What Makes a Great Product Manager?

skills of a PM

I recently read a book a friend gave me titled, Inspired: How to make products customers love by Marty Cagan. This is a great read for any Product Manager (or Program Manager) and I highly recommend it (this is another book which should be added to The Product Manager Reading List I posted about previously). There is a chapter in this book titled, “Recruiting Product Managers,” which I found particularly interesting. As I read this chapter I thought that it contained a great list of skills you should seek out as you hire Product Mangers. More importantly, this list can serve as an excellent reminder of the skills you can improve upon if you are a Product Manager. One fantastic trait to have as a Product Manager is the ability to continuously make yourself better. Before you make yourself better it is important to know what you should work on. Cagan’s list is a good starting point but here is my take as to what makes a rock star Product Manager. This is not an exhaustive list but I hope that this helps you internalize skillsets to make yourself great!

1) Communicate effectively – Communication is the biggest skillset for a Product Manager so make sure you are doing it effectively and efficiently. Communication has a large range from a simple conversation in the hallway to a formal status summary or even product documentation. As a Product Manager your job is to determine requirements and translate these into actionable engineering deliverables. Yes, your main communication point may be a spec but this is only one small example as to the communication a Product Manager will have. You also need to be able to speak and communicate your ideas, thoughts and decisions both to your team members as well as your leadership. As a result your communication style needs to adjust according to your audience. Not everyone will always agree with you, but it is your job to persuade individuals and get everyone on the same page. This can be extremely challenging and there is a full spectrum of ways to get your point across, ranging from data to even pure logic. Sometimes the most important type of communication is meeting with a team member one-on-one to address their hesitations and ultimately get them excited about the direction the team is moving in. Remember that communication does not have to be lengthy verbose emails. You should be brief as possible in your communications and get your point across. The longer an email the more often it will be ignored.

2) Lead without authority – As a Product Manager you are most likely peers with other members of the engineering team. This means you probably don’t have any documented authority over anyone when it comes to company hierarchy. However, you are in the driver’s seat when it comes to leading your team and being a cheerleader can go a long way. More often than not, it is the Product Manager who is setting the tone and the culture for the team. Therefore, it is imperative that you have a positive attitude and you ensure that morale is high. I have seen something as little as organizing a foosball tournament or a Nerf war make the team dramatically more productive as counterintuitive as that sounds. It does not need to be a formal morale event but something to make the day-to-day more enjoyable. Lastly, as with any good leadership, you should not self-promote. I have seen far too often PMs with their own agendas that are trying to get individual visibility to their leadership. If these same people put in the same amount of effort to promote the entire team it would go a lot further. It is important to give credit where and when it is due and if you go out of your way to recognize others for a job well done you will greatly earn their respect.

3) Have deep customer empathy – Cagan has both product passion as well as customer empathy on his list. Product passion is a tremendously good thing to have since you need to be all in when creating a great product. However, I believe customer empathy is far more important. If you get carried away in your love for the product you are creating you might lose focus of the individuals you are creating the product for and instead be creating the product for yourself. If your product has issues, they are not just your customer’s issues, they should also be yours. Feel their pain as well as their joy and you will never lose focus on building the right product for your customers.

4) Learn to learn – When a Product Manager enters a new position they are not guaranteed to be 100% familiar with the customers, competitive landscape, the technology or even the product itself. This is not necessarily a bad thing since it can give a fresh set of eyes to the team. However, it is tremendously important to be able to learn. As preposterous as it sounds you can actually learn how to learn. There are even courses on it. Just do a quick search on this subject and you will see a ton of resources. The ramp up period joining a new team or creating a new product may be difficult but it is incredibly important to ask the right questions and get up to speed as fast as possible. You were not hired to take 6 months or even a year to understand the space you are in. Another word of advice is that you should never pretend that you know something when you do not. Chances are there are a ton of things you do not know and that is okay. I have even seen interviewers try to break down individuals understanding to see if they will admit if they do not know something. Admitting that you do not know something can be a skill within itself. It is vital that you are honest with yourself as well as others when you do know or understand something.

5) Listen – Listening is a skillset that a lot of Product Managers think they have but could actually improve upon greatly! How many times have you been in a meeting where others seem like they are just waiting their turn to speak? Don’t be one of these individuals and feel like you need to be heard at all times! They come across like they are trying to prove themselves and more often than not seem a little desperate. I have seen conversations where two individuals are saying the same exact thing but it can take 45 minutes to get them to agree because they are simply not listening to each other. This is a dangerous waste of time. Be conscious of this, especially in meetings and continuously think, “Did I actually process what that individual was saying?” This can go a long way. It is also critical to also listen to team members (see include your team) as well as users. If a user has an issue instead of assuming that it is probably an edge case, listen to this user, you may discover something bigger. The same goes for user input into usability testing early in the design process.

6) Be confident – As a Product Manager you were hired for a reason. Whether this is your experience or the skillset you possess, you are in your current position for a reason. Therefore, you bring a unique perspective to the table and this could be the key to helping solve a problem or improve on the products currently being developed. You should be fearless and fight for what you believe in. Putting in a little extra effort to get your point across when you know it has potential could be game changing both for you individually but for your company as well. Having confidence goes hand in hand with leading without authority. If you come across as indecisive, timid, and doubtful your team will pick up on this and it will be harder to gain their trust and selling your ideas.

7) Know your weaknesses as well as you strengths – All of us have strengths and weaknesses. You will also have your Ninja Skill which is your primary strength that your management might call on you for when needed. Knowing your strengths is important because you will know when to take lead and this will help you be aware of when you will most likely succeed. Similar to what was explained in learn to learn it is important to also know what your weaknesses are. When a task surfaces which require your weakness skills it is important to be able to delegate these tasks. It will not always be the case that this is an option, so having others to mentor you and give you guidance in areas you may be weaker is equally as important. This can also help you grow these weaknesses into strengths. Identifying these weaknesses and strengths is critical. You should ask your manager or your peers what they believe your weaknesses and strengths are since they will probably differ from what you believe them to be. A lot of people have a hard time asking others what they believe their weaknesses to be. I admit that this is extremely hard to do since you may feel vulnerable or uncomfortable discussing your weaknesses. However, being able to identify these will be the first step in helping you grow.

8) Include your team – In my experience, including team members early in the design process will help in many areas. The team will feel like they have had a chance to give their early input. This input is critical. Many times I have thought I had a brilliant idea. After explaining my idea with members of my team one-on-one and bouncing ideas, the idea always improve. Not only do the ideas get improved but the team will have a sense of inclusion which plays into trust and ultimately goes hand-in-hand with leading without authority. If team members do not feel like they know the North Star direction of a product they will feel like they are building a product in a black box and this could impact quality as well as morale.

9) Follow through – In order to build trust with your team it is important to follow through. Similar to leading without authority, having ethics, integrity, focus and time management will help you follow through and your team will respect you more for it. If you are going to be late on deadlines communicate this early. Do not give a laundry list of excuses but do give details when needed such as priorities shifting or other external factors. From my experience most individuals are understanding if you are honest and do your best to reach out in a timely manner. Being organized can also go a long way. Organization will look different depending on your work style but find what works best for you. As a Product Manager you will be juggling a million different things, so having a go to toolset to remind you of the little things is tremendously important. It is often these little things that are forgotten first which can add up quickly.

10) Think outside the box – You probably aren’t getting paid to constantly reinvent the wheel. If you are, find another position. You are getting paid to determine solutions to problems, often difficult ones, and build great products for your customers. You have been given the gift of creativity and with this you can come up with solutions that may not exist today. It is your job to come up with solutions that may appear incredibly outrageous. Sometimes the craziest ideas are the most successful. Even if the idea itself is not what you go with, it may lead you to the one you chose. This is why in brainstorming sessions there is no such thing as a crazy idea. Sometimes this will inspire a mind-blowing solution.


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