You are probably familiar with one of the many paradoxes of the product management function: As a PM, you often have all the responsibility, but no true authority.
You are responsible for ensuring your product is successful, but as Marty Cagan has observed, “Product managers simply don’t have any direct authority over most of the things needed to make their products successful.”
When you’re in the trenches, it can be easy to use this paradox as a crutch — especially when your team is struggling to increase velocity or throughput. The best PMs, however, see this paradox as a mandate in itself. As a product manager, your real power lies in the trust you build with your team and across stakeholder groups. With trust comes influence.
How to build trust as a product leader
There are ways to build trust through reliable, consistent, transparent action. There are also ways to build trust through reliable, transparent, and consistent communication. For product leaders, you don’t have the luxury of picking one. Consistently delivering data-backed value is the top way to gain credibility and incite confidence in your ability to execute.
But forward progress on a weekly or monthly basis may not always be visible or tangible to stakeholder groups. How well a product leader communicates during an ongoing product development process often matters more than the outputs eventually delivered.
In order to build trust through communication, you need to learn how to craft a narrative. Regardless of who you’re talking to at your organization, or why, your conversations about the product should always tell a story.
As a product leader, good storytelling is one of the most powerful tools you have in your toolbox. Mastering this craft can dramatically simplify and amplify how you work.
The Three P’s
In my previous post, Product Prioritization & the Secret Sauce, I talked about how ultimately it’s not necessarily what you do, but how you PM that can make or break your success. Having confidence in your own process isn’t good enough — stakeholders across the company must also have confidence in how you work. And possessing a framework for good storytelling is at the heart of effective stakeholder management for product leaders.
This post explores what I like to call the three P’s of good product storytelling. To use storytelling as a strategic tool, your approach should be:
Staying ahead of the curve is a necessity as a PM, but proactive stakeholder management can often feel like time-consuming overhead.
By crafting a strong story that you share early and reinforce often, however, you can eliminate the need for more heavy handed stakeholder management tactics.
Making decisions with incomplete information and coming up with compelling ideas on the spot is familiar territory for a PM.
But when it comes to keeping stakeholders informed and navigating feature prioritization and shifting timelines, the ad-lib tactics PMs use for daily survival may not cut it. To own the end-to-end narrative about your product and how you work, you need to plan ahead and develop consistent themes that help you tell this story.
Many PMs find this the hardest of the three P’s, but it’s actually the easiest to practice and master. A good story is simple, relatable, and — perhaps most importantly — tailored to its target audience.
Spend time learning who key stakeholders at your organization are, what each stakeholder group wants to hear, and how they want to hear it. Overtime, you will organically craft your narratives with these perspectives in mind and your job will start to get a lot easier.
Product storytelling should be proactive
No matter what level you’re at in your career, there’s nothing worse than being caught off guard when it comes to reporting the status of a project. Not only are you possibly lacking the critical information needed in the moment, but you’re instantly put on the defensive. While this situation can happen overtly — getting called out in a meeting, for example — it can happen in subtle ways as well.
Every time you meet with a stakeholder about your work is an opportunity to reinforce the narrative you’re shaping about the product and your progress. This could be during a meeting, in passing in the hallway, or during lunch. Be known as a proactive communicator.
When meeting with senior stakeholders, only sharing the good — and hiding the bad and the ugly — can backfire. Highlight what is going well, and frame challenges in the context of what you’re doing to navigate and solve for them. When scope changes or timeline shifts may be required, engaging the right stakeholders at the earliest opportunity can often lead to unexpected resolutions (e.g. more resources getting added to speed things up). At worst, if you’re strategic about when and how you share these updates, you’ll end up with groups that may not be pleased but are ultimately informed and aligned.
PMs are not typically set up for success here — stakeholder management, in the context of product development, is often reduced to formal point-in-time status updates. This puts you at risk of getting caught off guard by misalignment, and invites the classic executive “swoop and poop”.
Instead, position yourself as a proactive advocate for your work, your team, and yourself. Julie Zhuo, Product Design VP at Facebook, states that: “A habit of an effective leader is to ensure your plans are known, understood, and aligned with all the key stakeholders…be extra vigilant if you sense hesitation about your plans, and follow up 1:1 to understand where the disconnect may be.”
Craft your story, reinforce it often, and take responsibility for ensuring it’s landing with your audience every step of the way. This also means finding the channels of communication that work best for each stakeholder group, and understanding who needs to know what and how often. (This is covered a bit more in the final section on keeping your storytelling personal.)
Product storytelling should be planned
Product management requires being comfortable with planning in an environment where all plans must continuously evolve. Discussions with clients about future needs result in new requirements to consider. Unexpected technical limitations require a shift in functionally. A higher value project on the horizon requires reducing MVP scope to release on a shorter schedule.
Because PMs sit at the intersection of business needs, customer expectations, and technical feasibility, they must be able to rapidly respond to change as the balance of these three elements can shift at a moment’s notice.
While this may seem obvious to PMs, most product managers find themselves struggling to explain this to stakeholders that expect product roadmaps to be an unwavering timeline of detailed feature commitments. These inevitabilities are often viewed in black and white. This situation leads to product leaders tirelessly trying to get other stakeholders to feel comfortable with the unknown. A good example of this is the tendency to place features on a timeline with a confidence scale starting at 100% for the next 2 to 4 weeks and decreasing rapidly as you look 2 to 4 months out, in order to capture the living and breathing nature of a roadmap.
For product-driven companies, having a clear product vision is important and this does require strategic advanced planning. Timelines and deadlines are always going to be part of the product development conversation, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Agile engineering and product practices in the absence any time-based "goal posts" for key deliverables can negatively impact velocity and make it tough to ensure development is meeting the needs of customers thoughtfully in the mid-to-long term.
The key here is to focus mainly on desired outcomes instead of exclusively outputs. Shifting your company’s thinking to an outcome-driven approach requires finding a way to see the forest through the trees when it comes to your product strategy.
Having a clearly defined business focus and product vision is essential, and this may require planting certain features more firmly on the roadmap. Being “agile” should never be an excuse for avoiding commitments altogether. Outcome-driven, however, means aligning the company around established tangible goals, where features are prioritized in order to achieve clear outcomes that are bigger than any one request.
For example at Klaviyo, we use annually set business goals as a guiding light for establishing quarterly OKRs for the product/engineering org. Each cross-functional development team then sets team-level OKRs that roll up to department and business-wide goals.
As a product manager, I am able to ground my team’s roadmap in these goals. I am also able to leverage these themes in my strategic storytelling about our roadmap. When I prioritize features against these themes, I make sure it is an inclusive process so key stakeholders are not only informed but many are involved. When you plan ahead for this — and are prepared to align stakeholders around a narrative you’re actively steering — your leadership abilities shine and trust builds.
In any good story, themes and motifs are deliberately developed by the storyteller as tools to keep an audience engaged and connected to the story as it evolves. Story themes also help an audience access a deeper meaning within the narrative that transcends the inevitable ups and downs. Product leaders can plan ahead and leverage this storytelling technique to tackle the inherent challenges in keeping stakeholders engaged and aligned in an environment of rapid change.
Product storytelling should be personal
Making your storytelling personal is ultimately where your approach to stakeholder management will need to both start and end.
Building trust through communication, and harnessing the power of good storytelling, requires first identifying your target audience. Consider which stakeholder groups care most about, or are most impacted by, the product development process. If there are certain groups that you know are impacted by how the product organization operates, but aren’t often looped in, recognize the need as a PM to start closing this gap.
You also need to build a baseline understanding with each stakeholder around what the product development process actually looks like. Don’t take for granted that many people (yes, even those at the leadership level) may not understand how development teams truly operate at your company. Call out the role each stakeholder expects play when it comes to both contributions and approvals. At Klaviyo, we like to use the DACI model. This allows you to quickly evaluate the level of detail that this person, or collective group, will need and expect from you, as well as the level of engagement you can anticipate in response.
When you’re talking to your CTO, your story will need to include details that just won’t be interesting or relevant to a Director of Support. Shifts in feature functionality — that will impact how the feature works and is talked about — are likely of interest to many stakeholder groups, but why each one cares is different and thus how they’re told needs to be tailored to meet their needs.
Know what each stakeholder is particularly worried about, and how they as individuals measure success. This doesn’t mean withholding information from some, and exaggerating the truth with others. Instead, you need to know what each stakeholder expects from you and deliver on it — without them even needing to ask.
Leading with trust
You may find that you don’t yet have the chance to own the way you communicate. Others will demand what they think they need, or you may have no choice but to report up to your manager the way he/she requests. PMs may encounter this reporting up the ladder, but even Directors or VPs could experience this frustration when reporting up to a demanding CEO. When this happens, you may be left with a feeling of resentment or inadequacy, which can lead to lapses in productive communication altogether.
Realize that you may need to earn the opportunity to shape and share your own narrative around your product and process. Start building a baseline of trust by putting in the work required to deliver results and optimize for outcomes. Do your best to organize the proper channels and communication patterns that will keep stakeholders informed to the extent they need to be. Start to focus on the stories that will help stakeholders start to understand your work and feel confident relying on you.
Once you have a track record of delivering quantifiable value in your product role, you can start to push back on the communication patterns that you don’t believe are effective or necessary.If you keep investing in the story you tell around your process, how your team works, and how you keep the train on the tracks, buy-in will only grow over time.
A commitment to good storytelling also means that PMs and development teams are held more accountable when it comes to shaping their roadmap around a strategic narrative. This strategic narrative is what ties together the what, the why, and the how. When product planning is grounded in a deep understanding of the what, the why, and the how, executing gets a lot easier and velocity gains follow.
Next time you feel yourself in the crux of the product manager paradox, remember that effective leaders are able to rely on earned influence instead of enforced obedience.
Earned influence comes not only from mastering execution, but also from finding a way to bring stakeholders across the company along for the ride through proactive communication. Realize that not all communication is created equal. Learning how to shape your work into a compelling story solves for all of the above.
With good storytelling comes strategic thinking, trust-building, and self-accountability. And that’s the real secret sauce.