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Product Manager Skills: Maximizing Influence Through People Skills

Product Manager Skills: Isn’t Being the Expert Enough?

You’re the expert in your product, your market, your customers and your competitors. Yet, despite your expertise you find yourself struggling with internal stakeholders about schedules, feature prioritization, design, pricing, messaging, or product strategy. While some of this struggle is natural – you work with smart, opinionated people who hold a piece of the puzzle, it is also incredibly frustrating. What was the point of all your product manager skills and effort to become the expert if people still argue with you about your conclusions?

Maximizing Influence Through People Skills

My first Leadership Instructor taught me that Credibility = Expertise + Trust.

Your expertise is only half of the product management skill set needed for credibility—you also need to build and maintain trust. While we want to believe that logic influences people, the reality is that we are emotional beings, and logic will only go so far.

Your stakeholders are people who make decisions from their gut emotions, whether they admit to it or not. Thus, trust becomes essential to Product Management influence.

With trust comes:

  • The ability to communicate more clearly.
    People trust they are being heard and are more likely to listen more closely to you. They believe your plans incorporate success for them as well as for yourself, and consequently do not need to fight as hard for their view of success.
  • An increase in innovation.
    Trust allows people to fail and recover, a critical component of innovation. As a Product Manager you are in a position to encourage innovative thinking, offering support to new ideas and protecting people when new ideas fall flat.
  • An increase in stakeholder ownership and alignment.
    Your stakeholders will invest in someone’s vision of the product, either yours, their own, or someone else’s. If they trust you on a gut level, they are far more likely to align themselves to your vision.

People Skills That Build Trust

Our goal in exercising “people skills” is not to make other people feel good, but to maximize the amount of trust we are building and maintaining. Below are a few examples key product manager skills that build trust:

  1. Integrity—Walk Your Talk
    Keep your word. Admit and correct your mistakes. Own your power and passion. It is important that your stakeholders learn who you are and can count on that consistently.
  2. Listen First, Speak Last
    Real listening is 90% of solving disagreements. You want someone on your side? Listen to them first. They’ll feel validated having been heard and you’ll know best how to frame your opinion. And you may learn something new, too!
  3. State solid YESes and NOs
    Every Yes to one thing is a No to something else, and vice versa. Clearly delivering a Yes or No answer provides focus on what is truly important to a successful product. The ability to withstand the discomfort of the moment of telling someone something they may not want to hear informs your stakeholders that you are clear on what needs doing and you’re willing to face hardships to get there.
  4. Know Other People’s Jobs
    Know what your stakeholders do and how they contribute to the success of the product. Know their processes. Know how they succeed at their job and how you can help them. Not only does it help create empathy for the challenges your stakeholders face, but when seemingly unsurmountable problems arise (and they will) you’ll know where to push, pull, or side-step the system, and who can help you.
  5. Get to the Point Quickly
    With all our market and product knowledge we can sometimes try to communicate too much. If you listen to how leaders communicate you’ll realize they get to the point without all the backstory. You can do the same—be polite yes, but also state your need without the backstory unless asked for it. You’ll be amazed at how this skill can transform your collaborative relationships!
  6. Take All of the Blame and Give Away All the Credit
    Whenever possible, take the blame for problems. This sounds counter-intuitive at first, but it works. I’m not suggesting you take the blame for illegal or unethical actions taken by someone else, but when it comes to your product the person who holds the blame is the one who made the decision, and this subtle distinction contributes to the Implied Authority that you are the decision-maker for the product.

    • From your executive’s perspective, they generally don’t care who is to blame, they want to know that someone is aware of and correcting the problem and won’t let it happen again. They want a responsible leader and you want to visibly be the person in this role.
    • From the product team’s perspective, they want to know you’ll shield them from blame. You provide a safe path to success for them.

    Of course, your next step is to follow through privately with the person who is responsible and make sure the problem is cleaned up, that gets back to reinforcing your integrity. And finally, make sure to give credit for all product success to your team members, not take it yourself. This practice of publically falling on your sword while simultaneously giving away credit will do more to build trust, to establish your authority and leadership, than anything else.

Adding these people skills to your collection of product manager skills will increase your ability to drive a successful product. These are key skills in the path from Product Manager to Product Leader.

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Meet the Author

Colleen O’Rourke is a Principal Consultant and Trainer at The 280 Group. She is passionate about developing Product Managers as leaders within their organizations, unleashing their exponential impact into the mix of products, people, and processes that are needed for success.

Colleen Product Manager Skills

Colleen O’Rourke
Senior Principal Consultant and Trainer

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3 Responses to Product Manager Skills: Maximizing Influence Through People Skills

  1. Ewela Jul 21, 2016 at 3:18 am #

    I observe totally opposite situation how my colleagues (PMs) behave. And surprisingly it (talking too much, promising-not-delivering, focusing on themselves, speaking loudly-that-others-can-hear, making noise about solutions-which-will-never-be-delivered/developed/reimbursed…, etc.) gives them the highest notes in GMs eyes and final appraisals… Unfortunately nothing matters but coterie.

  2. Colleen O'Rourke Jul 21, 2016 at 11:56 am #

    Ewela, thank you for your comments! People will always be people, and the disease of “loudest wins” is sadly still alive today. And while this behavior is a sign of an unhealthy organization it does not change the fundamentals of leadership, and may even give you a challenging space in which to hone your leadership skills. Your choices are to tolerate it and do nothing, become one of them, leave, or lead through it. Only you know what choice is the right one for you.


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