“The most challenging thing about product management is that you have all the responsibility but none of the authority,” the job candidate said. Quite satisfied with his answer to the Cranky Product Manager’s stock interview question, the candidate flashed her a knowing, gleaming white smile. That was the signal. The Cranky Product Manager was supposed to epileptically shake her head in agreement and, at last, connect with the candidate.
No such luck. Instead, she rolled her eyes… Not the best manners for an interviewer, but seeing as the Cranky Product Manager is not exactly a, well, refined individual, she had no control over her clichéd response to his clichéd answer. The Cranky Product Manager already heard two other candidates spin the same old tired yarn that morning. In fact, she read a version of that I’m-a-powerless-product-manager-woe-is-me tale on at least one other blog that week (Product Beautiful, a great blog that the Cranky Product Manager recommends very highly, despite that one post).
But worse than trite, overused and unoriginal, this sentiment — universally shared by the world’s lamest and whiniest product managers, and even by some of the good ones — is way too self-congratulatory and is just plain wrong.
Yes, as a product manager, you are indeed responsible. Your job is to corral and coordinate the hoards of developers, testers, marketers, writers, sales folks, support engineers, professional services staff, and more — the entire cast of characters needed to successfully bring kick-ass products to market.
And, yes, as a product manager, it is true that you rarely have authority. No one (except maybe a few more junior product managers) reports to you. You can’t fire people for not taking your orders.
But here’s the thing… SO WHAT!? So these people don’t report to you. So they don’t have to respect your au-thor-i-tah. Big frakin’ DEAL! If they DID report to you, do you honestly think your job would be any easier? Do you think they’d magically start listening to you and doing what you say?
Last time the Cranky Product Manager checked, high tech product folk, no matter what their job functions, were not minimum wage workers. As intellect workers, high tech-ians don’t do anything just because their bosses command it. Nope. Those damn independent thinkers need to be persuaded. They need to buy into the plan and then they act. Sure, sure, those folks might occasionally placate the powers-that-be by half-heartedly lying there, closing their eyes, and thinking of England. But that kind of soulless attempt to merely get the boss off, uh, your back… well, it’s usually worse than no attempt at all.
So, in this respect, those other “real” managers — and by “real” I mean managers who officially manage people — have just as tough a job as product managers. Probably tougher. People managers must ALSO corral and coordinate their people, and get them to do things that they wouldn’t normally consider if left to their own devices. Like product managers, they legitimately do so ONLY by persuading and inspiring. NOT by fear nor the unspoken threat of bad performance reviews or firings. NOT by flexing their so-called “authority.”
In fact, as someone experienced in both people and product management, let the Cranky Product Manager assure you that the only effective difference between a manager with “authority” and a manager without is that with authority comes a lot of tedious crap: paperwork galore, mind-numbing sexual harassment seminars, and — most dishearteningly — the occasional hell of laying off a subordinate who does a great job .
So, whiney product managers of the world, STOP bitching about “all the responsibility with none of the authority” right now. Get out of your minimum-wage-oriented headset and recognize that official authority is irrelevant to anyone in high tech companies. Instead consider, even if briefly, that your difficulty in getting others to follow your lead might be because your arguments are not compelling.
Or maybe, just maybe, they don’t listen because they know you think of them as minions who are motivated by fear. In other words, maybe you’re a jerk.