Being a product manager is (not)…

As a product manager who’s been in the industry for some time now, I have observed for a while that a “product manager” role can have different meanings in different companies — and this is somehow expected, due to the diversity implicit in this career. Some companies have product management as a department related to marketing; others might have product managers that act as waiters, noting down requests to be transmitted to execution. And, besides those particularities, there are also the differences between internal product managers, consumer product managers and business product managers.

There is, however, some level of misunderstanding, even amongst holders of the title, of what the trade of product management involves, and thus it might be useful to pinpoint some key characteristics.

Maybe we should start by highlighting what a product manager is not:

1. Anyone’s boss.

As a product manager, you don’t hold a hierarchical position over the members of the team you participate in. You lead by influence, and not by authority — after all, leading people has nothing to do with occupying a leadership position. This is not an easy thing to achieve, and has many shades — to me, it starts with by being candid and being a role model on what you do. Actually, a bossy attitude is the first step into not earning the respect of your team.

2. An “idea” person.

Product managers are not the universe’s Overlords who generate ideas for the product and who amaze the world with their ingenuous creations. Products are the result of collaborative work, and ideas come from literally everywhere: from careful analysis of the metrics and KPIs that are meaningful to the product, from co-workers, from stakeholders, from the executive management, from consumers. A product manager’s job and responsibility is to have open ears for meaningful input and feedback, and to be able to collect, organize and prioritize ideas.

3. A project manager.

Definitely project management skills are part of being a successful product manager — and, depending on the type of company you work for, those skills and related activities might occupy a larger or a smaller portion of your time. However, those two have very different focuses.

A product manager is ultimately responsible, with his or her team, to help achieve the company’s business goals by creating and deploying successful products into the market — products have a lifecycle, which might be longer or shorter, and which might culminate, in the end, with the product’s removal from the market. The success of a product, and, therefore, of a product manager, is defined by the metrics that translate the dynamics of the business both are in.

A project manager, however, is in general responsible to ensure the accomplishment of one or multiple projects, which are, per the PMI’s definition, are temporary efforts directed towards a particular goal. Budgets, timelines and a close follow up on multiple teams’ efforts are the tools of the trade. Project managers have as a goal the implementation of a project — whether the project actually contributes successfully to achieving the business goals’ is someone else’s problem.

4. The CEO of the product.

This is a controversial one. Since Ben Horowitz described the product manager as the CEO of the product, 20 years ago, many PMs actually started to be proud of this title and to embody this in their attitudes. I mean, why not? Titles are cool, people love titles, and maybe people love underlying/non-official titles even more — sometimes people are just looking for an implicit justification to how they feel entitled to be treated and understood in their workplace. I prefer saying that the team responsible for the product is the CEO of the product — there are way more people involved in a decision than just a product manager, and attributing this to the latter is demeaning to the other team roles.

However, a product manager is:

1. A communicator.

Communication is key, either spoken or written. Being able to clearly communicate ideas, objectives, visions and goals goes hand in hand with being an effective storyteller. When you’re crystal clear about the topics, you will still generate misunderstandings — when you’re not, those will spiral. And, BTW, this has nothing to do with being an extrovert.

2. Humble.

Unfortunately I’ve often worked with very skilled product managers who had the wrong attitude. By this I don’t mean only being bossy, but by being a know-it-all, by emanating arrogance and by feeling entitled — to me, this kills everything else. I would prefer to hire a non-skilled PM that has the right attitude instead of a highly skilled one who is a jerk — skills can be developed, character is, in general, immutable. As a product manager, you serve a team, you serve a company, you serve a product, your serve a customer. Understanding the meaning of being a servant is the first door to be opened, and, to me, the most relevant one.

3. A facilitator.

As someone who serves and who leads by influence, a product manager facilitates instead of dictate. Facilitating means navigating people into decisions and ensuring the surfacing of problems and necessities. When a PM generates the necessary stimuli for someone else to voice and execute, he or she is doing one of the most precious things in product management — empowering (a consumer, a team member, a stakeholder etc.)

4. Empathic.

Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is an essential part of product management. After all, you need to dig into problems, you need to be observant, you need to face tasks and situations with your customers’ eyes and ears and hands and brain. My mom used to say that there is a reason due to which we have two ears but only one mouth — listening, and asking relevant questions, are the keys into another person’s struggles, and, therefore, to the opportunities you can find for the product.

5. A generalist and a specialist.

The wider the product manager’s expertise, the better — it’s as useful, on a daily basis, as being able to use fluently multiple tools out of a toolbox. Being knowledgeable on various fields also allows anyone to make interesting mental connections between topics and generating unique understandings for a situation or task.

Although product managers come in various types and with different preferred inclinations, a good one should know:

a. The way to gather the data necessary to make a decision: this might include using Google Analytics, querying databases, reading reports etc;

b. The basics of SEO, how to foster search engine discoverability in a product and what not to do in order to preserve a healthy level of SEO.

c. Some level of UI design. As a reliable arbiter of quality, a product manager needs to know whether a design works or not, and why. The meanings of colors, spaces, layouts and typography can’t be foreign to a PM.

d. A good deal of UX design and research. As someone who gathers requirements, the PM should spend most of the time talking to users, going to the core of problems and enabling people to accomplish tasks through products — thus, those skills come in handy.

e. A reasonable understanding of CRO. This prompts a continuous questioning on the PM about test scenarios, working hypothesis and helps avoid conversion-killing mistakes while building a product or feature.

f. Basic technology. Here more than just the industry’s lingo is necessary — a good PM goes beyond buzzwords and shows genuine interest in topics that might even be outside of a non-technical background. This helps to earn the respect of the engineers and to make more well informed decisions.

g. And more. And all that is possible. Photography, creative writing, literature, cinema — everything that expands perspectives and generates various empathic understandings of topics is welcome, not only for product managers, but for everyone. Excellent product managers never stop learning and never stop searching for opportunities to improve.

6. And so much more.

The beauty of the product management field is that it’s never ending — one can always be more, and learn more, and make more mistakes and accomplish more. As a PM, no day is the same — the list of possibilities of what you can be is far from extensive and always invites for more additions :-)