Leadership: When to Speak, When to Be Silent

Great product managers know when they should speak up and when they shouldn’t – a key leadership skill that comes with long experience.  But if you don’t have the long experience, how do you develop this skill?

Verbal Leadership The Right Time to Speak Up

One of the ways that product managers make their leadership evident is by speaking up – it’s part of the job.  Good occasions to take the initiative include:

  1. Communicating Status.  You need to communicate status in your product team meetings, but you also should do this in monthly or quarterly business reviews.  You also may have an opportunity to speak up via publishing and commenting on a dashboard that tracks the key business metrics.
  2. Public Kudos to Team Members.  Be sure to speak up when good things happen on the product team.  And when you give kudos to a team member, make sure this information gets shared, both within your team, and outside it too!  Give people the recognition they deserve.
  3. Making a Recommendation.  Speak up to pitch a new product idea, or to recommend a way to become more profitable.
  4. Information for Execs.  You can “speak up” in a more individual way, by providing up-to-date market information to executives so they can make better decisions.

A good point to keep in mind: you want your entire team to be viewed as credible experts and leaders in their own right.  So let them speak – ask them to speak – when it will build their credibility.

The Leadership of Silence

There are lots of opportunities for product managers to show leadership by speaking up.  But sometimes it’s best to stay silent.  How do you know when silence is the right strategy?  Here are a couple of obvious occasions:

  1. Managerial Issues.  Let the manager lead at all times.  Your manager takes precedence unless you’ve agreed in advance that you will take the lead.  And even then, if an unexpected issue comes up, you may need to check in with your manager before responding, especially if it’s a commitment.  Also, be aware of this when working with the managers of other groups – and let them speak for themselves and their teams.
  2. Bad News.  Second, if there’s bad news to be delivered, never deliver it to the group until you’ve discussed it with the functional lead or leads that it impacts most.  Never “throw someone under the bus!”  Showing your support in difficult circumstances will help you earn the trust of your team members.

What’s the best course – to speak or not to speak?  Ask yourself:  “Is there someone else whose credibility depends on speaking up?”  If so, wait for them to take the lead.

Bringing Up the Unmentionable

But if nobody else will say it, there may be times when you have to be the one to mention the unmentionable.  You can be both straightforward and gentle about it.  One way to bring up the unmentionable is to start by saying something like: “I feel like there’s something that needs to be brought up and discussed, and it might not be a welcome topic, but here it is.”  Most people will be grateful that you had the courage to get the issue on the table in a professional but human way.

Go With Your Gut

Good leadership often means helping your team not to OVER-commit!  Sometimes silence is golden.  Our best tip is to go with your gut – watch for signals from peers and managers and learn when it’s best to speak up and when it’s best to let others take the lead in saying what needs to be said.

Product Management Coaching

Pivotal Product Management helps individual product managers to personally succeed throughout their careers, whether they’re new to product management, a seasoned professional who needs some mid-career acceleration, or a team leader whose goal is to make the entire product management function more effective within the organization.  Need help?  Consider setting aside time and budget for a monthly or weekly coaching session to boost your career.  For details, go to: Coaching.

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