This article was transcribed from a talk at the Product Marketing Festival in 2022. Make sure to sign up for the PMA Pro membership plan to get more content like this.
Imagine you wake up one morning and see that a leader from another key function has sent a dramatic message to sales leadership on a topic that your PMM team is invested in.
There was no warning and no prior communication – they just went straight there and made your product marketing team look like they were unprepared for the future and not doing enough.
This happened to me a few years ago, and it was a stressful experience. The reason why this happened was that we didn't have clear alignment, we didn't communicate with each other transparently, and we had no agreed process. We also didn't have day-to-day projects that reinforced our partnership.
This is an example of failed stakeholder management. It causes stressful situations and confusion for the departments involved.
On the other hand, successful stakeholder management can create a much happier working environment, make people more productive, and drive business results. The better your stakeholder management, the more joy you and your team will have at work.
I'll share with you today how you can think about this systematically, with some advice and best practices from my experience of working at global technology companies. The framework and the thought starters I'm going to talk about will help you build effective relationships with your cross-functional partners and drive business results.
So, what do I do in stressful situations like the one I opened with? Well, I like to make myself a cup of tea.
The Teacup framework has seven different components that you need to think about as you build out cross-functional relationships and cross-functional teams.
The components are…
These are all necessary ingredients for leading and inspiring your stakeholders.
Let's kick it off with an important foundation (aka, the saucer), which is trust. There's a great book by Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley on the Remote Work Revolution.
It distinguishes between two kinds of trust: cognitive trust, which is faith in others' competencies and that they'll do what they say they'll do, and emotional trust, which means you believe others care about you.
My view is you can always course-correct if you realize that trust is being taken advantage of, so I operate on the belief that you should be generous and give trust automatically – there's no need for others to earn it first.
I follow this guideline not only with cross-functional stakeholders but also with the employees on my team. I don't need to see them doing the work; what I care about are the output and impact, so there's no need to monitor their day-to-day.
On the other side of the coin, while you should trust by default, what can you do to facilitate others' trust in you? Well, be clear about what you're going to do and what you're not going to do, follow through, and do it repeatedly to achieve consistency.
More specifically, I think it's much better to say 'no' from the get-go than to stay ambiguous and require lots of follow-ups that you're not planning to honor.
For example, I once had a member from another department on a working group who verbally and repeatedly committed to the work, but then showed no engagement, didn't show up to meetings, and didn't do the work they were expected to do. This affected not only one-on-one relationships with that employee but also overall relationships between departments.
To build emotional trust, you want to share and make others feel comfortable sharing. That makes it easier to truly care about someone and their well-being and then work together. Empathy, which I'll talk about in a bit, is the key here.
For example, during the COVID lockdowns, I had a horrible day when I was unable to look at work with optimism. I felt emotionally safe sharing this with my colleagues, and they shared their stories in return. That helped me realize that I really needed to take a day off. The reaction and the support that I got then further helped build my trust.
Alright, I know I'm cheating here, but there's another T that I don't want to neglect. It stands for transparency – you can think of it as the water in your cup.
It's an interesting one, as if you work closely with sales, you learn over time that you can't just share all the information you have in real-time. For example, product roadmaps might not be accurate, and sharing them might set the wrong expectations with sales and clients.
Plus, you always have to manage communication effectively to not be confusing. Be as transparent as can be and explain why you don't want to or can't go into detail on certain things.
When it comes to working with other cross-functional teams, over-communicate. Share what's coming down from the global teams with your local stakeholders with as little filter as possible. That way, you’ll be on the same page and able to work together on how to position things with the sales teams.
What I've experienced many times is that when departmental goals are misaligned globally or regionally, it makes alignment harder at a local level. If you work transparently with each other, share information freely, and support each other as one team, you can fix this much more easily.
Transparency requires trust that the other teams want to share confidential information. It also builds trust – the more you share with other teams, the more willing they'll be to share with you as well.
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Empathy, or the tea bag, is all about showing real interest in people, caring for them, and putting yourself in their shoes. The more you understand what's going on with someone, the better you can interpret their behavior at work and ensure you're working together effectively.
This might differ by culture, but it's my strong belief that, especially virtually, some personal sharing helps build empathy and trust. If you're aware that someone's dog is sick, that's a good indicator of how they might be feeling that day about approaching work.
Another piece of advice is to show care, not only to the people on your team but also to cross-functional partners. Empathy goes a long way and it can be learned and improved. It'll help you build meaningful one-on-one relationships that aren't just transactional.
Empathy also comes into play when people make mistakes or when they have goals that might not be in line with yours. My advice is to give people the benefit of the doubt. At Meta, we had a saying: “assume positive intent”.
When somebody acts in a way that you find jarring, seems to go against your interests, or contradicts what was agreed, first find some non-nefarious reasons for why they might have acted that way, and then have a conversation with them.
During the pandemic, I kept reading that people were “Zoomed out” and didn't want any more meetings. My point of view is, yes get rid of mass meetings where the content isn't universally relevant for everybody, but prioritize one-on-ones and take the time to get to know each other.
Especially when working remotely, I find it's important to set aside five minutes at the start of each conversation to catch up and figure out what's top of mind for the other person – not just how they're doing but how they're feeling. People are willing to share more than you think, and these little conversations go a long way in helping you build empathy, which in turn can drive mutual emotional trust.
The next ingredient is sugar - or alignment. Alignment is about figuring out what people's goals are – both personal and professional. It’s about sharing your own and your department's goals and plans, then finding a way to bring them together to develop joint goals and ensure you're not pulling in two completely different directions.
When you’ve figured out your own plans, ensure you also do joint planning with cross-functional teams. Seek to understand how the plans interact and where there are opportunities to execute together.
I’ve found that alignment is difficult to achieve on a group call. Instead, what has worked for me is having one-on-ones with key stakeholders – aligned step by step – and then only having that final meeting to reconfirm everyone's commitment.
This might be a big time commitment, but not only will you have stronger alignment at the end, but you'll also develop deeper relationships.
Alignment is not a one-off. Yes, you should align on plans as part of your planning cycle, but as you move to execution, things might require readjustment. You’ll notice you might need realignment if you're surprised at another department's actions or if things aren't moving.
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I find that tea tastes better with milk, or collaboration in our case. Once you're aligned, truly collaborate on the outcome – don't just work away on your own.
For example, when collaborating with the marketing science team at TikTok, we set up a joint pillar that is aligned between both teams, and we have co-leads from marketing science and product marketing on the individual sub-pillars.
The projects that these pillars tackle drive joint goals, which were set as part of the alignment process, and reinforce the commitment to these goals every day.
At Meta, we had a thanks bot. At TikTok, we have a similar tool that allows you to send recognition to your cross-functional colleagues with their manager CC’d. That goes a long way in rewarding collaboration.
Next, you need a cup for your tea, which represents unity. When presenting to sales, present as a united cross-functional team, rather than competing with each other. When presenting to clients, present as a united team with sales, rather than contradicting them.
For external meetings, what I’ve found is that briefs help. Get sales to tell you what they want the outcome of the meeting to be and give you all the background information you need; then you can be the most effective.
When sharing internally, lift each other up. Call out the great work of your cross-functional colleagues when you present and recognize their contributions, rather than claiming all the credit for yourself. This unity will increase sales’ confidence in you.
Finally, you need a kettle to boil your water. This stands for the processes and structures you need to put in place for everything to work and be sustainable. This can be documentation, a task force, regular meetings, mechanisms for conflict resolution, or working groups with joint goals that ladder up into each department's goals.
For example, I like to document alignment and collaboration. That allows me to easily refer to the work that’s going on across the business. That can be a simple document where both departments put down their mission, vision, and goals, and you write down areas of collaboration and how you'll execute them.
When working remotely across time zones, a process for acing collaboration is key. For example, in a previous role, I had global meetings on my calendar for 2 am my time in Australia. I value work-life balance, so the process we put in place was for me to leverage meeting docs to ask questions async and then watch back the recordings to see the discussion and get my answers.
In addition, you can find someone to stand in and be vocal for you in meetings. For example, I had an ally in Europe that I caught up with one-on-one and who could represent APAC on my behalf.
Another useful process is to provide regular update emails or instant messages for key projects to keep everyone in the loop. Once you've got all these components in place, you can take it one step further and lead and inspire cross-functional teams.
The Teacup framework in action
Now let's move on to a concrete example.
In a previous role at Meta, I was leading our efforts on the future of data and privacy across APAC – all from my bedroom because this was at the height of COVID lockdowns. My cross-functional partners were spread across the region, especially Singapore and Japan.
During that time, Apple started rolling out its app tracking transparency framework alongside iOS 14.5. If you have an iPhone, you'll have noticed that you're now being asked whether you want apps to track you or not. What looked like a simple change to consumers had a significant impact on the personalization that was possible through digital advertising, and it required a lot of preparation.
We needed to prepare sales teams and advertisers, share actions for them to take, and answer countless questions in a highly uncertain environment. We also had to instill a change management mindset. Any guidance we gave one day could change dramatically the following day, with new information from Apple coming in and global teams making decisions or changing course.
iOS 14.5 touched many different cross-functional teams, so I had to be closely aligned with their leadership. I built a first draft for a joint plan, then looked for input from cross-functional leaders. I also had to bring on board people from each function whose help I needed for the execution.
This was not a one-off. Because the whole launch was dynamic and we would receive new information from Apple regularly, we had to be flexible and realign as needed throughout.
To prepare for the change and the rollout, I set up an APAC-wide cross-functional task force including marketing science, solutions engineering, legal, technical product support, partnerships, sales, learning, and more. We ran external webinars, weekly internal workshops, and bimonthly training, and kept sales leadership in the loop through weekly updates.
As a cross-functional team, we had weekly meetings leading up to the launch, in which we'd realign, report on what our functions were doing, keep track of joint targets, and plan activations. We also had to ensure that communication was clear and each cross-functional stakeholder knew what to do.
On top of this, we prepared an APAC mission control model for what would happen once Apple launched the change because we didn't have a clear date. Once mission control kicked in, we ran daily stand-ups during and post-launch with all key cross-functional representatives.
We also scheduled joint office hours with sales to ensure APAC questions got addressed, and when necessary, we shared that with the global teams.
So how did I apply the Teacup framework in this case? Well, I built trust through regular one-on-ones with each of the leaders – not just talking about work, but also sharing openly – and by being a good reliable partner.
I was completely transparent with the information that came down through my department, which then encouraged transparency from other departments, giving us a full picture on the regional level.
In my catch-ups with other departments and with sales, I showed empathy by emphasizing that we were all in this together. This was a big challenge with tons of uncertainty, but we were up for the task. Also, this happened during COVID, so everyone was going through a lot and I always needed to be mindful of how I communicated.
I built alignment by drafting a plan and then getting input from cross-functional leaders that we all signed off on and adjusted as needed.
We collaborated closely and shared credit across all the different activations that we ran. For example, we had strong cross-functional representation across both internal and external Q&As.
We showed unity in front of the sales team by coordinating closely on communication, aligning on a weekly basis, and supporting each other rather than trying to compete.
All this was helped by a rigorous process, which we captured as part of the mission control model to bring as much structure as possible into the uncertainty.
That’s it from me. I hope you learned something today and will find the Teacup framework useful. It's something to think through when you work with and lead cross-functional stakeholders.
As for the example from the start – that shocking email – we connected and the relationship between our departments flourished after this incident. We put a plan together and we started collaborating, building trust, and supporting each other. It was a great learning experience – like everything that goes wrong in life.