A Low-Status Person Effectively Leading a Product Development Team

Terry Wheeler is an MBA student who did his summer internship at a growing health food company, Healthy Bites, and found that a classmate’s recommendation of Influence without Authority (first edition) helped him more than he expected: I had related and diverse experience pre-MBA, but to my surprise, I was soon given a critical and high- level product development project to run that required the management and coordination of over 20 individuals throughout all levels and functions of the organization. The product is expected to generate several million dollars in revenue in year one and will provide a critical defensive position against competitive offerings. Here are some of the ways Terry used influence and reciprocity:

Keeping People in the Loop

Each task had an owner and, as a group, we were the task force that was charged with delivering the new product  (in 41⁄2 months). Often, individuals were involved with tasks that were part of the early stages, and then their role diminished. For example, Marcus in finance was charged with creating the costing models early in the process to help determine whether the product could meet the desired contribution margins. At the time, he was working with the best available information. Once the models were done, I took the time to sit down with him and really understand his methodology and the sources of his number s. As the project progressed, the assumptions upon which he based these costs changed almost daily. I was able to make the adjustments and once every week or two, I would update him on the new cost structure. Although he was ultimately responsible for the task of financial forecasting on the project, he was in the midst of budgeting and couldn’t give it the attention it needed. I was able to take this workload off him, yet keep him aligned enough such that when asked, he could speak to the status of the financials. This worked out well as I had the ability to quickly see how decisions were going to influence the numbers without having to continue to bug him for updates, and he got credit for delivering the financials.

Dealing with Ms. Nosy

Anne, one of the key members of our team, was in charge of multiple tasks within the work plan. Unfortunately, she absolutely needs to know everything that’s going on or she takes offense to being left out of the loop. Her role was crucial to the project, yet in a fairly narrow scope. I quickly learned that anything she knew became public knowledge very quickly. Additionally, she took offense to learning about project-related decisions secondhand—she needed to be the one who “broke the news.” This was made more difficult because she didn’t work on Fridays, and many of our decisions seemed to happen at the end of the week.

At first, I found dealing with her very frustrating. But eventually, realizing that I needed her and that she wasn’t conniving, I just had to adjust my interactions with both her and others in the company. I learned that she was not someone whom you could bounce ideas off. You could go to her only with final decisions. I also learned that she had a clique from whom she got her information, so I needed to control what I let them know as well. I learned that formally announcing decisions by e-mail, not verbally or in meetings, worked well, because Anne was far behind in her e- mails. So if she took offense to being out of the loop, I could say, “Didn’t you get the e-mail?” This turned the situation around to where she now felt guilty for not having kept up with the decisions—it put her on the defensive a bit, without making her feel defensive. Finally, I was sure to give her a scoop from time to time ( i.e., let her be the first one to know of a decision) as well as being quick to give her credit for processes and decisions that she was involved in. This paid her in the currency that she valued the most.

Involving All Levels of Authority

When you come in as an intern, your instinct is to impress the management team. As a result, you tend to want to go to them with worldly questions and show them ever y bit of wisdom that you have. Largely thanks to reading Influence before I started, I took a different and much more successful tack . I leaned heavily on the operations-level employees. By going to them for information and to discuss ideas and processes and utilize their experience, I was able to present much more polished process steps to management. As we went along, I was very careful to give credit to those who helped me as both a way of building up their trust in me and as a means of justifying my results. By doing so, I gained the respect and trust of the people who truly got things done in the organization and, therefore, gained their endorsement when management asked them how I was doing. Those endorsements led to further responsibility and autonomy on my project.

Winning the Team Over

Over a few beers with a woman who had recently moved to field sales from the office in which I was working, I learned that there had been initial resentment toward me and my role. As it turns out, the management of my project had been a highly coveted role, desired by several long-time employees. (It was given to me due to the other employees’ workloads, my related background, and the fact that  I was impartial. The project involved the coordination of many facets of the organization, and I wasn’t a “marketing guy” or an “ops guy” so I didn’t have any political baggage.) When this project was given to a lowly intern, there was resentment and, unbeknownst to me, I had the deck stacked against me. Luckily, I had anticipated this to some extent and through a combination of these factors, I quickly won over the skeptics. The product is on schedule and on budget to launch next month, I am still involved peripherally, and I have an offer to come back to Healthy Bites after graduation.