What Makes a Good Product Manager

Given all the discussion around product management, it is surprising that more hasn’t been written about the qualities that make a good product manager.

Good product managers use their influence to lead people. Photo by Teemu Paananen on Unsplash

What are the qualities that make a good product manager? How do you even define a good product manager?

Given all the discussion around product management, it is surprising that more hasn’t been written about the qualities that make a good product manager. What is not surprising is that the few I’ve been able to find varies greatly in content as the role and responsibilities of a product manager also change greatly across different industries and companies.

This is my attempt to put together the qualities that I’ve seen over and over in product managers whom I’ve both admired and considered good in their role.

I do not consider this list to be comprehensive and am happy to engage with anyone who wants to think about them differently.

I will first try to provide a definition of ‘good product manager’ as it will help me put any of these qualities in context.

Good Product Manager

The nature of the job makes it hard to come up with a brief definition for a product manager, let alone for a good product manager. Product managers have many responsibilities including;

  • deciding and prioritizing what to build and when to build them,
  • being a communication hub between multiple areas of the company,
  • facilitating designers and engineers to do their jobs the best they can,
  • finding solutions to product-related problems,
  • leading people to create desired product outcomes,
  • researching about markets, customers, competitors, industry,
  • collecting ideas from all sorts of sources and experimenting the best ones,
  • interacting with users or customers to understand their real needs, core issues and problems,
  • forming different narratives for variety of stakeholders.

Their exact responsibilities change across different industries, different companies and even might depend on the size, stage and the culture of the company.

If I had to come up with one definition it would look like this:

A good product manager decides what a company needs to build next that creates a desired outcome and moves company’s products closer to its vision.

You might have this definition for a CEO’s role. Although I disagree, maybe that’s why some people think that product manager is the CEO of the product. I would argue that this definition is brief but it is not complete, and unlike a CEO, product managers don’t have ultimate authority over the things that might affect the success of their product. However, there are two main responsibilities which I want emphasize from this definition and unbox a bit: “deciding what to build next” and “moving products closer to company’s vision”.

If I focus on their responsibility of “deciding what to build next”, then I would evolve my definition of a good product manager into this:

A good product manager collects ideas, listens to problems and needs; defines what the good ideas and bad ideas are and why they are the good ideas and bad ideas; decides which one of those ideas are the best ones to build next and when is the best time to build them by doing enough upfront research and looking at the data available.

If I focus on the “moving products closer to a company’s vision”, then my definition would evolve into this:

A good product manager takes the vision of the founders or the executives, influence to lead teams to move the company’s products closer to that vision by collaborating between business, design and engineering functions while considering what is going on at the moment in the technology, the company, the industry and the market.

These two definitions are not short, but I believe more complete and can bring clarity to the role of a product manager and hopefully what a good product manager looks like.

I also use these definitions depending on the context and whom I am talking to about the product manager’s role and not necessarily about what makes a good one. At a minimum, they help me when I need to put the role in context and am hiring for the role, and remind me the qualities which I need to seek for.

What are the qualities of good product managers?

If you look at a product manager’s responsibilities again, several qualities are needed to perform each one of those well. I’ve identified six qualities of good product managers no matter what their responsibilities are or in which industry or company they work.

#1. Influence

Good product managers lead without authority. They don’t have the ultimate authority over the things that might affect the success of their product while being responsible for its ultimate success. Marketing, resources or sales; all might have effect on the success of the product where product manager don’t have any direct control or authority. Unless they lead a team of product managers, a product manager is usually not a manager of anybody. Then how can they lead without authority?

Good product managers use their influence to lead people to let them make the right decisions that will drive the success of the product and focus on what really matters for that success. Good product managers build their influence by:

  • Their leadership skills. They deflect credit away and give credit to others when there is a success while being solely accountable failures. They are transparent on their decisions while being open to any criticism on them.
  • Their expertise. They are not only the experts of the products they manage but experts of the users and customers, the industry, the market, the technology, and their competitors.
  • Listening a lot. They listen variety of stakeholders and question nearly everything to understand their real needs, challenges, their working styles, and their subtleties.

A good product manager’s influence help them gain respect within the organization and give other people confidence that their decisions are the right ones.

#2. Decision Making

Good product managers are unemotional fact-based decision makers. A product manager’s job revolves around deciding what to build next by focusing on what really matters for the business and customers that supports the company’s vision. Good decisions means winning the market and creating value whereas bad decisions can cost a company time and resources and even haunt its legacy for years. Good product managers make the difference between the two.

Whether it is hard data such as key metrics and stats, or data about the context such as why people use their product, good product managers always know how to use data and when it is important to use it to help them make the right decisions. They make decisions by always looking at data and information that are readily available and accurate, without any biases, analyze the circumstances correctly and ultimately come up with the right decisions for solutions, features and products to be built.

#3. Communication

Good product managers are great communicators and collaborators. They continuously interact with and talks to a number of people from multiple areas of the company to get the maximum collaboration from them whether it is about collecting ideas or understanding their needs and problems.

Good product managers are comfortable and great at communicating across different functions and facilitating engineers and designers they work with which help create a collaborative environment where people come up with new knowledge and novel ideas which then eventually lead company to ship new and innovative features and products successfully. They know how to listen and ask thoughtful questions to foster smoother and more effective interactions and strengthen the trust across the functional areas of the company.

#4. Narrative

Good product managers are great at telling narratives. They are the ones who let people in the organization know why particular product decisions are taken and their scope. They explain why they are doing what they are doing and how the product decisions that take today will lead to a great outcome in the future.

By forming narratives for stakeholders from different company functions and being able to tell stories that are compelling to them, good product managers are great at story telling that motivates people and helps them work more passionately towards common goals and desired outcomes.

They are able to articulate how users/customers can get a value from the product, why engineers do what they do and the scope, and how the product will create a value for the business and an impact to the world.

#5. Goal-orientation

Good product managers define success and goals for every initiative. They make sure that they define the success before they start any initiative. Good product managers know that they are not there to just build things, but they are there to build things to accomplish a goal, or they are not there to just optimize things, but to create a desired outcome by optimizing things and always by a measurable quantitative unit, whether it is X% or X times.

Good product managers let their teams understand what the objectives are, what metric goals they are planning to hit with every initiative, feature or implementation they start. While doing this, they always make sure what they do is consistent and fit to the company’s overall strategy and always support its ultimate vision.

#6. Problem-solving

Good product managers find the real problems and core pain points behind what people ask. A big part of a product manager’s job is about finding solutions to the problems. Good product managers always go several step further questioning the real reasons behind what people ask them to do.

They understand key underlying principle of the problems or needs and the core pain points of any stakeholder before defining potential solutions to them and ultimately come up with an elegant solution that works.

Last but not least, the ‘Mindset’

Good product managers have the mindset of questioning nearly everything. Being a good product manager is also about the mindset. Good product managers believe experimenting is one of their most essential tools to move their understanding about nearly everything closer to 0% or 100% certainty. They run more and more experiments and gather more and more data and evidence until their hypotheses fail or pass their bar for success to finally make the right product decisions.

They innately know that their actions play a role in determining the outcome and how true things actually are. The mindset of questioning nearly everything, being skeptical and experimenting ideas and hypotheses are essential to be a good product manager.

These are the qualities of good product managers but I like to think that missing one or few of these qualities will not make a product manager necessarily bad but I do believe that having these qualities will always lead to a good product manager in any organizational setting if not a great one.

Do you agree or disagree or think about them differently? Let me know in comments what you think makes a good product manager.