It´s in you – What it takes to be a great Product Manager

It´s in you – What it takes to be a great Product Manager
10 skills of great Product Managers

When I had been in my studies “the internet” was still relatively young. So it´s not very surprising that study programs dedicated to Product Management were quite rare. Within my Bachelor´s program there was one single course dealing with doing business in the internet. By end of those “E-Business” classes I was an expert when it came to the auction models offered on Ebay. Nowadays, one can chose from a tremendous number of different University programs worldwide, you can get certified in any kind of Product Management related matter, and extent your knowledge on various conferences around the globe. But what does it actually take to be a good Product Manager?

In fact the daily business of a Product Manager requires a broad skill set. It is about dealing with all sorts of problems, evaluating feasible solutions and validating them, uncover needs and turning them into ‘something great’ for our customers. We are expected to communicate and work with engineers, marketing and sales specialists, designers and the whole range of stakeholders up to the management. All of them with their own sensitivities, and way to act and feel. In order to do a good job here there are some necessary capabilities that can hardly be taught in any course or certification class. The question is, is there a set of characteristics that each Product Manager should inherently bear inside, and that, if developed well, fuel those skills?

Let´s have a look what it takes to succeed as Product Manager.

1. Empathy

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. Put simple: it is the capacity to place oneself in another´s position. As a Product Manager you have to put yourself in the position of many different kinds of people starting with your own customer as probably the most important. But not less crucial is to develop a certain understanding of the people around you: a marketing manager ready to launch the next campaign, a busy sales person, the new intern, a creative designer, the data driven BI team, your engineers ready to code… It´s not hard to see that this requires a huge amount of interpersonal capabilities. At the same time that you try to take in another´s person perspective you are asked to act as mediator between parties e.g. your stakeholders´ demands and your customers´ needs, you have to negotiate and represent interests while taking yourself out of the center and never losing your customer out of focus. You can manage all of that if you talk to people and be a good listener.

2. Listening

Active listening is the strongest enabler to uncover hidden needs and drill down to the core of peoples´ aspiration. People love to talk, especially about themselves. The best way to get feedback to a product idea is to let people talk. And instead of asking them too many questions about how they like the button color and the drop-down field just let the conversation develop and flow. It is your gateway to understand, and consequently influence, their feelings and behavior that allows you to address their concerns in the most effective way.

But listening does not only provide you access to the roots of customer needs, but also helps you in the daily business when taking decisions. Product people are expected to drive decisions that affect design, technology, strategy etc. How are you supposed to have the encompassing knowledge to take those decisions? Don´t worry: listen! Ask questions, lend an ear to your conversation partner and stay humble to ideas that do not meet your own. This is probably an easy one for naturally curious people.

 3. Curiosity

Curiosity in my eyes is the key trait of being a great Product Manager. It´s naturally given to every one of us, though some are keener on exploring things than others. A curious Product Manager will probe for more information and details, and will not stop asking questions. This helps enormously to get a better understanding of a complex situation. Curiosity is also about continuous learning. Inquisitive people are researchers, explorers and constant self-learners. They seek for information, stay current on trends in technology and always have one eye open on the competitors around them. Curious people do not accept the status quo and settle in with given facts. Stay eager to understand and learn more.

They are unicorns. They are holistic. They can zoom out & drill down unlike others. ↬ Thomas Schranz

4. Analytical Understanding

As mentioned already in the “Listening” part Product Managers need to make decisions. Applying analytical skills helps making informed decisions with the data functioning as opponent to your gut feeling and intuition. A good Product Manager is also a part-time experimenter. We need to assume that we are wrong at first and design experiments to prove us wrong and tell what´s true. However, be cautious about the honesty towards yourself. Explaining away an unexpected result is easily done. Therefore it´s crucial to trust your results and accept the outcome even though it´s contradicting your instinct. At the same time have an eye on the root causes of results and assess them critically. Bear in mind: be data driven, but don´t let data drive your product.

5. Communication

Being a good communicator is probably the enabler for all other skills listed here. For each of them the underlying basis is a profound communication towards other people. Product Managers have to transfer various information in different ways to several stakeholder while putting it in a format that can be understood by all of them. Hence, they need to be able to transform the same content and tweak information in a way it can be digested easily depending on who is receiving it. I have seen it happen quite often that miscommunication led to confusion and even frustration of stakeholders because the message that was tried to be transferred was insufficiently understood. Product people to ensure that they put their message into a format that´s useful and easily understood. Good communication and relationship-building skills are essential as you are the bridge between business goals, technology levers and creative ideas that are translated into great products.

PMs can do it all– gracefully and seamlessly. They can guide the content direction, UI, and development– while also wearing business development, product marketing, etc hats. ↬ Kristina Simmons

6. Think Big – Be a dreamer

We are living in a world of limitations: we have limited resources, a limited budget, and limited knowledge. But a good Product Manager is able to get around this by opening up his mind and removing boundaries in thinking. There are several methods for generating ideas and solutions that enable you to break up limitations and think beyond. One easy way to think outside the box is to put yourself in someone else shoes: What would Mickey Mouse do? How would Steve Jobs solve this problem? How would a start-up founder approach this issue? Thinking in a way others would provide new perspectives and angles to a question and allow you to remove constraints that might be anchored in your head. Take advantage of the people around you and include your tech team in discussions as they will give another look on technology feasibilities. The best though is to make yourself completely free from any constraint: tackle issues as there are no limitations whatsoever, question relentlessly, challenge conventions and dare to be a dreamer. Great Product Managers inspire and provide visions.

7. Prioritization

Prioritization is a matter of focus. The skill to prioritize applies to both your personal working mode and your product development. Product people are overwhelmed with input from many different sides every day: there is a new feature request from a stakeholder, emails are popping in constantly, your engineers need a filled backlog, there are still stories to be tested and the product roadmap needs to be finalized. All of that between the meetings you have to attend, of course. What do you do now? You need to set the focus of your tasks and balance out what is important today, what can wait until tomorrow. Product Managers not only need to structure and organize themselves in their daily work environment, but they need also to keep an eye on the product activities. What are the projects that let grow the product and develop the business? Which initiatives should be stopped and removed from the roadmap? Gathering information that will justify your decision for each and every release is difficult, though it helps you to put your focus right. After all prioritizing is probably the hardest part for Product Managers as it often means saying no to the hundreds of great ideas.

8. Strategic Thinking

Product Managers always act in the middle of business, technology and the customer. They need to understand the market situation, current trends, and their competitors in order to create a distinct product roadmap and vision. As Product Manager you should have a clear plan for your product. But you cannot walk the way on your own. Getting the buy-in from your team and stakeholders is crucial, so the key is to get them to understand your strategy and follow you. You can achieve this by involving them from the very start, keeping them in the loop all the time and communicating the goal in an engaging way. Good Product people know exactly where they´re heading to, but are able to response to feedback at any time and change the way if necessary – as Jeff Bezos said it “Be stubborn on vision, but flexible on details.”

They think broad AND narrow– they understand and communicate how the product vision ties into the company (and beyond) vision. They know enough in all areas to be dangerous, and have their hands in all areas to make the product and team the best it can be. ↬ Kristina Simmons

9. Collaborative Leader

Collaborative leader in my point of view is one of the most underestimated capability of a Product Manager. The term combines two essential parts of Product Manager skills: collaboration and leadership. It might sound slightly contradictive at first, but comprises most of what it takes to be successful in that job. Developing products is a collaborative process and the Product Manager is the one who pulls it off. While he is expected to lead the development team, he is not the one that most of them report to. It´s necessary that he understands the role of teams and has some abilities of their responsibilities e.g. UX, QA, Project Management, Marketing, Analytics… Product people act as middle men between stakeholder wishes, customer needs and business goals. In that role you cannot be dictatorial, but must be able to inspire others and make them follow you. It´s a continuous balance between negotiation while prioritizing backlogs and keep stakeholders on track. Being a collaborative leader requires assertiveness, confidence, empathy and sometimes a thick skin.

10. Resilience

Well, you made it all the way to the end of this article – that shows you are resilient. In your Product Manager job you are exposed to all kind of influences, have to deal with individual personalities and unhappy people, you are involved in disagreements, and discussions. You have to listen, lead, compromise, and inspire while following your goals and weighing out the best way to go. That requires a thick skin which allows you to stay focused and follow up on everything that´s needed to make things happen: rally your troops and march them to victory.

A great product manager has the brain of an engineer, the heart of a designer, and the speech of a diplomat. ↬ Deep Nishar

To close the circle and come back to the initial question whether there are certain characteristics that a great Product Manager should naturally bear inside I believe that all of those skills require underlying traits that are indispensable if you want to succeed in that job. Lone wolfs, timid and reserved personalities, weak communicators and stubborn idealists may have a hard time. Whereas naturally open minded, collaborative and persevered people will leverage the necessary skills in a way that makes it easy for them to cope with the closet full of hats to be worn and be the “mad hatter” in that business.

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