By Robyn Smith
Content Manager, Her Product Lab
(Original Interview by Monica Rozenfeld, Co-Founder, Her Product Lab)
Her Product Lab is meant for women who build, design, and create. As part of our new blog, we’re looking back on some of the amazing interviews and stories with female leaders in the product management space.
In our interview from mid-June with Shilpa Singh, senior director of product management at ADP Ventures, we explore how to lead with influence—one of the most important soft skills you can have as a product manager. Shilpa, an industry veteran with 15 years of product management experience in various industries, explains how to maximize your ability to influence across various stakeholders and partners.
Fall in love with building the right product for the right market at the right time, but don’t fall in love with your idea or your feature on how to get there.
Define Influence (Hint: It’s Probably Not Manipulation)
First off, let’s define what it means to lead with influence, and how to distinguish that from manipulation. “When we say influence, it’s not to sell or strong-arm or deceive,” says Shilpa. “It’s really around framing and reframing. One of the things product managers do is we understand our market, we understand our competitors, and we have a vision of how to get there. But, in order to get there, you need to work across your organization.”
Product management sits right between the tech side of an organization and its business side, so you have to know how to work with engineers as well as executives and stakeholders. According to Shilpa, translating in a bi-directional way -- having the ability to communicate across those channels and then get buy-in on your vision -- is really the heart of what influence means. “The way you would talk to an engineer is not the way you would talk to your business counterparts, and it’s not the way you would talk to your executives.”
Sharpen Your Communication Skills—You Do Have a Vision to Share, After All
At its core, being influential is all about being a good communicator. “We all have communication skills, but I think the key is to really get people to understand you, because if people understand you, then they tend to buy into you, and then they trust you, and then they believe you.”
ADP has been around for 80 years, and as a tech company—some would consider that ancient, according to Shilpa. A big part of her job as senior director of product management is to keep ADP at the forefront of technology and innovation, particularly on how to keep up with the way today’s workforce gets paid. “How do we use tech to unlock our pay systems to match the modern workforce?” asks Shilpa. “Today, that’s the gig worker, an Uber driver who wants to get paid after every ride, or an InstaCart shopper who wants to get paid after every shift. What I do is talk to a lot of third-party startups in tech who are entering this space. I understand what’s going on, so being able to communicate with them is really important.”
Always go about it with facts. Do your research. Build your credibility, and therefore your influence.
When Shilpa talks to engineers, she’s asking, “What systems need to be in place?” ADP is a big company, with tech workers across the world; she needs to find the right people to talk to and get them to buy into her vision. “Get them to say, ‘here’s what’s possible, here’s what we can do.’ Translate it to an executive presentation: ‘Here’s the investment that’s needed. Here’s the value,’” says Shilpa.
The way to get people to buy into your vision is to build relationships with every party of the ecosystem you work in, according to Shilpa. Even talk and, more importantly, listen, to those who you don’t always work with, like Quality Assurance team members.
Even then, you may get pushback. But remember that it’s probably not your vision that isn’t working, it’s the tactics you’ve outlined on how to get there. “I learn this more and more everyday: Be impartial. If it’s right, it’s right. Don’t invest in what you thought was the best way to meet that goal,” she says.
“I’ve seen this a lot with my team: We tend to wear our heart on our sleeves and don’t take rejection well, or what we perceive as rejection. Try to solve that problem a different way, which is really what communication is, versus a straight-up no.”
Partner with the People on Your Team in a Way that’s Authentic to You, Hear Them Out, and Use It to Influence How You Communicate with Them
But even before you get the opportunity to receive pushback, it’s best to go in fully-equipped and prepared to share your ideas with those whose expertise you need in order to execute your vision.
Remember that this is hard work. “Even if you have an impressive background, the day you walk in, you’re starting from scratch to build your network and get people to trust you,” says Shilpa. “Always go about it with facts. Do your research. Build your credibility, and therefore your influence.”
Something Shilpa has been working on is listening. “Across your stakeholders and the people you partner with, everybody has something that keeps them up at night. Everybody has their own biases or factors when they make a decision,” she says. “Frame your conversations around what you know that person is motivated to do—they’re more likely to feel understood, and you’re more likely to get your message across to them.”
Frame your conversations around what you know that person is motivated to do—they’re more likely to feel understood, and you’re more likely to get your message across to them.
For example, someone in sales has different motivators. Listen to them and then frame what you’re trying to communicate around it. It’s connecting. Don’t go out for lunch just for the sake of it— “People can smell inauthenticity a mile away,” warns Shilpa. “Their whole mental framework is different than yours, and you’re just trying to see that. You can’t really get across to people until you understand where they’re coming from.”
She references textbook strategies, like listening to someone and then repeating back what they say to make sure they know you’re listening. “That’s great, but just to take it one step beyond, Active Listening is understanding their frame of mind.”
Be Extra, Super, Crystal Clear On What You’re Asking of People on Your Team
How can you prepare for an important meeting when it’s your job to get people to sign off on your vision? According to Shilpa, the first thing to consider is, what are you asking of that person? Don’t take that for granted. If you’re talking to an executive, you might be asking for sponsorship or an investment initiative. If you’re talking to an engineer, you might be asking for a roadmap for an initiative or requirements.
“The rest of your presentation is why you’re asking for it and what good will it do, and again, it’s from their perspective, their mental model, their lens,” she affirms. “If I’m presenting to an executive, I’m presenting the vision for ADP and how it’s going to remain relevant in the marketplace for the next five years. If I’m talking to an engineer or data architect, I have to really ask them, ‘You’re the expert in these systems and how things work, what’s our best path to get there, or what’s a better path from the vision I’ve presented to you?” It has to be clear why they’re involved and being tapped into for this.
Showcase Your Failures When, Not If, They Happen
Shilpa advises that it’s best not to try and hide your failures. It’s common in product management: If you fail, fail fast. If you don’t fail, you’re not doing it right. “If you can say here’s what we tested, here’s what we learned, and here’s how we will pivot, people will then trust you more, and then that leads to your ability to influence,” she says. “If people trust you to be honest and say, ‘Here’s what I’ve learned,’ people will buy into it.”
Recently she tested a new technology with ADP that her client’s employees absolutely adored. But the client’s CFO wasn’t involved in the original decision to bring on the pilot program, and when they did find out, they wanted to turn it off and threatened to leave the business. After some appeasement, Shilpa and her team were enabled to open a conversation with the head of her service to say, “We have this new technology and employees of our clients love it, however, we need to do the relationship building with the CFO, we need to get your account managers and relationship managers involved in this so that our clients see the value of what we’re doing.”
Owning that decision and growing from it led to Shilpa and her team actually accessing more resources to get even more clients on board with the pilot program. “It was us authentically saying, ‘We failed, we need to work with you,’ and using that as a bridge,” she explains. “The more partners you can build to bring your solution to market, the more energy there is behind it, and the more likely you will be successful because people have a stake in it.”
You Can Build Influence Regardless of Your Company Culture, It’s Just a Major Challenge
“I’m a big Brené Brown fan; that’s my jam,” Shilpa says. “You have to have skin in the game. You have to take risks, and you have to put your name on those risks and be willing to take the blame, and then frame that blame to get back up and keep moving forward. That’s where elevated, higher-level thinking comes into play.”
At some companies, it’s whoever screams the loudest or whoever is the most engineer-driven who gets their way. You can blame the company, you can blame the culture, but what’s really happening is that it’s an uphill battle. “These types of strategies can at least start changing the game,” she says. “If you feel like you’re a glorified project manager with a product manager title, try these strategies to start being able to influence and grow from there.” Let’s face it: The engineers and executives probably do have more expertise than you in a lot of ways. But if you have domain expertise, if you have ideas and you can get buy-in, then you can really truly be a product manager.
“Fall in love with building the right product for the right market at the right time, but don’t fall in love with your idea of how to get there,” Shilpa says. “If it’s a no, let’s try again, and let’s find a better way.”