For Product Professionals, Leadership Success Demands Influence

Product professionals are the consummate integrator-leaders. They ply their trade across organizational boundaries, ensuring all parties are prepared to do their part to support the firm’s offerings. And typically, they do this hard work without the formal authority bestowed by title or rank. Serving as a product professional is a tough job. Yet many individuals thrive in the role, driven by their ability to directly impact their organization’s fate. Those who succeed at the highest levels understand their power derives from cultivating influence with others, and they work purposefully to develop theirs.

If you’re a product professional striving to level up in your career, it’s imperative to grow influence deliberately. In this article, I share suggestions for engaging your organization’s political environment and expanding your influence without compromising your values. I call this approach “developing clean power.”

The elephant in the room and an organizational fact of life

If your mission is to get work done through and with others across your organization, you need to develop and apply influence. And this goes double for any product professional striving to lead change in these challenging and volatile times. Of course, it’s a short drive from a discussion on cultivating influence in the workplace to the topic of office politics. Still, it’s a journey you must make if you’re serious about career growth.

Put simply, there’s no escaping organizational or workplace politics. In every setting where humans gather in pursuit of shared objectives, a political environment will emerge, whether that’s a neighborhood association or a business that spans the globe. Some individuals will always wield a disproportionate amount of decision-making authority. In every organization, someone or some group decides what gets done and who does what. The challenge for the product professional is to identify and develop relationships with those individuals.

“I don’t want to play those games”

In my coaching on influence development, I regularly hear individuals state emphatically, “I just don’t want to play those games. If that’s what I have to do to succeed, it’s not worth it.”

In fact, one product professional, Anna, went so far as to suggest she would sacrifice her success rather than compromise her values by playing the political games she perceived necessary to succeed.

I admire the noble thought and unwillingness to compromise one’s ethics and values. I never want anyone to step across those boundaries in their lives or careers. However, my polite pushback goes something like this: If you want to maximize your impact on your firm and career, you don’t get to opt-out. Instead, you should reframe “games” in a more positive term: relationship development.

Anna took the challenge to rethink her view on growing her influence. Later, she shared that she recognized how she could be deliberate about developing her influence without stepping all over her values.

The core of a “clean power” approach involves relationship development and creating value for all parties you engage with, especially those in positions of influence. Below, I share some ideas that can help.

Three “clean power” approaches for growing your influence at work

  1. Develop strong networks to help grow your influence

A strong network gives you access to private information and individuals with unique skillsets. Also, it lets you connect resources from disparate networks to help solve organizational problems.

If you’re striving to effect change, strengthening, developing, and diversifying your network(s) must all be regular activities. The most effective product professional understands this. As a result, they work hard to engage the individuals wielding influence over their initiatives.

If strengthening your network isn’t already on your weekly to-do list, here’s a simple hack to help you jump-start this critical clean power work. As you prepare for the upcoming week, ask and answer these three questions:

  • What relationships will I start this week?
  • What relationships do I need to renew this week?
  • What relationships do I need to repair this week?

Be sure to approach this relationship work with an emphasis on bringing something of value to each party. Great influencers pay attention to the currencies of their network contacts. They focus on helping them gain what they desire, including visibility, attribution, decision-making authority, and the ability to extend their missions. In addition, they broker connections across networks to help others achieve their goals.

And, don’t feel as if you can skip the good, hard work of repairing broken relationships. In fact, this is some of the most valuable work you can do, as it potentially eliminates or at least neutralizes any adversarial feelings you might be facing.

  1. Grow your influence by solving problems in the gray zone

Every organization has what I call “gray zones.” Product professionals are constantly operating in these areas. Typically, these are the spaces between functions where process, communication, and coordination problems get in the way of speed, creativity, and quality. As it turns out, bringing resources together to solve gray-zone issues is a great way to grow your influence.

Amy, a senior product manager striving to gain influence in her organization, applied this technique masterfully. She learned to identify issues getting in the way of progress or creating an extra burden. Then, she brought the right people to bear to solve the problems. When she and the team eliminated a problem, she brilliantly turned the spotlight of visibility and accolades on her team members. It wasn’t long before her reputation as a team developer and problem solver had executives asking her to take on more responsibilities. And her colleagues started vying for membership in her initiatives. In the end, Amy was promoted to the role of vice president at an accelerated pace.

To spot gray-zone opportunities:

  • Pay attention to the big problems renting space in your boss’s mind
  • Spot breakdowns in communication between groups
  • Tune in to the need for new processes or approaches to help bring initiatives or strategies to life
  • Identify long-standing processes that are burdensome or no longer relevant

Start small and help fix issues that impact your daily work. Whenever possible, gain support from your boss and other managers to tackle more significant challenges. And remember to create heroes in the process.

  1. Leverage the principle of reciprocity

Research from Cialdini and others suggests that the concept of reciprocity applies across all cultures. Effectively, reciprocity means if I do something for you, you will feel compelled to do something for me. Individuals striving to grow their influence are keenly aware of the principle of reciprocity. Then they apply it liberally, helping their network contacts go into reciprocity debt with them.

Yes, this idea of “doing favors” might sound like we’ve crossed the line of “clean power.” In reality, it’s part of the normal give-and-take in the workplace. Take a moment to think about how often individuals ask you for something during a typical work week. These might include requests for help, resources, process changes, general support for initiatives, etc. While it’s impossible to say “Yes” to every request, you can almost always find a way to help. If you’ve done a good job with your network development, many of the requests might very well be fulfilled by network contacts, rather than by taking on more than you can handle.

For example, consider the case of Bob, who worked in sales operations. He already had a stellar reputation for being the go-to person with other groups vying for attention from the sales team. Bob regularly helped people from support, product, and IT get face time with sales executives and managers. When the sales organization needed extra help with a particular issue, he leveraged those reciprocity debts. As a result, Bob was a natural choice when the director of sales operations role opened. His promotion was largely based on his ability to make things happen for the entire organization.

The bottom line (for now)

You cannot escape organizational politics. However, you can define how you will engage with them. If you want to effect change while maintaining your values and avoiding potentially toxic activities, you need the influence to bring your initiatives to life with and through others. Focusing on helping others achieve their goals, identifying and leading improvement initiatives, and connecting the right resources with vexing problems are three powerful “clean power” approaches to strengthen your influence and maintain your integrity.