Leading Through Influence the Clever PM Way — Part 1: Social Capital

Leading Through Influence the Clever PM Way — Part 1: Social Capital

It’s often stated that Product Managers “lead through influence” rather than through position.  And people smile and nod, and occasionally clap their hands in agreement.

But how many people really think about what this means, and how to achieve it?

At its most basic, it primarily means that Product Managers rarely have the actual authority to get things done in the way that other players in a company might.  Personnel managers have the ability to influence others through direct control — through pursestrings, performance reviews, team assignments, and other tangible methods.  And, barring that, many managers can also directly accomplish the goals of their department, as they share the skills of their subordinates.  Finally, most departments and divisions have very clear, discrete responsibilities, over which they have both the responsibility and the authority.

Product Managers typically have none of this, except for the responsibility.  Our roles often put is in direct and indirect conflict with the specific agendas, directions, and politics of any given department, over the course of our career.  We rarely have the direct authority to “tell people what to do” and coerce them to follow our instructions.  And, most importantly, our responsibility is not limited to a single, discrete, individual objective — our responsibility is for the success of the product as a whole, and its past, present, and future viability in the market.

A Product Manager’s responsibility is the success of the product as a whole — its past, present, and future.

So, rather than getting people to ask “How high?” when we say “Jump!” instead, we wind up having people ask “Why?”  And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it simply takes a different approach from what we’re commonly taught about leadership through our prior experience and observations.

Leading through influence is generally based on several components: (1) social capital, (2) effective facilitation, and (3) trust and respect.  In this first installment, we’ll be discussing social capital — what it is, why it’s important, and how to actively manage it.

Social Capital – The Building Block of Influence

There’s a concept in sociology known as “social capital”, which is the perceived reward or benefit that people gain from working together or in assisting one another.  In fact, social capital is the most important concept to understand when one begins thinking about how to lead through influence.  the best way to think of social capital is to imagine that you have a balance sheet of some form, on which exists the standard credit and debit columns, but rather than tracking money, you’re tracking your amount of influence on a given person or department.  When you do something nice for that person, or when you further the goals of the department, you can add some amount of influence to that credit column.  When you say no to a request, put some pet project on the back-burner, or push an agenda that’s not in their favor, then you add some amount of influence to the debit column.  And, if your balance is sufficiently in the black, then you may be able to ask for favors or for their support in your efforts.

Social capital is the most important concept to understand when one begins to think about leading through influence.

Now, this obviously isn’t an exact science – there isn’t a real, measurable way to assess your current balance of social capital with someone.  Rather, you need to observe the interactions that people have with you, how they speak with and about you, and how they treat you overall.  All of these behaviors provide indicators of where you stand in relation to these people, and what your current social capital balance might be.  And, to make matters more complicated, if you have a social capital balance, you need to be aware that others do as well, and you need to not only be cognizant of what your balance is and where you sit with others, but also what the balances might be of those around you, in relation to one another.

Managing Your Social Capital

Product Managers tend to be “alpha” personalities; we tend to like to get things done, to get our hands dirty, and to push forward our primary agenda, which we believe in as the best way that the product can move forward.

But, that’s not always the best use of your social capital, nor it is always the best way to build your social capital.  Over my ten years in Product Management, one of the things I’ve come to conclude is that being a PM is one of the single most political positions in a company — this is not a “good” or “bad” thing, it just is.  In order to manage that social capital that you’re building, you need to be willing to do things that you may not 100% believe in, because it buys you the leverage you will need further down the line.  You need to be willing and able to pick your battles, to give in on small requests and seemingly valueless contributions, so long as they don’t alter the larger goal and what you’re all doing to get there.

You need to pick your battles, to give in on small requests, so long as they don’t alter the larger goal.

Managing your social capital is an active part of your day-to-day existence as a Product Manager.  It’s essential to ensure that you identify every major influencer (and most minor influencers) in your organization and actively work to build and maintain a healthy, positive social capital balance with those people.  Yet, you can’t be seen as, nor can you afford to become, a “yes man” for any individual or department.  There are ways to build your social capital without sacrificing your integrity as an independent leader within the organization, such as:

  • Coffee/Lunch/Happy Hour — getting outside the four walls of your building is the single best way to build a strong relationship with someone;
  • Ensure a Seat at the Table — make sure that all relevant stakeholders are involved when and where they should be, through your invitation and direct involvement;
  • Volunteer When the Chips are Down — there’s no better way to improve your social capital than to step in when it’s crunch time and help a person or department deliver something that’s at risk.

It’s important to remember that social capital is “social” — it’s not all business.  Any time you decline an invitation to lunch, or to coffee, or to a business dinner — anything that happens outside the four walls of your office, you’re sacrificing an opportunity to engage and develop that positive balance of social capital.  While you can certainly make inroads and some positive movement on that balance sheet within the office, stepping outside often offers the best opportunities to build up your reserves.

Spending Your Social Capital

There always comes some time when you need to call in a favor in order to move something forward.  Maybe you’ve got some new idea that could really use the push of the CEO behind it,  or you need to get in on a developing sales deal so that you can better understand the customer’s pain points and needs, or perhaps you need to ask the development team to spend a little bit of overtime to get a prototype or final product just past that finish line a little earlier.  And that’s when you cash in some of that social capital that you’ve been building up.

Now, the real problem with social capital is that it’s a silent influencer – nobody likes to confirm that they’re trading favors, and nobody likes to feel as though they’re doing something because they’re being backed into a corner, or because they “have to”.  Rather, using that social capital to “buy” a favor is in and of itself a subtle thing.

The real problem with social capital is that it’s a silent influencer.

Basically, if you have to mention or reference something that you’ve done for the person you’re asking a favor of, you’ve misjudged your capital account.  Rather, you couch it in terms that provide a win-win situation for both of you, finding the common thread that provides both of you with a positive outcome.  For the CEO, this could simply be the opportunity to “own” the idea; for sales, that could be the ability to have someone knowledgeable about the product in during the sales cycle; for the dev team, maybe that’s pizza and beers on you in exchange for the extra effort.

interestingly enough, spending your social capital is actually an essential aspect of managing your capital overall – and, if you do it right, you actually wind up building some amount of capital at the same time that you’re spending some of it.

In future installments, I’ll discuss other aspects of leadership through influence:

  • Part 2: Effective Facilitation
  • Part 3: Trust and Respect
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