Building Your Sphere of Influence, Featuring Roxanne Mustafa

Sphere of Influence Product Manager

When you’re new to a product management role, you enter the situation with minimal credibility, name recognition, or trust beyond your hiring manager.   When your entire job is to define a direction for the product and convince everyone else it’s the right one, that clean slate isn’t helpful. For this role, it’s essential to grow your sphere of influence.

You need to win people over and give your ideas and suggestions a fair shake. Do this by convincing colleagues that your strategic decisions are based on sound data, adequate deliberations, and keen insight. This is why you need to establish allies and supporters early on and before you try to shake things up.

6 Steps to Building Your Sphere of Influence in Your First 90 Days

A constant theme for new product managers is managing their sphere of influence. If you are new to the role or new to an organization, your starting months are critical. During a recent webinar hosted by The Product Stack entitled “Your First 90 Days as a New Product Manager,” Roxanne Mustafa, Design Lead at VMware, and Pivotal Tracker provides advice to new product managers.

1. Play the “newcomer card.”

You only get to be new once. Don’t miss your chance to let your newness pay dividends. For a few months, you get to ask whatever questions you want. Explore assumptions and delve into the product and organization’s history with honest curiosity.

Ask fundamental questions that you won’t be able to later. Probe in a non-confrontational way. Challenge ideas before the legacy of previous PMs clouds you.

Learn the history, but don’t resign yourself to relive it. This will help you understand how and why things ended up where they are. Remember, you’re on a fact-finding mission. Your mission is to understand the tribal knowledge and what things were already tried and failed. To understand how failure was defined in the first place.

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2. Utilize one-on-ones.

Mustafa says the most important thing you must do is figure out who you must talk to and what conversations you should be having. The best way to do this is to start scheduling intimate meetings with stakeholders across the organization. Starting with the product owners.

Stay in listening mode as much as possible, using the various insights you gather to slowly build up your opinions. Be sure to see whose names keep getting dropped. This way you get a sense of where the power centers are and who are the key influencers, then add meetings with those individuals to your calendar. Make sure you get on any relevant email lists, Slack channels, or standing meeting invites.

Ask how each stakeholder and team defines “value” and “success.” This may not be consistent across the organization. Knowing which benchmarks and preferences each team has are useful. Particularly in understanding product managers’ views.

Keep your one-on-ones on the shorter side to be respectful of their time. Thirty minutes should be plenty for those initial getting-to-know-you sessions. Follow up after the initial round when needed.

3. Demos, demos, and more demos.

Any product manager should be familiar with their product and value propositions to give a product demo at the drop of a hat. As someone new to the product, demos can play an instrumental role in understanding the product. Seeing what different stakeholders think about it, and emphasize is important. So is showing existing colleagues that you’ve digested what the product has to offer and how to position it.

To do this, schedule sessions with multiple people or teams individually. You’ll want to see sales, engineering, and the existing product team demo the product in isolation. This way their commentary and presentation aren’t influenced by whoever else is in the room (or on the Zoom).

Each demo will vary in what they show off (versus gloss over) and what language they use. Seeing how sales sell the product versus what engineering believes is essential can be eye-opening. This gives insight into what each group prioritizes. You can document the gaps.

Once you’ve witnessed everyone else’s take, it’s your turn. Your demo will not only illustrate that you’re now quite familiar with how the product works and the key talking points. It can also synthesize the different messages you picked up from your colleagues to give a more holistic view of things.

4. Ride shotgun with sales and support.

Salespeople and support staff are the folks having the most interactions with actual customers and users. Sitting in on their calls can be very illuminating. Not only will you get a heavy dose of the voice of the customer and reinforce your commitment to customer-centricity, but you’ll also get a sense of your new coworkers.

Don’t try to jump in and take over, although you can occasionally interject with a question or clarification. The real opportunity for interaction is when the call is over, and you can debrief with your colleague.

These interactions can help build a report with them and show them you’re an inquisitive, thoughtful product manager. Not just some new person with a pile of opinions and assumptions. You’ll also be able to spot low-hanging fruit for some quick wins when the time comes to start prioritizing items.

Be sure to ask whether anything that stood out on the call was an outlier or something they encounter. This will help you categorize what you hear as anecdotal or pervasive.

5. Search the archives.

Can’t get enough forthcoming team members to talk? Support tickets and the support team can be another great resource. Reviewing these gives you insight into the current state of your customers.

From there, you can review the product backlog. Note which stories were accepted in the past, the key milestones used, and how releases were packaged. You can peel back the onion even further by reviewing the conversation logs. This helps your understanding of how decisions were reached. In addition to what variables got a lot of attention, and who were the key players.

Retrospectives will give you a sense of morale and feelings. If there were minutes or action items from previous retrospectives, these could be mined for details. If you’re able to attend (or even facilitate) a retrospective of a recent release, you can witness it all in real-time without any prejudices or skin in the game. Just be sure to stay in “listening mode.”
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6. Take a holistic approach.

When you’re first learning the ropes, it’s natural to stick close to the other product team members. Or devote much of your time to building your relationship with engineering, but Mustafa warns against this.  It’s important to expand in order to create your sphere of influence. Instead, she recommends taking a 360-degree view of the organization.

Getting input and making connections with every department will help you get a fuller, less-biased picture. This will help you to forge connections with the organization’s broader swath and develop your sphere of influence. You never know when that will pay off, and it will certainly help you build cross-company support down the line.

Make sure you also know what you’re accountable for. If the executive team expects a weekly dashboard or monthly update at an all-hands, find out and get ahead of it.


It can be hard to avoid speaking your mind and fixing obvious flaws as soon as you notice something awry. Reserving your opinions until later in tenure is the right move. You don’t want to suggest new ideas or try to impose any new methodologies until you have a solid baseline of understanding and discretely vet your ideas among a smaller, friendlier audience.

If you come out shooting, many of your good ideas will be ignored or forgotten. At least until you’ve built up a stable of allies and established a favorable reputation throughout the organization. While your first 90 days isn’t your only opportunity to build your sphere of influence,  it’s a great opportunity can set you up for an easier path to ship great products moving forward.

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