What makes a good product manager?
A people and team-focused perspective
Being a good product person is all about keeping the balance. At the core, our job is to make sure the product is what the market needs. Product people need to be knowledgeable, visionary, passionate to the bone, willing to take decisions, organized, in sum, CEOs of the product. They also need to be able to communicate effectively and keep good relationships with all stakeholders since they can’t and shouldn’t be running the product all by themselves. This is where some see a conflict in the psychological profile of product people: A passionate visionary, yet strong enough to admit what they don’t know and rely on others to help out? Exactly!
Running the product is about understanding the market, creating a vision and strategy for the product and coordinating the team to reaching the agreed-upon goals. And since product people are not superhuman, our understanding of the market on the one side and the technical implementation on the other don’t just appear out of thin air. In good teams, product guys like me rely heavily on researchers, business developers, UX experts, marketing people, software architects, etc. — in short, all stakeholders of the product.
So, by my definition, product people need to be team players that manage to find solutions that will yield the best possible product. This is people business. As we (ideally) don’t design, develop, research ourselves, yet have to know enough about either discipline to drive sustainable decisions, we need to balance out the forces in the team to make sure the right amount of each component is steering the product in the right direction. While this process does require a thorough understanding of all factors, it depends even more on the people skills and the ability to communicate with relevant stakeholders.
What makes a good CPO in the understanding as “product CEO”, is true for any modern leadership role, including the CEO. To quote my designer friend Sergi Miral, “Why keep a dog and bark yourself”? It’s hard for many leaders to let go and trust the experts on how they should be doing their jobs. A good CPO trusts their teams of experts on the “how” and sticks to the “what” should be developed. Even the “when” should be the concern of the scrum master and not the PO (otherwise, you’d be looking at an old-school project manager). So a good CPO should reflect the values of a well-run startup just as any other leader should.
Finally, a good portion of what makes a good CPO is up to the context of the company and its people the CPO should complement: In different environments, a more business, UX or engineering-flavored CPO may be more helpful. To make the team complete, a good CPO might either be more on the structured, quantitative side to improve on existing metrics, or more on the visionary side, working on the initial product-market-fit. As I laid out in this article, a good CPO is just as much about what the company needs as it is about what the CPO brings to the table.