As a product manager, I have to work across multiple domains such as business, engineering, UX, and customers development. Earlier in my career, I thought the hard skills such as understanding technologies, agile scrum, user research, data analytics, etc. are the most important factors to be a good PM. It is true that the expertise and skills are invaluable ingredients for a successful PM career. As I gain more experience launching products and new features, however, I realized that soft skills are probably more important if a PM wants to advance his/her career. Among the soft skills, relationship building is likely one of the most valuable weapons that we could equip so that many of the blockers and challenges when working with cross-functional teams can be eliminated or mitigated. It also makes work more enjoyable.
In this article, I’d like to summarize the lessons I have learned over the past years. But before that, we need to identify the primary stakeholders a PM usually needs to collaborate with. Below is a list based on my experiences:
- Key partners
- Managers & skip level
- Sales / Support
I’ll share my tips for building good relationships with each of the functions.
For PMs, the key partners mostly refer to your co-workers in the core team, including engineering manager, product marketing manager (PMM), program managers, etc. You need to work with all of them closely in order to build and launch a product.
Most of the time, your key partners share the same goals as you. To build a good relationship, I’ve found having regular 1:1s are very helpful and necessary. By clarifying the goals and priorities, and addressing concerns in private conversations, it’s easier to build trust. Also, as a PM, we need to deliver our part of work, e.g. product spec, roadmap, communication deck, etc. Always seek early feedback from your key partners and keep them in the loop when making proposals. As you make good progress for your project with the key partners, you usually can make them your allies. But it is important to remind yourself to not take it for granted. We have to keep investing to strengthen the relationship. Organizing and joining team events are usually a good way to get to know your partners personally. I don’t see it as a waste of time at all.
Managers and Skip Level
An individual contributor PM’s manager is usually Director of Product and the skip level is usually the VP of product, who are both powerful people in the organization. If you cannot earn their trust, it will make your work super difficult as you have to gain their approval for your product or features proposal most of the time.
I believe as a PM, learning how to manage up is a must-have skill. Because each manager has their own personality, you have to adopt different strategies. When you just get started working with your current boss, however, I’d suggest asking explicitly to understand her or his communication style, ask for the expectations (ideally you should document them for future review), and report your progress in detailed format. I usually create a document shared with my manager, which updates the progress of my work each week, lists the questions I have, or the help I need from my manager. This helps him to have full visibility of my work. Most PMs need to handle multiple projects at the same time, so it is also very helpful to prioritize the tasks you are working on and ask your manager to calibrate it. It is important to align the priorities with your manager. You don’t need to deliver everything on the list but it’s better to deliver good results for the top ones, which is an effective way to earn trust. Also, I try to avoid any surprises to my manager (usually they hate surprises). I’d bring up the potential risks or concerns I have during my 1:1s with my manager and set the right expectations.
For skip level, they usually don’t care as much about the project details, but it’s definitely helpful to have regular face time with them. It’s a good opportunity to learn about the higher level strategy, key projects in your org, and show the contributions you have made. Whenever possible, ask your skip level’s assistant to schedule a recurring or one-time sync.
Sales / Support
Depending on the company, PMs may frequently work with sales and customer support teams, which are usually good opportunities to learn about customer needs.
PMs have lots of leverage to offer help to these teams. First, you most likely have more knowledge about the product and thus can provide more insights to answer customer questions. This is valuable both for pre- and post-sales/support. Second, PMs have lots of decision power for product roadmap, and thus you can set the right expectations for customers by working with sales and support. You may not be able to address every single concern from these teams, but by understanding the challenges and underlying needs, and acknowledging their requests, you can show respect while explaining why we cannot solve the problem (now or forever). This way they can at least feel heard, and mostly likely will continue to trust you.
UX Designer & Researcher
If your product has lots of user interfaces, you often need to work with a designer. Researchers are another specialty who will conduct user interviews, surveys, focus groups, etc. to give you insights about your users. I usually treat both designers and researchers as key partners as your goals are highly aligned. Building a good relationship with them will smooth your product development process a lot.
A good way to build trust is to get the designers and researchers early in the product definition process. Collect their opinions and incorporate them in the product spec. Also, designers often care a lot about user experience and want to have an elegant design. While this is usually a good thing, we need to make a balance between ideal experience and implementation cost (or time to market). It is important to share your opinions and let them know why you agree and disagree.
Your peers are other PMs, EMs, etc. in your team or your org. You often don’t work on the same projects but sometimes seek for ideas and advice from each other. It’s a helpful network to get extra support when needed.
Frankly, it’s not that hard to build a good relationship with your peers. From time to time, your peers may reach out for information or help. You will build goodwill by just being friendly and responsive.
As a PM, we will work with people from many other teams. It’s possible to cover everything in this short article. One thing we all need to remember is that building relationships should not be deprioritized if we want to create great products. As a product leader, we have to influence others without authority. Good relationships will protect us during the most difficult times as well as making us feel genuinely happier at work. If you want to learn more, here are a few books I recommend reading through:
- Crucial conversations: amazing book that teaches you how to better understand others and express your thoughts
- Thanks for the feedback: same authors from crucial conversations, it explains how to explore feedback that triggers us and learn from it
- Manage up: a book that offers analysis for different types of bosses and how to work well with them. It’s a bit generalized but a good start to come up with your own strategies