that the great product managers (those who have found the right balance and timing in using their four powers) never lose their market or social powers as they move up the corporate ladder, no matter what functional leadership role they take on.  And because, unlike their functional counterparts, they are practiced at the artful use of position power, they are well-prepared to navigate and manage the natural political dynamics in enterprises and move faster, more seamlessly, and effectively – and often most successfully – into general management as CEOs, company founders, and business leaders.

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