Leading without authority as a Product Manager

“If you give a determined person ownership over a problem, the authority to solve it and make them responsible for the outcome, then be prepared to give them another problem.” ~ me

Steedan Crowe
7 min readFeb 6, 2024

Should Product Managers have more authority? What would that look like, and would it even matter? I’ll try to provide both sides of the argument here, but feel free to add some point of view in the comments or reach out directly if you think I’ve missed something.

Standing on a desk and being charismatic probably won’t go over well in your company, especially on a Zoom call 😆

This post was originally published in my Substack Newsletter, Roadmap Weekly.

Most dictionaries have similar definitions for Influence but differ slightly when defining authority. I like the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of authority.

Authority: “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” it seems the most complete.

Influence is defined as: “the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself.”

One is about giving and enforcing orders; the other is about affecting behaviour and decisions. You might say, “If only I were the CEO, I’d have the authority to get this done.” There may be some truth there, but giving orders in the wrong manner may result in high turnover, a toxic culture, and building the wrong thing. Even a CEO will often benefit from taking an influential approach to getting things done and setting aside their authority.

The frustrating thing

The frustrating thing about leading through influence is that it creates a lot of extra work.

  • Getting buy-in from team members
  • Having a good presentation and making a good case
  • Having initial alignment conversations and then more alignment conversations

Sometimes, you feel like an attorney trying to sway a jury in a high-profile trial.

Can you lead without authority?

Of course, you can. We’ve all done it, and it can sometimes be a very successful approach. So, what is typically proposed when product managers are told to lead without authority? Here are 10 ways you can lead by influence (hint: doing some of these well can earn you more authority):

  1. Navigate competing stakeholder interests: Identify and manage various stakeholders’ diverse and sometimes competing interests.
  2. Build strong relationships: through regular check-ins, active listening, personalized communication, networking, mentoring and coaching, and celebrating other’s success.
  3. Personalized communication: Tailor interactions to fit team members’ and stakeholders’ preferences and communication styles.
  4. Empowering others: This can be hard when you lack the authority to give them decision-making power. Empowering would include delegating, ensuring they have the needed resources, helping them develop the skills, providing feedback, and encouraging independence.
  5. Negotiate and influence: Craft and deliver messages designed to persuade stakeholders, requiring careful consideration of timing, medium, and messaging. Identifying and cultivating allies within the organization who can support your initiatives is a process that often takes time and strategic networking.
  6. Building consensus: Spend significant time in meetings and discussions to align disparate viewpoints and gain agreement. Finding common ground among diverse viewpoints may involve making concessions and managing the fallout of those concessions.
  7. Resolving conflicts: Mediating between conflicting parties or interests can be delicate and time-intensive, but if not handled well, all the authority in the world won’t save you from this one.
  8. Getting buy-in: Continuously securing buy-in from key stakeholders for project decisions or changes, often requiring multiple iterations of persuasion and negotiation.
  9. Adapting communication: Tailoring communication styles and messages to different audiences to influence effectively requires significant effort and emotional intelligence.
  10. Demonstrating value: Continuously proving the value and impact of decisions and strategies to stakeholders can be frustrating if outcomes are not immediately visible or if there is skepticism.

The challenge is that this creates a lot of work that has little to do with doing the actual work. There’s also a fine line between influencing and manipulating, and certain personalities will lead heavier into manipulation to get their initiatives done than they should. This can, in turn, create a toxic culture.

There comes a point where we want to get things done efficiently. This is especially important in the turnaround of a company; when a company is facing mass layoffs or to save a failing product, some level of authority may need to be bestowed on various individuals throughout the company.

Ownership, authority and responsibility — A powerful trio

So many PMs are given ownership and responsibility over solving problems but have to beg teams to help them do it. I’m all for being resourceful, but this approach leads many PMs to burnout.

“If you give a determined person ownership over a problem, the authority to solve it and make them responsible for the outcome, then be prepared to give them another problem.” ~ me

Ownership and responsibility: I’m sure you already know what those words mean, but let’s give them the formal introduction they deserve and take the time to define them for clarity.

Ownership: “the act, state, or right of possessing something.”

Responsibility: “the opportunity or ability to act independently and make decisions without authorization.”

Leaders and executives, if you’re reading, consider how you can build people up and give them authority to get done the things you’ve given them ownership and responsibility over. Taking responsibility and making decisions without authorization encounters a huge roadblock if you don’t have the authority to follow through.

When you give authority, it’s also important to be public about who is in charge, and it’s okay to be vocal about it. It’s important to ensure everyone knows who you’re giving authority to, how far that authority extends, and how long it’s for. One of the best ways to signify this change is in a new role/title. This is why we have swearing-in ceremonies for presidents, news releases about new executives and directors, and voting in of board members.

I don’t understand why authority has become a dirty word in today’s business culture.

The authority lightswitch

Authority is not a light switch that has to be on or off. It comes in many forms and can be given, earned, or taken for specific situations, in broader terms, and even temporarily. It’s probably better to think of it as a dimmer switch.

This shows up everywhere else in our lives, not just in business. Here are a few examples for you to think about:

  • Have you ever been left in charge as a child while the adults had to run out for a quick errand?
  • Maybe you were put in charge of a group project and had to decide who did what
  • Key holder in retail or a restaurant, in charge of closing or opening shifts and locking up.

Some other examples that come to mind are lifeguard, Crossing guard, Ski Patroller, Lunch Monitor, and Hall Monitor.

In these examples, authority is often temporary, applies to a specific project or timeline, and stays tied to a specific scope of responsibility.

How do you give authority and ownership?

In the past, as a Product leader, I’ve found that giving more authority and ownership over problems to engineering and other team members is very helpful. But, to bestow this level of authority and ownership, it’s very helpful, if not necessary, that you have the authority yourself to do so.

Here are a couple of examples:

Epic or feature owner: You can do this for every feature or just the more critical ones. Give an engineer the authority and ownership to oversee it and those working on it. No, they can’t just fire someone for not doing a good enough job, but everyone knows there’s an expectation to respond and communicate directly to the feature owner. They have the authority to make the necessary decisions to get it done.

Team lead: Authority and ownership can become a cascading tree. As you give up more of it, others will, too. For example, I gave a PM I was working with the responsibility of a data team, the authority to make hiring decisions (with some input from me), scheduling decisions, etc. It wasn’t long before one of the data leads stepped up, took on more responsibility, and was given the authority to manage schedules and work for her data entry counterparts. Along with the added responsibility also came a raise and a new title.

How to gain more authority

Just so we’re on the same page, I don’t mean dictatorship-like authority when I talk about authority. Just like there are good and bad influences, there are positive and negative types of authority. When you have good authority, you do things with good intentions and consider expert opinions. Here are some more ways to increase your authority:

  1. Get a promotion: Titles matter (although many companies will tell you otherwise). A more senior title alone won’t give you the authority you’re after, but give a diligent, hard-working team player a higher title, and you may see some things start to get done.
  2. Pick your battles: Don’t make an issue out of everything. Many decisions will have minimal impact, save the fight for the things that matter.
  3. Be a supportive leader: Reciprocity applies to many things, including support. If you often support others, they will be more willing to support you when picking a side.
  4. Solicit Feedback: asking for feedback and including others in decisions may seem counterintuitive, aren’t you just giving up the little authority you have? However, this gives value to others, builds trust, and, in turn, helps you become a trustworthy leader.

Authority without the title?

On a final note, titles matter.

In a previous role, I began working with many external stakeholders and partners as my responsibilities increased. At the time, I wasn’t perceived to have the authority to make decisions. I was in those meetings to save the CEO time, but I would have to call him in regardless to get buy-in from those partners. We made a title change, and they were much more content working directly with me.

So what do you think? Can you lead without authority? Do we all have some authority anyway based on our title or experience?

Let me know in the comments, reply to this newsletter post, or send me a DM.

This post was originally published in my Substack Newsletter, Roadmap Weekly.



Steedan Crowe

I’m Steedan, writer of RoadmapWeekly.com, a newsletter for people doing Product Management