How to Lead without Authority

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CEOs, presidents, and general managers have a distinct advantage over product managers. The organizations that they lead report to them. As a product manager, you have no such luxury.  Your functional peers make up your product team. None of them report to you.  See the figure below.

Organization chart showing the product team's relationship to the core functions
Organization chart showing the product team’s relationship to the core functions

You have all the responsibility of a profit and loss executive but none of the authority. So how do you inspire your colleagues to follow your lead? The answer lies in your ability to

  • articulate the win,
  • exceed team members’ expectations, and
  • share the spotlight.

Articulate the Win

If people don’t know where they are going, they can’t possibly know “what’s in it for them” when they get there. As a product manager, the essential thing that you can do is to articulate “the win” in simple, easy-to-understand terms. The team needs to understand the value that the product or project they are working on will bring to the company. It could increase profitability, lower costs, or improve competitiveness. It’s the product manager’s job to connect the dots. Consider this objective statement for a project.

“Our objective is to find and acquire a key technology.”

It just describes the task. In marketing parlance, it’s all feature, no benefit. No attempt to articulate the value a win would bring. Don’t expect this objective statement to inspire the masses. However, what do you think would happen if you revised it to read as follows?

“Our objective is to find and acquire a key technology to create a 40 percent performance advantage over our competition. The result will be dramatic market share and pricing improvements.”

This second statement connects the dots between the task and the win. It appeals to our competitive instinct and desire to work on something important. A project that directly impacts pricing and market share will undoubtedly have high visibility; therefore, it will stir a desire to be part of it.

Articulating the win doesn’t only help the product manager inspire the team; it also cements sponsorship from senior management. You’ll be less likely to fall victim to the budget ax when management understands the relationship between your project and business results. Plus, when management speaks about your project, they will cite its value to the business. Your team will hear this, confirming they are indeed part of something special and important.

Exceed Team Members’ Expectations

Imagine a scenario in which you’re the product manager responsible for developing and launching a new system. The project is in the very early stages of design. You need the program manager to forecast materials costs for a pop-up, product-line review.

You say, “Jim, we’ve got a product-line review Friday. Could you please put together a materials cost projection for the new system?”

That would be meeting expectations. Jim expects you to assign him work.

What if you said: “Jim, we’ve got a product-line review Friday, so could you please put together a materials cost projection for the new system? I know you’re busy, so I brought you the bill of materials from last year’s model with all of the cost information. I figured that would give you a head start.”

That’s exceeding expectations. Jim expects you to assign work, but he doesn’t expect you to make it easy for him. Jim is more inclined to follow your lead when he sees that you are committed to going the extra mile.

Notice that we’re talking here about exceeding team member expectations, not management expectations. Both are important, but exceeding management expectations results in getting assigned high-impact projects. It’s exceeding team member expectations that results in an enhanced ability to lead.

Share the Spotlight

Finally, you need to share the spotlight. If you are the only that speaks for the team and reports results, you can be sure that there will be some grumbling in the ranks.  One of the most significant human motivators is recognition. Recognition here does not mean just mentioning and thanking the team before you present all of the team’s achievements. You should let team members present their work to management, customers, and investors whenever you can. Don’t worry about missing out on recognition yourself, especially if you’ve been working on exceeding your team members’ expectations. You’ll find team members publicly crediting part of their success to your leadership.

Running a product line as a matrix manager can be one of the most challenging management assignments. Without direct authority, your only option is to create an environment that inspires the team to follow.