Understanding leadership and authority

If you want to be a bad product manager, complain about your lack of authority and attempt to gain authority over necessary resources. How can you be expected to “manage” a product if you don’t “manage” anyone working on your product? You need control over developers, engineers, marketers, designers, and all of the other members of the product development team. If you don’t manage any of those folks, make sure to spend a good amount of effort complaining to anyone who will listen, describing how things would be so much better and easier if you managed those resources. Spend your time making a play for moving those resources into the product management group — after all, that will solve all of your resource problems, right?

If you want to be a good product manager, learn to lead without authority. Most product management groups are small, and product managers have few if any direct reports. Rather than complaining and trying to change that, good product managers learn how to lead cross-functional teams made up of people over whom they have no line authority.

This is not necessarily one of the most difficult things product managers must do, though it’s one of the most important. Hundreds if not thousands of books have been written on leadership, but for product managers specifically, Michael Shrivathsan offers these suggestions: “How do you lead without authority? I’d say – using a combination of influencing, negotiating, relationship building and other similar skills. Is it possible to lead without authority? My thought on this is summarized well by the question Tom Peters, the popular management author, asks: ‘How much formal authority did Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. have?’”

Of course, even if you do have formal authority over the right resources, that is no guarantee that they will listen to or follow you. Line managers, middle managers, and even executives often have the same issues with leading and managing their direct reports. If you think that all of their problems with leading cross-functional teams are caused because they are spread out in different departments, The Cranky Product Manager has a wake-up call for you: “consider, even if briefly, that your difficulty in getting others to follow your lead might be because your arguments are not compelling.”