Answering Captain Levi’s Question Is The Key To Building Trust As A Product Manager

Answering Captain Levi’s Question Is The Key To Building Trust As A Product Manager

Successfully fending off giant man-eating monsters is a bit like successfully leading a product in this regard: Without a strong trust dynamic among the team, you’re likely to fall prey to concerns much larger than you or your companions.

As Simon Sinek puts it: “A team is not a group of people that work together. A team is a group of people that trust each other.”

In Attack on Titan: No Regrets, we see Levi Ackerman’s journey from operating as a criminal in an underground city to becoming a new member of the Titan-fighting Survey Corps. A core theme of the story is trust. Outside of his friends Isabel and Farlan, Levi cannot rely on or put his faith in anyone.

“Why Would I Ever Accept Help From Someone As Fishy As You?”

As Levi puts it at one point: “Why would I ever accept help from someone as fishy as you?”

In challenging times, Product Managers may share Levi’s feelings. We rely heavily on others to grow our products:

  • UX and engineering to bring the ideas to life;
  • Marketing and sales to tell the right people in the right way about how the product meets their needs;
  • Pre-sales to create effective demos that showcase our unique differentiators;
  • Professional services to address gaps between what the product does and what a specific client needs it to do, and
  • So many more (e.g., product operations, legal, customer success, support…).

With so many moving parts, it’s unfortunately very easy for things to go off the rails.

Trust for PMs can be challenged in two ways:

  • If the cross-functional team lets us down, our faith in their ability goes down.
  • If we let our cross-functional team down, their faith in our ability goes down.

3 Tips For Increasing Trust

In this post, I’m going to focus on the second scenario.

In my experience, the cross-functional team’s trust in product management is most affected by three levers:

  • Professional – Understanding, connecting, communicating
  • Personal – Approaching others with humility and confidence
  • Political – Navigating office politics in a positive way

Professional – Understanding, connecting, communicating

As PM, we need to deeply understand the problem space of a defined group of segmented users; develop a business justification for why the organization should enter that space; create a vision and plan for succeeding in that space; and continually validate and update features and future direction based on ongoing analysis and discovery work.

That’s a lot. But that’s only 1/3 of what we need to do to build trust.

If you’ve done the work, but are not documenting it… if you’ve done the work, but you are not communicating it… you may be developing a solid understanding, but you are not building trust with the team because you’re not inviting others into the process and developing that critical shared understanding.

For each feature developed, every teammate should understand its business value (its reason for being), who the user is for that feature, and how success is defined. As PMs intent on building trust, we’re responsible for connecting those dots for the team and providing the related evidence in a way the team can access and understand.

For example – in my organization we document conversations with clients and prospects in our system of record. Each backlog item is then connected to the relevant conversation as a way of evidencing the problem to be addressed by a given feature. If the conversation took place in a virtual meeting space and recorded then that recording is included as part of the documentation so anyone working on the feature and hear the user in their own voice. As part of the grooming process, the cross-functional team reviews the feature in this context which builds their understanding and sets the stage for the next part of the process.

Another sometimes overlooked connection point is post-release: Your development team probably loves creating new features – but they also likely want to understand how the product is generating revenue or meeting other KPIs. So tell them. Connect those dots for them. Celebrate those wins. That helps build trust because it’s an additional proof point of your market understanding – but it also helps increase the team’s sense of satisfaction and pride that they’re engaged in meaningful work.

Personal – Approaching others with humility and confidence

You can have all the market understanding in the world – but if you’re a jerk about it, if you treat your team like cogs in a machine, you’re going to struggle in many organizations because people want to actually like and respect the people they work with.

In a similar fashion, if you’re well-informed but lacking in confidence – maybe like many PMs you suffer from impostor syndrome – then your team will struggle to trust you because you do not appear to trust yourself.

Successful PMs are constantly engaged with the problem space — externally for the personas we’re targeting and also internally for the real people we work with. And that engagement should fuel a justified sense of confidence because we do understand what our teams need and what they’re struggling with.

To be successful on a personal level, we should respectfully approach our teammates with empathy and curiosity, sharing relevant information with them in a spirit of humility and excitement.

Political – Navigating office politics in a positive way

PMs who grow frustrated with office politics, or are oblivious to the informal power structures that drive their organization, will struggle to have their ideas heard or drive business impact beyond features and functions.

Successful PMs will dissect where their organization falls on the workplace politics scale and adopt a mindset that helps motivate the teams to do what’s best for the product.

How? First, through study: Observing the informal social networks in the organization. Second: By building relationships with your colleagues. Third: Leveraging your network to implement positive change. Zakir Tyebjee provides several ideas on how to build relationships with your core team as well as your broader group of stakeholders.

Bonus Content

Now that things are feeling less fishy and we know how to improve trust in our relationships, let’s check out Captain Levi in action in this amazing video compilation:

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