How to Lead When It’s Not Your Decision to Make

Product leadership is a challenging role because you are expected to lead but don’t have the authority to decide on your own. It’s not trivial, but the right mindset can do wonders. Here are a few tricks to get you there.

When I was Head of Product at eBay, we once had outdoor leadership training with horses. Interesting right?

Honestly, it was. We had to walk a horse from one end of the arena to another. But it turns out there are many ways to lead a horse to where you want it to go. You can ride it (but we didn’t do that), you can walk in front of it, next to it, and even behind it, and still lead it to where you want it to be.

The idea was to experience different styles and see which style fits you best. It also shows that there is no single right way, and each person could find their own style.

Each of us has a preferred leadership style, not only with horses. There seems to be a correlation though between the style that works best for you with horses and the style that you will tend to apply at work.

But that’s not the point I was trying to make. 

I thought about this horse activity because it resembles our work in another dimension. Like with horses, in your everyday work with your colleagues and even your boss, you can’t tell them what to do. In many cases, the feeling is that they are trying to tell you what to do.

But where does that leave you?

Does it mean that you are led by them and can’t lead?

I claim that much like with the horse I led, where I had no authority whatsoever, you can still lead even if you can’t simply tell people what to do.

You can still lead even with people who think they can tell you what to do.

You can still lead even with people who have the formal authority to tell you what to do, namely your boss, the CEO, founders, investors, etc.

You can lead with your customers, even if you want to do what they tell you to do.

I know that because I have done it myself and have coached hundreds of people on it. In our programs – the CPO Bootcamp and the Product Leadership Launchpad – we put a lot of emphasis on getting people to develop that skill and mindset because that’s the foundation for your success as a product leader.

But it’s a skill that you need to develop and practice. Here are a few tools that will help you do so.

Remember It’s Not an Order

An old-time CEO once shared with me how lonely the job is. I’m sure you can understand why – there are many things you can’t share with anyone and too many decisions that you need to make on your own. But that CEO said something on top of the obvious: He said that whenever he says something people immediately think they need to go and do it, even if it wasn’t his intention at all.

Think about it: When your CEO says something like “Let’s do X”, “We need to do X”, or even “X seems like a good idea”, many of us interpret it as if what the CEO actually said was “You have to do X”. But if you read the previous statements carefully, you will see that none of them states explicitly that the CEO expects you to follow their orders. 

The aforementioned CEO said that he wished people understood that sometimes what he says is just a thought, an idea, or an opinion. Because the alternative is that he has to think about every word that he says, and he can’t simply participate in any brainstorming session, because anything he says is interpreted as a decision. Another CEO shared with me that he stopped participating in discussions because when he is around the team stops thinking and simply looks for him to say what he wants.

It’s very natural to think that whenever the CEO says something it’s what they want to see. In many cases, CEOs can make it really hard to see beyond “Just do as I said”. But even with these CEOs, I’ve seen many cases where they only did it because they felt no one else was leading the discussion, and the discussion needed to be led.

Make it a habit to ask yourself whenever you hear someone telling you what to do if it really is an order. Other options include a recommendation, an idea, or just a thought. By stopping and asking yourself what they meant you already took a major step away from your default behavior of treating what others say as given.

Treat Ideas Like Leads

In product management, and even more so in product leadership, everyone has ideas. They might even think they know better what needs to be done. 

Of course, the fact that they think so doesn’t mean that you have to see it the same way. That’s almost trivial. 

The hard part is to get yourself to work with their ideas and avoid a black-or-white approach. By black and white I mean this thought that you might be familiar with: If someone has an opinion that is different than mine, and I want to lead with my suggestion, I better avoid communicating with that person or limit my decisions to a domain that I clearly own and no one can argue with.

It’s a very natural way to deal with these people – sometimes very powerful people in the company – constantly trying to tell you what to do. But it’s not a smart way to deal with it, because it makes you a weaker leader and doesn’t give the company what it really needs. 

As a product leader, it is your responsibility to connect ALL the dots, and if someone has a dot that doesn’t fit into your idea, it probably means that your idea needs to change, since reality tells you that there is something out there that you were missing.

Let alone the fact that if you limit yourself to what you have a direct impact on (such as features and scope) you impede your ability to lead in a broader scope, which is what the company most likely needs from you.

Instead of reverting to the easy way of avoiding confrontation, I recommend that you welcome everyone’s ideas, and treat them as “leads”, in the sense that they are not fully baked and decided on, even if they are expressed with an assertive voice and decisiveness.

Much like leads that still need work to become customers, other people’s ideas are things that you need to work with and work on in order to mature them into something that would make sense for everyone.

You want to add them to how you think about the topic. In a way, you are using other people to help you uncover your own blind spots. Any developer knows that they are not pushing their code to production without it being reviewed first. But does that mean that they are not the ones writing the code? Of course not, it’s just a means to make their code better.

Likewise, you want to air your thoughts with everyone, and you want to hear everyone’s ideas, because they will make your ideas better and more mature.

Make a Recommendation They Can Agree To

In many cases, although I’m talking about your ideas, it’s actually not your decision to make, at least not alone.

So how can you lead if you can’t decide?

You sure can. It just requires a different mindset and an adjustment to your ego (you could need less or more, depending on your starting point).

This is the trickiest part to understand: Even though you can’t say the final word, or move independently without seeking approval, it doesn’t mean that your ideas aren’t the ones to be chosen.

Remember that leadership comes in many forms and styles? This is the new style that you must adapt if you want to be an impactful product leader.

You are not the one deciding, but you are the one leading everyone to the right decision.

And it’s not just a matter of facilitating the discussion, you must give them a potentially right decision to agree on.

Getting many people to agree on complex matters is hard, but it’s much needed, and a very powerful position to be in. Think how valuable it is for the company to have someone helping people make complex decisions.

To move from facilitation to leadership, force yourself to be the one who makes the recommendation. It means that first and foremost you must think it’s a good idea (because you are one of these many who have to agree), but since you want them to accept it you have no choice but to come up with ideas that are good for everyone

How do you know what’s good for everyone? Because you used them in the previous phase to keep you honest and identify your blindspots, so now you know what they think is important.

In some cases, you will need to put your ego aside and say that it’s merely your suggestion, for everyone to debate and agree on. 

In other cases, you’ll need to pull your ego in so you don’t revert to having no opinion (it typically happens when others are very opinionated).

Remember that your goal is to lead to the right decision, not to make the decision solo.

That’s what smart leadership looks like, and it’s the only one that can work as a product leader.

Our free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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