You are a product manager in a product area where you need to collaborate with multiple functions and not just design, data and engineering. You work with marketing, category management, operations, customer support, finance, legal et cetera. Let’s take an example of engagement as a product area. Your objective is to increase the time spent per user per week on the app. A new marketing person has joined who is your business partner in the area.

You have a clear roadmap of product features to build ready with you and some of it is already in the design and development stages. One fine day, your marketing partner comes to you and says, “Let’s build engaging games on the platform that will drive up the time spent”. Now, how do you respond to this ‘Let’s Build…’ proposition? It is fundamentally opposite to what you have been doing/ taught as a product manager. You can’t just jump to a solution without understanding the underlying user problem or insight.

You start judging the partner for being a solution first person instead of having a problem first mindset without even considering whether the person actually came to that solution from a problem they were trying to solve for themselves. You try to push back and the partner gets defensive about their idea, bringing in all possible arguments and data to prove why this is the right thing to do. You still do not agree as there is fundamental misalignment and decide not to move ahead with the idea. The relationship is soured.

I have been guilty of souring relationships with my partners in this manner quite a few times early in my product management career. I am sure a lot of product managers are. But wait, why is the product manager at fault here? Wasn’t the partner at fault in bringing an idea which was very solution driven and did not communicate consideration of any user problem or insight? No.

Consider another case where you are working on product changes to add grocery as a new category to your e-commerce marketplace. Now, based on the launch date of the first version of the product provided by you (the product manager), your category partners have on-boarded FMCG brands and have given them a launch commitment for the start of the next month. Now, due to some unknown limitations in the tech infrastructure, it is unlikely that you will be able to launch by the start of the next month. You communicate the same to your business partners and their relationship with brands is at risk now. Going forward, they find it difficult to trust on your timelines that will be communicated by you.

On the other side, to make amends and speed things up, you ask your engineering partners to put a quick hack in the system that may add to the tech debt and hence may not be the best way to do things from scalability perspective leading to dissonance with the engineers.

Again, the partner relationships are now not as great as you would want them to be. But how could you have anticipated this? How could you have managed expectations better? And wait, why is the onus still on you?

What stakeholder management is and why it is important for product managers

Product managers are at the centre of business objectives, user problems & insight and the solution & technology being built to solve those problems in order to achieve the business objective. Given the context that they have and the decision making power that they wield, the onus is on the product managers to align and communicate proactively with their partners on their reasoning and decisions. It is the product manager’s responsibility to ensure that their partners are aligned on the product roadmap and partners give all possible support to solve users’ problems and make the product successful. This is that part of the job which is popularly known as stakeholder management.

From aligning the leadership on key decisions to aligning the product marketing to help scaling up a product to giving the customer support enough context and tools to handle user queries, all of it is part of this collaboration and stakeholder management. Product managers need to collaborate with almost all the functions in a company to ensure that their product gets all the support needed to be successful. You cannot be a great product manager without being great at stakeholder management.

Stakeholder management is hard

Being a PM working on any given problem statement, I work with at least 4–5 cross functional partners directly and would conduct about 2–3 meetings everyday with these partners to collaborate on any decisions around the product. Collaborating and aligning so many partners on the roadmap and decisions is a challenging task. Partners come up with different perspectives and often have strong opinions given their depth in their respective areas. It is quite difficult to get partners to find common ground if everyone is trying to compare different ideas which have strong backing on both data and anecdotal fronts. It may just end up becoming a debate of opinions with people having different confidence on what problems to go after or what product to build.

How should we as product managers not just facilitate but also lead this decision making and collaboration? Why should so many people trust your judgement and provide full support despite having a difference of opinion? These are just a few of the many challenges that product managers face while working with so many partners. That is what makes stakeholder management so hard.

How do we build stakeholder management as a skill?

Stakeholder management is an ever-growing skill and its importance and impact in product management continues to magnify as product managers grow into more senior roles. It is also that softer aspect of the job which is very difficult to put a framework to. But there are some fundamental aspects without which being great at stakeholder management is impossible. These are:

  • Empathising with your partners (as awesomely as you do with your users)
  • Establishing trust & credibility
  • Communicating consistently and proactively
  • Being a real partner and not just an alignment driving product manager

These are pretty trivial in any work/non-work relationship. However, there are specific actions around these aspects that product managers can take to enable effective collaborations and keep getting better at stakeholder management.

Stakeholder Management for Product Managers

Empathising with your partners (as awesomely as you do with your users)

  • Understand and align on the problems behind ideas: Whenever a stakeholder shares an idea with you, instead of judging them as being solution-first, try to understand the objective and reasoning behind their idea. A partner randomly proposing to build games is also trying to cater to the company’s objective of increasing engagement and has the data around similar initiatives working in other places. Try to get the partner on the same page about the key objective and user problems at hand. e.g. in this case, it could be- “what is it that would meaningfully engage users to spend more time on the app while looking for products to shop for?. Could it be games, could it be seeing product videos, etc?” This shall create a common mission and shared incentives for the partner and you. Once there is alignment on the key problem, it becomes easier to collaborate with the partner as both of you are now serving the common mission and the discussion is now about solving the problem and not whose idea is better. You become an equal owner of their initiatives and vice-versa.
  • Being open to listen to ideas and problems (approachability): A good working relationship with partners has a lot to do with the ability of a product manager to be good at listening. If your partners feel that you listen to their ideas and consider their inputs in decisions, they would want to communicate their problems, ideas and challenges with you. They may not be looking for an immediate solution but just someone who considers their opinion important. Being approachable, empathetic & a good listener to your partners and updating your plans based on valid inputs go a long way in fostering strong stakeholder relationships.

Establishing trust & credibility

  • Doing your homework before sharing a recommendation: If you are just proposing another idea without putting in the hard work of what problem it will solve and why, then the debate with partners is going to worsen. Product managers need to assimilate all the information they get from multiple sources- user research, market & competition research, business objectives, company strategy and partners’ perspectives, to propose a recommendation that has a strong data and insight backing. This would drive rational discussions and your partners (being logical people) would understand your reasoning with data. Doing this not only increases the chances of building an effective product but also inspires confidence in your partners that you are comprehensive in your work and decisions
  • Being transparent and diligent about your work and commitments: In my very initial years in product management, I used to commit very ambitious timelines to my marketing partners and then would push design and engineering folks to ensure that the commitment is followed through. Design and engineering folks felt pressured with timelines that they did not commit for and often missed them. This in turn, broke my commitment to my marketing partners. Relationships soured on both ends and trust could not be built. To correct this, I now try to ensure that the timeline commitments come from the design and engineering folks and then communicate the same to the partners. Even on an individual level, product managers should be very diligent on following through on timelines for day to day tasks such as data analysis, roadmap updates and communicating commitments that may be at risk due to unforeseen circumstances
  • Delivering Impact: Few things build trust and credibility as quickly as product managers delivering impact in their product area. Delivering impact is hard and it communicates that you are really good at what you do. A couple of quick wins can help muster trust from partners and can set you up for a collaborative working relationship. With impact, partners see you as an expert to consult with, discuss ideas or just as someone who has enough context to listen to their problems

Communicating consistently and proactively

  • Over communicating decisions, progress and roadmap updates: This cannot be emphasised enough. Whether it is a small deviation from a timeline, positive impact, new unknown or a product strategy and roadmap change, leave no forum to communicate these updates. I personally start with individual heads up and then to broader forums like product reviews and email. Over communication is rarely a problem when it comes to product management. If there are no partner group forums, create some with your partners specifically to take their inputs and manage expectations on a group level.
    Loosely structured weekly cross functional partner sync-ups on key projects have been my go-to tool to ensure everyone contributing to the project is up to date and feels like an equal owner. I also find these forums helpful getting people on the same page around the priorities with informal yet objective-centric discussions. Key decisions can be discussed and aligned upon in these sync ups rather than coming up as a surprise to your partners in big group review meetings.
  • Regular informal sync ups: We work with people and not just companies. It is on us, product managers, to create a healthy camaraderie with our partners. It comes from knowing our partners as people and not just colleagues chasing goals. To establish, I like to have regular “chai-pe-charcha” (conversation over a tea) catch-ups with my partners where we talk about anything under the sun. Sometimes, they also become rant sessions where we crib about our problems. Product managers can leverage these informal sync ups to sensitise partners on their challenges in execution and partners can better empathise with your situation. These catch-ups can foster good friendships at work and make it a lot more fun for both the product managers and their partners.

Being a real partner and not just an alignment driving product manager

  • Involving all partners early in product discovery: One of the highest ROI activities in stakeholder management is getting partners involved early in product discovery. Not when you are thinking of solutions but when you are figuring out problems. If you have regular meetings to discuss problem discovery and product solutioning, add your direct partners to them. Their inputs can add a different perspective and your work becomes more comprehensive. As an outcome, your partners no longer need to be aligned to your solutions, they already are co-owners.

Tip to note: While the solution comes from a group of people as co-owners, the accountability of success or failure lies with the product manager. A common mistake product managers make is to go with popular opinion without having the confidence themselves. Product managers need to own the problems and solutions they are pursuing and hence should not be pushed over to build something that they do not have a strong reason / belief to get impact from.

  • Being genuinely interested in their work: Your partners work hard not just to collaborate with you but also to deliver on their respective functional goals. Asking questions around what they are working on, the problems they are trying to solve and if possible, suggesting some relevant inputs from your experience makes product managers more approachable to their partners leading to improved relationships and more effective collaboration.
  • Asking for/ Offering to help: Everyone loves feeling needed. So, in your day to day work, feel free to ask for any help from relevant partners. E.g. I reach out to category managers for learning about category specific insights that can help us improve the shopping experience for our users. Also, when you see a case where you can help your partner, don’t hesitate and offer right away. It adds value to the work as well as the partner relationships
  • Take inputs individually wherever required: When there’s a key decision to be made and there are multiple perspectives that differ from each other, I have found it very helpful to speak to partners on an individual 1–1 basis and get their inputs independently. I can then assimilate all options considering comprehensive inputs and present coherent solutions(approaches, trade-offs, unknowns) . Sometimes, individually aligning partners on solutions before going into a big group meeting also helps. They feel important and valued and the execution is smoother. It’s a win-win.

Managing stakeholders is a lot similar to maintaining friendships and relationships on the personal side. This skill needs to be nurtured consistently for it to grow over time. Sometimes, we, the product managers, forget that most of our time goes into dealing with people while doing our job and we tend to focus on the hard skills part only i.e. data, research and problem solving. However, after spending 7 years in product management, I can confidently say that the softer stakeholder management part is equally important and may be more as we keep growing into more strategic roles.

Think you have what it takes to be a product manager at Meesho? head over to our careers page and apply to a role that suits you the best.