Product management is a combination of both art and science. A big part of the “art” are soft skills… those personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.
I have been in product management for about 15 years. I was myself a product manager, then led product teams and have over the past several years been advising organizations’ product groups on the skills needed to be successful. I have, of course, worked with many product managers over the years and the most successful ones all have something in common: mastery of a handful of critical soft skills, including storytelling, curiosity, influencing others, decisiveness and positivity.
Stories promote a connection and have an emotional impact on the audience. Google “storytelling”, and you’ll find numerous posts on how to train a salesforce on storytelling techniques. While we don’t necessarily think of ourselves as sales people, the truth is Product Managers sell every day. We sell ideas. We sell visions. We sell investments.
As Product Managers, we live in a sea of data. From development hours to revenue to user statistics, we use data every day in our jobs. Unfortunately, this means we also love to throw out facts and figures on our products as we try to convince our peers and managers to invest time and money in our ideas. While data are important, there is scientific evidence that stories have a greater influence on an audience than data alone. According to this infographic by Ethos3, facts and figures activate two parts of your brain while stories activate seven, more fully engaging the brain and triggering more memorable, positive emotions.
We spend quite a bit of time in our workshops discussing the importance of storytelling from the user perspective. Talented Product Managers bring people into their vision by telling stories about real users, real problems and real solutions.
The best Product Managers — and business people, for that matter — that I know are innately curious. They question everything, not in a contrarian way but in a search for knowledge and understanding. They want to know how products work and why things are done a certain way. They rarely accept the easy answer, and they love to learn.
Curiosity is a tremendous asset as a Product Manager strives to find creative solutions to user needs.
Perhaps the most important of the “soft skills” is the skill of influencing others. Product Managers need many other people and functions to plan, build, sell and support our products.
Most roles in business these days require teamwork and collaboration, but none more than the Product Manager. We must influence coworkers who have their own jobs, their own incentives, their own motivations to work with us, buy into our vision and play a role in bringing that vision to fruition. Without the buy-in and support of our critical internal stakeholders, we simply wouldn’t be able to do our jobs.
Product Managers make decisions every day…prioritizing features, tweaking the marketing mix, understanding what the important feedback is versus what is simply noise.
Product Managers who struggle with this soft skill typically fall into one of two categories: paralysis by analysis or just wing it. We’ve likely all fallen into the paralysis by analysis trap of waiting until we have “all the data” to choose a direction, when the truth is we will never have all the data. The just wing it crowd takes the opposite approach of making decisions based on gut reaction or an overreliance on their experience. Of course, there is a happy medium where enough data is available to make quick, reasonable decisions without having to go merely on gut reaction.
Product Managers must become comfortable with making decisions, sometimes with limited data, and then trusting in those decisions as they move forward.
I have a plaque on my wall of a quote by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor (watch her TED Talk here; it’s fascinating) that says: “Please take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space”. I find this quote perfectly sums up the soft skill of positivity.
I understand that positivity is a somewhat subjective ideal. However, it’s not hard to understand. Think about the most negative person you know. How does it feel to be around that person? It’s grinding, it’s exhausting, it’s energy-draining. Now think of someone who always seems to have a positive attitude, is always looking on the bright side, always has a joke or a positive word. Obviously, we prefer to be around the positivity. Our energy is simply better when we leave that person.
An added benefit to positivity is that many of the other soft skills are enhanced by it: it’s easier for the positive person to influence others, stories are more impactful, and decisions are more easily made when not bogged down by the negative possibilities.
Soft skills are a critical component to a Product Manager’s success. While working on hard skills such as process and technical acumen, don’t forget to focus on improving these important personal attributes.