Getting to Effective Stakeholder Communication

Brittney Gwynn
Oct 26, 2017 · 8 min read

Last week was the fourth session of First Round’s Product Program. The discussion was led by Melody Koh (former Head of Product at Blue Apron) and Alexandria Stried (Head of Product at Ellevest). The duo shared Dos and Don’ts for helping PMs learn to master communication and collaboration with the people they work with most often.

As product managers, we’re tasked with being multilingual. Not in the sense of speaking multiple languages, but in the know-and-be-able-to-translate-key-jargon-from-engineering-code-bases-to-synthesizing-legal-contracts-to-deciphering-marketing-a/b-test-results kind of speaking. This is the type of communication product managers must have as a core skill. It’s the kind of speaking that enables us to effectively corral, influence, and work across an organization to drive product enhancements.

The session focused on communicating and collaborating with the four main functions we interact with all the time: senior leadership, our own teams, key cross-functional stakeholders, and our customers. Read on to learn what we learned from these two awesome leaders in the space.

1. Communicating with Executives and Leadership

Typically at the point when senior management is involved, you’re working on something high-profile. So how do you bring an already time-deprived group up-to-speed on progress? How do you communicate that a launch won’t go as planned? How do you meet with an opinionated group to review designs in a productive (non-disruptive) way?

Do

  • Send presentations, decks, and other materials before a meeting. Don’t assume anyone reviews the info before your chat, but it’s good to reference. Bonus: Try pre-printing materials and allow the group 5 minutes to silently review in the meeting.

Don’t

  • Provide your audience with too much detail. Make sure you prioritize what you need them to know to make key decisions. The C-Suite thinks about the business as a whole. When creating your presentation, focus on how your product fits into their business objectives.

2. Communicating with Your Team

As a PM you likely touch basis with your core team at least once a day. These are the people you sit next to, you each lunch with, and who you formally meet with at least once a week to share status and solve problems. However, things can still slip through the cracks. How do you hold the team accountable when mutually agreed upon requests aren’t met? How do you maintain your PM role and not go full throttle project manager?

Do

  • Leverage effective/efficient stand-ups. This is nudging time. Enable everyone to project manage and call out outstanding action items. Invite non-engineers to do the same.

Don’t

  • Make product decisions in silos without engineering or design. Everyone in the product development cycle has ownership in the product. An autonomous decision can have a big ripple effect so constantly communicate all decisions that have been made.

3. Communicating with Stakeholders

I view each stakeholder I work with as a spoke in the wheel of the product development lifecycle. Stakeholders can include internal teams like finance, legal, etc., or external parties like brand partners. Each is necessary in their own way, but some of them often have changing needs. It’s the product manager’s responsibility to assess these changes and establish a path forward. When change requests happen, how do you manage discussions to negotiate and minimize the change? How do you take this info back to engineering?

Do

  • Exhibit you have a basic understanding of their work and domain and be able to empathize. This is part of being able to “speak” various languages.

Don’t

  • Forget to loop in critical stakeholders at the right stage. Ask yourself who is invested in what part of the product and make a list of specific teams to reach out to before major work is started. E.g. If you’re shipping goods to a new state, you could trigger sales tax, so finance should be involved.

4. Communicating with Customers

Last, but not least, as a PM you should master speaking to customers and those who champion them and their needs at your company (Customer Success, Sales, etc). Thinking critically about and looking for gaps in the customer experience is key for a PM. Customers’ ultimate needs and wants represent the North Star, so as a PM, how do you make sure the product you’re building makes the most impact?

Do

  • Always start with the user problem and think about the ‘why’. Don’t just observe that the pain point exists. Know the user journey and all of the context around it that creates or supports the problem.

Don’t

  • Leave determining product communications/messaging until right before launch. Defining messaging can be as hard as defining the product itself. Start with this, don’t end with it.

Long story short: Product managers need to be prepared…in every way. Well versed, emotionally intelligent, proactive, meticulous, unassuming, able to translate… the list go on.

During our session, Melody pointed out that when communicating with executive teams, we as PMs need to have done our diligence, thought through all possible solutions, and have our decision making framework down pat to showcase our process and to explain progress (or lack thereof). But in my experience, this applies to all stakeholders. If you’re able to thoroughly communicate and reason with your CEO, then that same diligence applies to your team, cross-functional stakeholders, customers and their advocates.

You can learn more about the First Round Product Program here. Stay tuned for more posts.

The Product Program

First Round’s masterclass for rising star product managers…

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