Product managers are fundamentally non-essential to the creation of a viable product - that is, we enable functions to collaborate and prioritize to provide 100x the impact they otherwise would, but many successful products out in the world don’t have product managers.
In fact, most small startups run without a dedicated product manager, because they haven’t reached the scale at which they would need a fully-dedicated employee to tackle product management.
Product managers are not value generators - they are value multipliers. The foundational value generators at a are our cross-functional stakeholders and contributors.
Therefore, having empathy for stakeholders is just as important as having empathy for customers, or else you can’t get anything done.
Before we continue, let’s define what stakeholders are. Stakeholders are anyone in your organization who has the influence to impact your product.
Here’s an illustrative set of stakeholders - note that it isn’t exhaustive, and that different organizations will have different sets of stakeholders.
Who are stakeholders?
- User researchers
- Data analysts
- Business line leaders
- Industry subject matter experts
- Information Security
- Finance and Accounting
Gaining Empathy for Stakeholders
How do you gain empathy for a stakeholder?
You gain empathy the same way you gain empathy with customers - you interview your stakeholders as customers, and you treat their needs the same way you would treat your customers’ needs.
The key principle to keep in mind is that every stakeholder holds a unique role in the organization. When I say “role”, I don’t necessarily mean job function. For example, some data analysts have the singular ability of influencing the CEO. Some marketers have the ability to influence the finance team.
Your job as a product manager is to understand the role that each stakeholder plays, and empower each of your stakeholders to the best of her abilities.
Think of yourself as a coach of a team, or as a conductor of an orchestra - you unlock maximum potential by empowering each stakeholder to do the best that she possibly can.
When you understand your stakeholders, you can make them more effective.
When your stakeholders are more effective, you become more effective.
Remember - product managers are multipliers, so the stronger your contributors are, the larger the impact you’ll make.
Stakeholders don’t just hold particular roles in a vacuum, however. Each stakeholder has a particular way in which she sees the world.
For example, an operations manager will focus heavily on how to keep processes efficient. To best empower your operations manager, provide them with clean documentation of process flowcharts and decision trees.
An engineer will focus on whether the solution is technically feasible, whereas a salesperson will focus on whether the solution has revenue potential and fits in with what prospects have been asking for.
To enable stakeholders to drive the most impact possible in their roles, you need to keenly understand their needs, their fears, their hopes, their logic, and their mindsets.
And let’s be real - you will never understand 100% of your stakeholders with 100% accuracy, just like you will never understand 100% of your customers with 100% accuracy.
The goal is to be directionally in tune with stakeholders, so that you can guide them towards creating maximum value for the and for the customer.
For me, the litmus test of whether I have sufficient empathy with a stakeholder is whether I can represent her in the room with other stakeholders or customers.
In other words: say your stakeholder wasn’t able to make it to an executive meeting. Can you argue all of her points on her behalf? Can you predict how she will react to particular decisions?
When you attain empathy for stakeholders, your decisions become much more robust. Remember, the ultimate output of any product manager is the quality of her decision.
So, how do we establish empathy with stakeholders?
We do so through informal interactions, through formal interviews, and through regular checkpoints.
The vast majority of the time, you’ll build stakeholder empathy through informal interactions. I see informal interactions as unstructured, unplanned touchpoints - drinks, meals, messages on Slack, or randomly bumping into each other in the hallway.
Stakeholder are colleagues, so don’t overthink it! Just interact with your stakeholders genuinely. Do keep note, however, of the following information that they might provide:
Just about every colleague will bring up at least 1 of the 4 above in casual conversation. As an empathetic product manager, you can always probe just a little bit deeper with one or two more levels of “why”.
For example, say that I’m chatting with someone on the support team, and we’re just talking about our weekends. At some point, she’ll proudly tell me that she didn’t need to log into her computer to look for support tickets.
That’s an interesting insight. I’ll ask her whether she regularly gets tickets on weekends, and what sorts of tickets those are. I might learn that she regularly gets weekend tickets when users get locked out of their accounts.
I might also learn that due to a change in the login screen design, users have been more successful in recovering their passwords without needing to reach out to support, which is why she didn’t need to log in this weekend.
Now I have slightly more empathy for my support stakeholders: any time we make design changes to the login screen, we should expect some sort of downstream impact to our support team.
Again, be natural! Don’t overanalyze every interaction - it’s tiring for you, and it’s tiring for your colleagues too.
My ask is that you pay attention to complaints, achievements, goals, and concerns - and that’s what a solid colleague in any role should be paying attention to anyway.
However, as a product manager, you cannot solely rely on informal interactions to gain empathy.
There will just be some insights that you cannot find unless you probe in a directed, objective way.
You need some objective distance as a product manager - you can’t just be “the friend who listens”.
When product managers at a new or take on a new role, they should take the time to formally interview their new set of stakeholders.
As a side note, this article covers the first 90 days on the job as a new PM, including key stakeholders and questions to ask.
When formally interviewing stakeholders, treat these like customer interviews. That is:
- Respect your interviewee’s time
- Know your objectives ahead of time
- Allow for some amount of spontaneity to discover new insights
I usually ask some form of these questions to my interviewees:
- Why did you join this , and what impact are you looking to make?
- How do you see yourself driving the ’s success?
- What are your goals in 1 month? 3 months? 1 year? 3 years? 5 years? How do your goals differ as an individual contributor, as a manager, and as an entire department?
- What do you fear the most?
- What obstacles slow you down the most?
- How do you usually interact with product? What do you like about working with product? What don’t you like about working with product?
Your most important objective is to learn how to think the way your interviewee thinks. You want to be able to faithfully represent her to any of your other stakeholders, and that means being able to understand how she makes decisions.
During the interview, stay objective. Don’t let politics crop up and don’t take sides. Remind your interviewees that your goal is to deeply understand them and other stakeholders, but not to immediately solve all of their problems right out of the gate.
Ask questions in an unbiased, open-ended way. Instead of asking, “Why is it so painful for you to request features?”, ask “How do you feel about requesting features?”
Don’t ask questions that can be answered with either “yes” or “no.” For example, don’t ask “Do you collect customer feedback?” Instead, ask “How do you usually provide customer feedback to the product team?”
Ask “why” to any answer that you get back. You may feel embarrassed, or you may feel the answer is already complete – but many times, you’ll find that going one level deeper will yield new insights or ways of thinking.
Again, your goal is to understand your stakeholder all the way down to her thought processes!
Successful product managers set up regular checkpoints with stakeholders, but not just because they “should”. Regular checkpoints serve a couple of key objectives:
- Enable stakeholders to provide you with feedback on how to improve
- Learn more about how stakeholders perceived your processes and outputs
- Influence stakeholders to provide even more impact
These checkpoints should be 1:1, so that your conversations are more intimate and are focused.
Focus these checkpoints on processes and relationships, rather than on projects.
For project-based and initiative-based check-ins, use Product Review Meetings to keep all relevant stakeholders up to speed.
Join the PMHQ community to learn more about how other product professionals work under the same circumstances.
The most successful product managers are cheerleaders and enablers. They empower stakeholders to provide maximum impact, and they align stakeholders towards a larger cause.
By establishing empathy with your stakeholders, you show them that you’re willing to learn and grow alongside them.
Just as importantly, when you establish empathy with stakeholders, they establish empathy with you. Nudge your stakeholders so that they grow alongside you to deliver maximum impact.
Have thoughts that you'd like to contribute around stakeholder empathy? Chat with other product managers around the world in our PMHQ Community!
Clement Kao is Co-Founder of Product Manager HQ. He was previously a Principal Product Manager at Blend, an enterprise technology company that is inventing a simpler and more transparent consumer lending experience while ensuring broader access for all types of borrowers.