As I’ve started new jobs, whether changing companies or taking on new projects, I’ve realized there is really one thing you have to get right if you want to be successful long-term.
It’s building credibility.
This is particularly important for product managers, since we have no direct authority over anyone, but need to influence people throughout an organization in order to be successful. Of course, building credibility is crucial in most roles, especially as you get started.
As I’ve been thinking about my own experiences and watching those around me, I’ve realized that credibility is very much like like an investment account. You add a little bit to it at a time, and it starts to grow. And once you’ve made enough deposits, you can start tapping into it without drawing down too much. But you can’t make withdrawals if you haven’t made deposits, at least not without seriously damaging yourself.
Asking people to trust you without giving them any reason to trust you is a surefire way to lose. Lose face, lose credibility, and lose long-term influence. It may seem fine at first since people may have no other option, but those withdrawals will come back at some point, especially if you haven’t delivered, but often even if you have.
So how can we make deposits into our credibility account? The good news is that you don’t have to be an industry expert or a visionary. You just have to start to lay the foundation of trust in order to build upon it. So here are a few key ways to do that, especially as you begin a new role.
Coming out of college, I was pretty cock-sure of myself. As most college grads seem to be. Particularly, I was abundantly confident in my Excel skills. I had taken several classes focused on Excel and had been using it for work and projects, so why wouldn’t I be an Excel expert, especially compared to folks who clearly weren’t as well-versed as I was?
That was the attitude I took into my first job. I can recall working with an experienced product manager and noticing that they were doing something in Excel that could be sped up with a shortcut. So I, of course, showed them how to use the shortcut, subtly demonstrating my knowledge and experience. Fortunately she was very gracious and thanked me for showing her. I figured that most of my team probably didn’t know Excel that well and I could take that opportunity to teach everyone.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Everyone I worked with was vastly superior in their knowledge of Excel. As I sat down again with the aforementioned product manager, she began to walk me through several spreadsheets she had built for a project I would be taking on. I was overwhelmed because I didn’t understand half of the things she did. She had to walk me through a couple times all of the functions and macros and queries she had built so that I could even take notes.
So while I may have known about some shortcuts, I was vastly unprepared for the depth of knowledge that others had for the job specific things that they were experts at.
That was a humbling experience, but I see it repeated so often. When we come into new roles, we may have this idea that those around us aren’t as capable as we are. Be humble. There is a good chance that you, being the new person, will have a lot to learn. And that’s not just coming out of college. You’ll have a lot to learn even with 20 years of experience. The best people always do.
In another role that I had previously, we went through a significant change in management. Not only did our entire organization get moved, but our managers were also shifted. Up to that point, our group had been working with a significant amount of autonomy, which upper management wanted to end. So they brought in a new manager for our group with the intent of reining things in.
But that’s not what happened, at least not immediately.
Our new manager came into his role with a mandate from his superiors, but he didn’t do anything initially. He told all of us that his first order of business was to get a deep understanding of our group and organization before he made any changes.
And that’s what he did.
He met with all of us multiple times to fill in his understanding. He was open about the changes that were being considered, and asked for frank feedback.
In the end, there were a lot of changes made to our organization and group. Not all of the I agreed with. But I wasn’t upset about any of them. Because rather than come in and simply rush to make senior leaders happy, our new manager was patient. He made sure that changes made sense and that he took the time to really “get it” before moving forward.
That’s a lesson for us all. As you move into new things, be patient. It is probably going to be incredibly difficult, but your teams will thank you for it.
Another real key to success is gaining understanding, like my manager did above. You may be the world’s foremost expert on something, but if you don’t understand the context you’re operating in, not a single person will care about what you have to say.
I’ve seen this frequently with certain groups of agile coaches and project managers that are brought into organizations. Ever eager to bring their “expertise” to the group, they jump right into their solutions before they even understand what the problems are (if there are in fact any problems).
Just because something you did in a previous role was a huge success, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for a new role or project. How would you even know if you haven’t take the time to understand? Understand the team, the organization, the customers, the stakeholders involved.
In one instance in my career, our organization hired a project manager to be part of our product team (I know, another story for another time about organizational structure). Within a very short time, he was trying to change the workflow of our team from top to bottom. He had lots of charts and documents showing what he wanted to implement and what he expected. It was truly bizarre to me. Because as I looked through these things and listened to him, it was very clear to me that he had no understanding of how our team worked or what we were already doing.
Don’t try and make withdrawals on credibility you don’t have. Just because you have 20 years of experience doing something, doesn’t mean you can be immediately prescriptive of what others should do.
Rather than be like this project manager, be like my manager above. Understand the people. Understand the problems. Understand the current state of things so that when you do make suggestions or implement changes, you can do it while getting everyone on board together.
To gain understanding, you’ll have to ask a lot of questions and really listen to the people involved. You’ll likely hear different things from those in the trenches, and that is often where your key insights will come from.
Finally, you need to find the places where you can add value. It’s not just about listening and understanding, though that is a huge part, but you also need to contribute to the success of the team and organization. That’s what they brought you on for, right?
While there are numerous ways you can start to add value (while adhering to the advice above), here are a couple that have worked for me:
1. Get involved — Don’t let the fact that you’re new or unfamiliar with things keep you from raising your hand whenever possible. Take on projects that will not only help you learn, but will start to help you make those credibility deposits as a team player.
2. Make your suggestions — While this may seem to go against some of the advice above, it’s really all about your attitude and delivery. Don’t be prescriptive, but tell the stories of how you did things and ask if those around you think that may be helpful. Let your new team guide you, but don’t be afraid to ask the question.
As you start a new role, whether in your current job or with a new company, focus on making credibility deposits. Don’t try and draw down too soon. You may have been the guru before, but it will take some time to build up that kind of reputation again. Don’t worry, it will come. Just do it right and you’ll be off to a great start.