Five Tips for Building Relationships as a Product Manager

Day-to-day product management is all about working with people. It’s often described as a “hub-and-spoke” model, where you as the PM are the hub, connecting the various teams or spokes from different parts of the organization. These folks can include your sales, marketing, and user research teams who are giving you input from the market and your engineering, design, and data teams who are giving you input on the product today. Each plays an important role in adding their perspective on the story, and adding their strengths to the team. And your job as the PM is to take in all these inputs and guide the team in a joint direction.

At the same time though, none of these folks report to you. You aren’t formally the people manager for anyone, nor do you have hiring or firing authority. So you can’t just dictate what to do to get everyone aligned. To get stuff done relies on one thing:

“Influence without authority”.

There are a lot of articles out there about what “influence without authority” means and how to do it. You can find them in HBS, Forbes, and more. These articles will recommend a variety of tips and tricks, ranging from leaning on expertise to shaping your attitude to sharing information.

Building relationships (image source)

In this article, I wanted to add my own two cents on some practical tips expanding on the method I like the most — treating others as whole humans and building relationships. At work, I think we too often view people as one-sided creatures, defined only by the lens through which we know them at work. But in reality, each of these people is a full person, and at a core level, humans want to be helpful and do their best. And so as the PM, your role is to bring out that basic humanity to guide folks to work together and see the best in each other. Here are my tips for how to do this.

1. Don’t underestimate small talk.

Treat every meeting as an opportunity to deepen a relationship.

Remember that your co-workers are full people with lives outside of work. When COVID-19 hit and all work shifted to being remote, I noticed a change in the way people engaged with each other during meetings. Obviously 2020 has come with a lot of challenges — including cracks in workplace culture as remote working became the norm. But after a day of Zoom meetings, I felt more fatigued than ever before, and so I started a log of my day to see if I could find ways to make my day less draining. I picked up on one interesting trend — the moments that I found both most productive and most energizing were the ones in which I was building a relationship with folks in the meeting, oftentimes through the few minutes of chit-chat we would have as we waited for latecomers.

Noticing this trend, I started inserting small talk at the beginning of every meeting, even ones where all the attendees were on time. A couple minutes of conversation about what folks had made for lunch or what Netflix shows they were watching set a positive tone for the rest of the meeting. That positive tone improved collaboration and problem-solving as well. Even if we spent the rest of the time debating vehemently over one decision or another, people were more respectful and willing to listen to each other if we had first bonded over our mutual gratitude for Trader Joe’s frozen Indian food.

2. Take time to explain.

One of the most common parts of a Product Manager’s job is making trade-offs and that means sometimes needing to tell people no. I don’t know about you, but as someone who likes helping others, I hate having to tell people no.

However, one way to do this in a way that actually creates connection rather than burns bridges is to take the time to explain how you are arriving at a decision. By walking my cross-functional stakeholders through my thought process, I was often successful in not only getting them to not be upset about being told no but instead actually advocating for it.

For example:“Yes, Feature X is important and I understand why this pain point would be helpful to solve. But, given the cost and benefit of building Feature X vs. Feature Y, Feature Y seems to bring even more value to the customer.”

Taking the time to explain your reasoning can be effective to get alignment both at the quarterly planning level and at the specific aspect of a feature level. Better yet, include folks earlier in the conversation so that they too can wrestle with the trade-offs, and help come to a conclusion that’s best for the company as whole, rather than for the individual’s own area. It’s easy to brush past this step of explanation in the midst of a busy schedule and back-to-back meetings, but making the effort will be worth it not only for communicating this decision but building trust for the future as well.

3. Learn where your teammates are coming from — and share!

My favorite part of product management is getting to work with people of different backgrounds and disciplines. On an average day, I’ll be working with designers, engineers, data scientists, managers, salespeople, marketing folks, lawyers, and executives. One of the reasons this energizes me is because I get to see how different people think, and understand what is important to them. And when I don’t understand why something is important, I take the time to ask. The designer is often not actually demanding we build all of his features — he just wants to push the envelope and layout a vision for where this product could go. The engineer isn’t automatically turning down every complex feature — she wants to make sure I understand the costs of going down this direction and set expectations appropriately so that I can make a decision on whether this trade-off is worth it.

The next time you have a chance to better understand the thought process of one of your teammates, ask them what their day is like. Ask what they find challenging, what they’re excited about, what keeps them up at night. Share your own as well — they can build empathy for where you’re coming from.

Better yet, if you have already built up a solid relationship with some members of your team, bring the team together and do a group share-out of these “day-in-the-life” stories. Maybe you’ll find the salesperson comes to realize herself why a feature can’t be shipped as aggressively or the lawyer will understand the value of taking on some risk. Build empathy with each of the folks you work with, and create opportunities to build empathy between others as well.

4. Admit when you don’t know the answer.

Sometimes you don’t know the answer. And that’s okay. Often times as a PM, I assume I need to know the answer right off the bat, and feel pressure to give folks an answer when asked a direct question.

In my first six months in a new role, I put an unrealistic amount of pressure on myself to know my product inside out, to have a roadmap already laid out, to have understood the priority of each feature request. I still remember during a partnership meeting when our partner asked me a direct question about why a particular feature was broken, and when we were going to fix it. She was clearly upset so it was tempting to respond, “I’ll get on that right away and we can fix it for you asap”. But I knew that I didn’t have enough context yet to make that promise, so instead I said, “I’m not sure yet but I’ll look into it and I can get back to you with a potential timeline or at least a workaround.” In reality, it’s okay to not know and admit that to whoever is asking as long as you make a plan to follow up and follow through. The following day, I let her know that this feature was being deprecated and that we had another feature she could use to achieve the same goals.

Caveating can also be helpful when you don’t know the answer but want to state your best guess. Deliberate use of the phrase “I think…” or “I’m not sure but here’s my best guess…” can be useful in speech to help frame your answer so that folks who may know better can challenge it and build a better understanding for everyone.

And finally…

5. Connect with your coworkers as humans.

At the end of the day, getting to know your coworkers as full people is the most important part of building genuine relationships. All your co-workers are humans too, and if you are able to genuinely care about them, then you will naturally inspire others. Take the time to get to know them as people. Set up a 1–1 to ask them why they joined this company and what they like/dislike about the job. Ask about their families, their weekends, their hobbies. Take the time to write them a card on their birthday, or invite them on a hike over the weekend. Yes, maybe a job is just a job, but your coworkers are full human beings, and connecting with them on a deeper level is worth it not only for getting your work done but also for being a better person.

My engineering team and me during our Friday “whiskey hour”

Mission: Empower People to Make Scalable, Positive Change in the World. How: Building Beautiful and Impactful EdTech Products.

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