Updated: Aug 22, 2022
The black-masked vigilante hadn’t been much in my mind until his name was shouted at me one morning. However, it was seemingly the only thing on the mind of my son. As to the connection between Batman and my son’s unwillingness to get dressed, I am still none the wiser.
He’s 3 and without doubt one of the best things that has ever happened to me (along with my 1 year old daughter). It’s because of him that I acquired the title Mummy but, my God, toddlers excel in the category of “difficult stakeholder”.
Getting ready for the day takes on a whole other meaning with young children (Michael McIntyre’s sketch paints the picture painfully accurately). Before I’ve even lifted the lid on my laptop, I’ve already been part of a dozen different negotiations and used a whole range of different influencing tactics.
A classic example this week came again when it was time to get dressed. Each morning we’ve peeled ourselves off our bed after another warm and humid night. If attempting to sleep in this heat wasn’t bad enough, the sun and my children seem to be in cahoots to stay up all night. So, partially refuelled with a morning cup of tea, the finish line comes into view - get clothes on and will be able to leave the house.
“NO! I’m not wearing THAT!!”
The denim shorts and the “red like Marshall” (a Paw Patrol reference, for those unfamiliar with the pups) t-shirt were suddenly very much not ok. He had to wear thick trousers and a woolly jumper…with sandals, as his trainers needed to be on his hands because he was now a dog…
What a morning!! But he did leave on time (with shorts and a t-shirt in the bag to change into later, please note the good parenting) and had a lovely day. Outcome achieved!
So, let’s give my 3 year old (and all the other children) a break. It isn’t fair to call them “difficult stakeholders”; they haven’t yet learnt how to control their emotions and their brains and imagination are particularly active. They are on an amazing journey, and my job is to understand what he needs, work out how to meet those needs and distinguish them from any “wants”. Now, thinking as a Product Manager, does that sound familiar? We know that the communication skills of a 3 year old aren’t very well developed. But my word, my communication skills have been turbo-charged!
I found becoming a mother such an intense experience. Suddenly, there is a person in your life who is utterly dependent on you. You have to learn how to read them, then you have to learn to communicate with them long before they can say a single word.
So how does this translate to product management and those adult stakeholders (who technically can control those emotions)?
Empathy is a superpower
Firstly, in order to communicate with my baby I had to empathise with his world. He is crying. Why might that be? When was the last nappy change / feed / sleep? The same goes for a stakeholder - they seem annoyed. Why might that be? When did I last talk to them and what did I promise? Are they expecting something different to what is happening here?
Let’s work through an example.
Your team is presenting an update on progress and you get a sense that your Sales Director is annoyed. Thinking about what might be going on for them, you realise the last time you spoke you’d said a new feature would be delivered in Q1, but your update just said that that new feature is going to slip into Q2. Whoops.
Feeling all the feelings
Motherhood has helped me to appreciate how human we all are. At all times - it isn't a part of you that you leave at the office door, or turn off as you turn on your computer. Recognising what you are feeling, and identifying what others are also feeling, is a huge part of emotional intelligence, a key skill in leadership. Putting a label on those feelings has been just as powerful at work with my stakeholders as it has been at home with my son.
Toddlers are an open book of emotions, so you can often see an immediate impact when you identify the feeling correctly. Usually, at least with my son, food solves 90% of issues. But also, the “You got angry that I said you can’t watch the TV. I get that.” tends to calm what could escalate to a full blown tantrum. In that moment, he feels heard and understood.
Going back to our example, let’s say you speak with the Sales Director after the session. You might start things by saying “You seemed annoyed during the presentation and I realised that last time we spoke I’d said that feature was coming in Q1. I’m sorry I didn’t keep you updated on that”. With this, you’ve laid out what you understand, owned a mistake you made, and, if you’ve read it right, the Sales Director is going to feel heard. This creates the opportunity to have a productive, open conversation.
Next, we need to understand why they are annoyed. Open questions will allow the best opportunity to understand; like “what was important for you about this feature?”.
The blessing with adults is that most have mastered the art of conversation. With these foundations it is likely the Sales Director will reveal what annoyed them. Let’s say they were hoping to land a new client with that new feature. Now things make more sense! You now understand that their personal goals are in jeopardy.
So, what next? This is the golden bit, the magic. You talk about how to solve it…together.
Collaborative Problem Solving
Once my son was of an age to do this, this became a game changer. Whilst empathy allows you to relate to a person’s emotions, you cannot truly walk in their shoes. To this day, I still don’t know why describing a t-shirt as “it’s red like Marshall'' works some days and not others. However, all I need is for him to get dressed and, you know what, if he’s comfy in a thick jumper and sandals then so be it. Asking what he wants to wear that day helps us both get what we need from the situation. Even if it means he wears that jumper, in 30 degree heat.
So how can our Sales Director land that client without this feature? What can you do to support that? Maybe you can run a demo for them, or include the new client in the beta group. The Sales Director will doubtless have ideas too, and discussing them together will allow you to come up with a shared action plan.
Sounds like building a product, doesn’t it ;)
So, next time you have a difficult stakeholder, try it: empathise, talk about the feelings, problem solve solutions together.
Speak with any parent and they will tell you about the myriad ways their skillset has been sharpened, and tested, by their children. Thanks to my children, no stakeholder phases me.
What some help supercharging your product management skills? Get in touch to find out about how I can support you and your teams.