Traits of a Great Product Manager
Becoming a great product manager is the work of a lifetime. The work is complicated. The skills and talents that you have to bring to the role are many. And just when you think you’ve mastered them all, you realize you haven’t used one in a while and need more practice. Having the characteristics and skills of an amazing product manager make the job a great one if you like variety and challenges. The following discussion details the eight most important traits of great product managers.
You know that product managers need to focus on getting the product right and listening to customers. However, your company needs to make money to survive. This hard-core business acumen is what it takes to make profitable products. Business acumen includes careful consideration of the following topics:
- Pricing a product at the level that leads to a safe profit margin. You need to know the complete cost structure of your product and offering, including corporate overhead.
- Double-checking all contractual business terms to make sure you haven’t given too much away to your channel, your partners, or your customers.
- Being aware when a business negotiation with an internal and, especially external person or organization isn’t proceeding with your interests in mind. You need to balance both sets of needs.
You don’t pick up business skills in a vacuum. You get them from more experienced people in your company. Luckily, most of your negotiations focus on internal exchange of resources like people and money. Prior to any serious negotiation, get as complete a list as possible from your manager as to what is allowed to be part of the discussion and what is outside of the discussion. Then walk in with a list of the boundaries that you can operate in. Don’t lead with those boundaries. If you’re uncertain, stop and double-check to make sure that you haven’t given up something that your department shouldn’t commit to. Safe is better than sorry.
Industry knowledge and expertise
Many product managers come from the industry that they serve. They’re industry specialists first and product managers second. In general, this attribute is great because you’re already familiar with your industry and the key business drivers.
What happens when an industry is in transition? As you use your industry knowledge and expertise in a product management role, keep an eye over your shoulder for industry disruptors. Imagine you were a product manager for the taxicab industry. Would you predict that a service like Uber would transform the taxi industry? You then need to shift your energy to convincing your company that it’s time to move — or possibly watch your company die.
One of the fun parts of the product manager role is having a technical conversation with someone even more technical than you are. Yes, you need to know the core technology that supports your product. So ask a technical person to give you an in-depth briefing on all the ins and outs of your product. As the briefing continues, add your own notes as to the difference this information makes to the customer. Your goal is to know the technical terms and translate that into the value that the technology delivers to your customer.
The “Why is this important?” part is where you add critical value as a product manager. The world is filled with products that have a great deal of technical coolness but don’t deliver real value, such as the self-stirring coffee cup that ensures the mocha or sugar in your coffee stays thoroughly mixed. On the surface, this technological innovation is wonderful, but from a customer’s point of view, the additional value may not warrant spending $10 more to buy each cup.
Look at the many business books on the shelf at a bookstore. Now calculate how many are about the ins and outs of business dealings and how many are about working in the best possible way with other people. The ratio is strongly tilted toward books on people skills versus books on spreadsheets or business plans.
Good people skills underpin much of your success as a product manager. As much as you spend time analyzing and planning your next product, you need to analyze and plan your strategies in working with your co-workers.
The basics are simple: Listen carefully, ask open-ended questions, and make sure you communicate requests and delegate clearly and succinctly.
The reason product managers have such a large impact on their companies is that they’re one of the key functions that is asked to make forward-looking decisions on a regular basis. This is great if the decisions you are asked to make are ones where you have expertise. For example, which target markets and customer groups to pursue with your product are topics that should be your call.
The problems product managers face can have many possible right answers. The question you have to answer is, “Which is the best answer with the amount of data I have available right now?” You’re trading off an early decision that creates forward movement with a more certain decision you could make at a later date. Some useful questions to ask yourself include these:
- When is the last responsible moment to make a decision?
- Can I make progress and leave some flexibility down the road?
- What happens if I don’t make the decision now?
- What are my risks?
- What are possible rewards of moving sooner or waiting longer?
Product managers are known for adopting a can-do attitude. Actually, it’s probably a bit more than that. Obstacles that are placed in your way are just opportunities to succeed regardless of the odds. Keep in mind that obstacles are boundaries. Give yourself permission to expand your area of control past the boundaries that seem to be in your way.
When you’re faced with a difficult situation, whether it be a holdup in the life cycle of a product, a misunderstanding with another department, or any number of issues that can arise, start by gaining a good understanding of the problem. Write down all the parameters and invite other people to help you figure out where the obstacles are slightly lower. Keep working on them until you can see a way through the problem. Many barriers are put there by organizations because they had a purpose at one time or another. If they no longer serve their original purpose, dig deeper to understand all aspects of the problem and you can find your way through.
This mental toughness of not stopping until a problem is solved is an important attribute of a product manager. It’s related to another critical attribute: optimism. No matter how bad the situation is, your ability to believe that you can solve problems gives you the opportunity at getting the best possible outcome.
A cool head
Product managers spend a lot of time under the kind of pressure that breaks many people. Product management is now considered the fourth most important job in corporate America, according to a 2013 CBS News poll. That just means that what you’re doing is highly visible and very hard to do well.
Many roadblocks can crop up as you prepare a product to go to market; how you deal with the problems is a measure of your character. Every person finds a way to cope with the stress. The ones who do it best are like ducks, outwardly calm, but paddling like crazy under the water. Here are a few hints for keeping your cool:
- When you get bad news, it’s okay to leave and take a short walk — outside if possible.
- A deep breath (or two or ten) makes a big difference in your ability to respond calmly.
- Meditating regularly in whatever way you find productive is very helpful. So are gardening and long walks.
The main idea is to look for the gap between your surprise and your reaction. In that gap, you can choose to be calm and cool, taking the mental space to call on all the other skills that we cover in earlier sections. You’re going to need them all — and a smile to go with them.
A product manager needs to have leadership skills. When you’re asking others to go above and beyond their comfort level, you need them to trust you.
You can read about leadership for the rest of your life, but learning to actually be a leader takes time and practice. Leadership is a practice of kicking all the traits in the preceding sections up a notch.
- Business acumen: Do you know everything your decision will mean as it rolls out into the real world?
- Industry expertise: How confident are you that what you know to be true today will be true as your market evolves?
- People skills: Are you really listening?
- Decision-making skills: Once you listen deeply to people, can you integrate all the information to come up with a truly creative decision?
- Technical skills: Is the technology really going to evolve in the way you believe it will?
- Problem-solving aptitude: Can you find a solution no matter how dark the situation seems to be?
When all else fails, rely on the following four qualities as part of your leadership chops:
- Can people trust you?
- Do you instill hope?
- Do you have compassion for your people and your customers?
- Do you make people feel safe?