You Can Lead Without Authority

Tom Grant’s recent post “Product Managers Must Have The Opportunity to Be Leaders” got me thinking again about this concept of authority and Product Management.Emperor_Statue_iStock_000002199411XSmall[1]

Tom wraps up his post with this thought: “Best practices for PM’s role in innovation, or any other job function, are great, as long as PMs have the authority, capability, and responsibility needed to act on them.”

While I don’t disagree with Tom, I also don’t want PMs to conclude that they will only be successful when their bosses give them authority.

We’ve heard our colleagues express this perceived “lack of authority trap” in two ways: 1) “I can’t order anybody to work on behalf of my product,” and 2) “I have all these great ideas, but I can’t get the executive team to let me pursue them.”

Here’s what we believe: PMs must be leaders, regardless of authority.

Why?  Because nothing in product management gets done without a cross-functional team (one of Tom’s points in his example). And all the research on high-performing teams indicates that authoritarian styles don’t work; you can order team members to do stuff, and it may get done – but not in the most effective way, and maybe not twice in a row.

So our thoughts about authority are best summed up by this handy acronym from the XP world: YAGNI (Ya Ain’t Gonna Need It).

Yes, it’s certainly better to have authority; in fact, my personal ‘peak experiences’ have been when I had executive backing in the form of “empowerment” to do the job. But PMs can – and should – be effective leaders without it.

Here are four less-obvious ways that you can boost your PM leadership skills.

1. Make time to get out of tactical mode. Study Covey’s four quadrants again and re-commit yourself to making time for Quadrant II activities. It’s basic, but it works!

2. Spend that time developing compelling business cases for your most prized initiatives – whether that’s a new innovative product idea, adding developers to your product, moving your product to a new architecture, or implementing a new marketing program. In the process of creating a business case, you’ll either develop a case that executives will support, or you’ll reveal the reasons why your executives aren’t supporting it.

3. Try a shared leadership model. When you personally have no authority, allowing shared leadership engages individuals at a more powerful level – so you don’t need to order them around. Having a strong and engaged product team also allows you to leverage whatever authority your team members possess. And the group’s support on an idea may have a stronger impact on executives, garnering the support that you alone may not be able to attain.

4. Be accountable. You are the single neck to wring for your product, no matter what. You will never earn the official authority unless you are accountable for results, good or bad. And your team members will be more likely to take their share of accountability when you lead by example.

We believe this is a stage that almost every product manager passes through in their career. If you find yourself complaining about your lack of authority, view this as a golden learning opportunity. Study up, find a mentor inside your organization, or seek an outside coach to advise you on smart ways to build your leadership.

What are your thoughts on this issue? How have you managed to be successful without any authority?

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