Managing stakeholders can be a tricky task sometimes. It doesn’t matter how well you do your job, if you don’t communicate well with the people who are directly involved with your product, it all goes to waste.
In a recent event with Product League, Ken Sandy, a 20-year veteran in the consumer internet industry, leading teams at fast-growth, early-stage tech companies as well as larger companies, shares his insights on how to become an expert at managing stakeholders. Here are four things you should keep in mind:
First and foremost, a product manager should identify the relevant stakeholders. It’s important to keep in mind that there are many types of stakeholders, aside from product leaders at the senior level. These can be C-level executives as well as employees who just started working at the company last week. Sandy actually suggests level mapping the stakeholders along ‘Power’ and ‘Interest’ axes, so you have a better understanding of how to manage the different relationships.
For example, someone who uses your product on a daily basis has a high degree of interest in knowing every single detail in your product scope. Your marketing team, on the other hand, might be satisfied with a monthly update summarizing all feature releases and product strategies.
Once you’ve identified and mapped all stakeholders, make sure to start building the relationships before actually needing them. If you’re having an issue and require the help of a stakeholder, it shouldn’t be the first or second time you are interacting with that person.
This is a valid tip for your career in product management and for any other human-based interaction you may encounter with, in or out of your product organization.
When having initial conversations with your product team, make sure to build trust by listening rather than speaking. Take the time to really understand and empathize with their problems and concerns. Building trust will require you to follow through with what you say, so don’t make any promises you can’t keep.
No Surprises In Meetings
The second point Ken Sandy focuses on is managing meetings with several stakeholders. Ideally, you would want to hold this meeting simply to align all participants on the action items.
“Seek stakeholder buy-in before the meeting actually takes place.”
By sharing the context of the discussion before the meeting, you’ll be able to get stakeholders on your side. By doing so, you’ll also be able to avoid unpleasant surprises you might not have expected. You don’t want to be hearing about a certain concern or issue while pitching your quarterly product roadmaps. In addition, by having these discussions beforehand, you will be able to predict what issues and questions might arise. That way, you will be able to stir and guide the conversation.
If there is bad news, make sure to share it with them early, as any issues will inevitably come out and it’s better for the stakeholders to hear them from you rather than someone else.
‘No News Might Be Bad News’
The third tip Sandy shared is about being proactive. As a product manager, the communication channel is yours to own. It is your responsibility to set the right framework for sharing information. Set up recurring 1:1’s or group meetings and make sure to share the most important information straight away.
If you’re not sharing any information, it might leave room for misinterpretation. The stakeholder might think the product development process of a certain feature is not going well.
So if and when you have new data or relevant details, make sure to share those with your product leads or even the VP of product. In addition, don’t be afraid to ask your product leadership for help. They want to feel useful and it’s a great way to get your stakeholders to buy-in to what you are doing.
Own The Solutions to The Problem
The last point Sandy focused on is not limited to product management but holds a valid truth for everyone who is in constant interaction with stakeholders at the managers’ level. When confronting your stakeholder (or manager) with a problem, make sure you already thought about the right solution. Be ready with recommendations about that specific issue and make sure your stakeholder knows you are on top of it.
“Escalating problems too often creates the impression you aren’t able to handle what is thrown at you.”
Escalating problems too often creates the impression you aren’t able to handle what is thrown at you. As a product manager, you want to be perceived as a low maintenance person that will be able to handle high pressure moments, this is an essential part of the product management job.
Without a doubt, having the ability to properly manage stakeholders represents an essential part of being a successful product manager today. While there is no formula that can guarantee success (yet?), Ken Sandy’s four pieces of advice will definitely help get you there.
Being a product person, at all levels of the product manager role, is about more than “just” finding product-market fit or excelling in any success metric.
It’s also about transforming individual contributors into people managers and making everyone at the company, from junior product managers to your chief product officer to engage with your vision and help you make your product a success. All the way up the product management career ladder.
Here you can access Ken’s slides from the event ⤵️