Influence Skills – The Most Important Quality in a Product Manager -Product Management Series

Last time I wrote about the top 5 qualities to look for in hiring a product manager for your organization- enterprise or startup. The rankings are based on a survey of practitioners and recruiters, posed as a resource allocation question. The beauty of that question type is it requires them to make trade-offs, take a pick among many qualities when only limited points are available and also state how important each quality is relative to others.  Here is the quick summary of the rankings

  1. Influence Skills
  2. Strategic Thinking
  3. Hustle – Getting things done
  4. Analytical Skills
  5. Attention to Details

In this article let me discuss influence skills and how you can evaluate that in the people you are hiring for a product manager position.

First what influence is not.

It is not a parlor game, not charm effect, not magnetic personality, not salesmanship, not smooth talking, not big presence, not about greasing wheels etc.  Influence is not a one sided winner takes all zero-sum game and definitely not a single encounter game.

You may have read the book Influence by Bob Cialdini. It is a good book but it is a set of tactics that can come in handy but not foundation of Influence. For instance, you may ease into a new working relation if you were to show them your connection to them but not succeed repeatedly if you ignore the three main skills I list below.

Consider this for a moment – in any organization, why should anyone drop what they are doing and add your ask and prioritize it ahead of others? And do it not just once but over and over in multiple encounters? How does your ask align with their priorities and incentives? Why should they trust you?

You will recognize that strong influence skill starts with trust. If you are applying parlor games to get what you want you sure will win once but it is a multiple encounter game. Only if trust exist can you even communicate effectively the common value proposition and get them to see their share of the value created.

Influence is about showing others the mutual value  if they were to work with you and deliver what you are asking for. You have to show them how big the pie is without them, how big it will grow with them being part of the effort and most importantly what is their share of the bigger pie.

What is implied here is how effectively you can communicate that value and getting them to see for themselves. It is also important that you communicate their value realization after their task is completed –

  • show them mutual value,
  • work with them to realize it,
  • show them again what you two accomplished.

Evaluating Influence Skills

When evaluating influence skills you need to explore their understanding of what influence means. Anything that signals their view of this as one-sided game is a red flag. For instance if they use negative words to describe others they influenced that is an indication of seeing this as zero-sum game.

I would recommend starting the conversation not as a quiz but as a story telling session, asking them to pick a recent engagement and explain how they met a business objective working across boundaries and with multiple teams.

Here are things to evaluate in their story

  1. How big the impact was for the business? This needs no further explanation.
  2. Length of engagement – you do not want to hear a minor one-act play where they used tricks from Cialdini’s book to get someone to say yes. You want to hear a longer engagement based on trust and mutual value
  3. How detailed the story is  – after they start with a summary of Situation-Action-Result? One way to weed out canned stories is to dig deeper for details by asking, “How are he players?”, “What are their priorities?”, “What exactly was their push-back?”, “What exactly did you say to them?”

From the story you are looking to evaluate if their understanding of influence comes through, they show trust as key factor and see the need for effective communication.

Anything less, you know where they stand among the pool of candidates you have.