Top 5 Approaches for Product Managers to Manage Up and Across

Org StructureOne of the more difficult challenges for any Product Manager is “managing up” or “managing across” the organization. The ability to demonstrate the soft skills required to effectively communicate and work with multiple people in the organization is often an underestimted part of the product manager’s role. This is not about becoming the bosses best friend, it is about stepping through the sometimes subtle political minefield that exists in most organizations.

Few of us receive specific training on what is a very important part of what we do. We don’t often discuss the negative impact of this aspect of our role  with others for fear of showing weakness and the training to deal with political interactions is often “on the job”, with many of us bearing the battle scars.

So what are my top 5 approaches for managing up and across (although like all of you I’m still learning!)

Build a relationship of trust with your key stakeholders

Difficulties in establishing a strong relationship with other stakeholders can stem from a lack of trust and a lack of understanding of the other person’s role. People can sometimes have a tendency to retreat to their trenches and adopt a stance based primarily on mistrust.

Making an effort to understand the value that each group in the organization brings is crucial. We all think we are brilliant and are clearly adding the most value but in reality we are all part of a bigger team. All stakeholders have the potential to add value – no man is an island, you need other people as much as they need you. In your communication with others show how you can support them in their role and how they can support you. Great companies are built with great people who develop strong relationships.

Understand your counterpart’s objectives and their management style

Conflict can often occur when you don’t understand or care about your peer’s objectives. Although we may be working to different team KPIs at the end of the day there must be some common ground – do we not all aspire to create successful companies?

Rather than going head-to-head with someone over a position they have taken, try and understand their motives and objectives. If you are new to the role, try and speak to others in the organization to understand the different “management styles” that exist in the organization. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes first – it can help to avoid conflict if you know what motivates the other person and what they are trying to achieve.

Take advice from others – work with a mentor

Product management is a multi-faceted role – it requires good communication, a strong focus on commercial aspects of business development, an ability to multi-task, the capacity to lead and above all the capability to deliver order from chaos. Often the product manager is a solitary figure with no direct reports but they communicate with and require support from many people in the organization.

I found huge benefits in working with a mentor in my early days of product management and today I find it hugely satisfying to mentor product managers in their role.  Product Management can be a lonely place but it is an immensely rewarding role if approached in the right way. Take advice from as many other people as you can, especially those who have faced similar challenges to you. If you have a product manager in your team, ensure they are receiving the right supports from inside and outside the organization.

We are all on a journey of continuous learning – reach out to others who have made mistakes, learned from those mistakes and who can guide you in your approach.

Adopt processes that support better communication and interactions

Misunderstandings are more likely to occur when there is no formal process in place to guide how people work together. In the absence of a process for communication things can fall between the cracks and one side can blame the other.

Using something like the RACI model to understand who is responsible, accountable, consulted or informed for key projects can be hugely beneficial and can support positive cross-team interactions.

Keeping lines of communication open outside of your own group and establishing forums of communication can be hugely beneficial.

Understand your leadership team’s strategic objectives

It is important for product management to have a “voice” at the leadership table – they support alignment, guide decision-making and ensure everyone is moving in the same direction. As much as possible they try to reflect the CEO’s corporate strategy in their product strategy. Sometimes the leadership team may disagree with or do things that undermine the product manager’s strategy. Dealing with this situation can be a political minefield.

Managing up is such an important part of what we do and sometimes our passion for “doing the right thing” can override our ability to recognize that sometimes there are people more senior than us, who (for the best of reasons) may not agree with our vision. Product Management must tread a fine line between giving good counsel and dictating strategy. We have to ensure that we can see the bigger picture and that we recognize that there are often many contributory factors to good decision-making. As long as we enable our leadership teams to make informed decisions, with the right data, then we are doing our job. It’s important to realize though that we may not always agree with every decision that is made.

Although product managers may feel like they have no authority they do have the ability to lead and guide good decision-making and that is where they can add true value. Remember, don’t bring problems to the leadership team without some well thought out potential solutions.


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