The 3 main skills of the product manager

What makes a good product manager? Do they have special skills? Their job descriptions are often full of skills which are contradicting themselves. They often describe a rare human unicorn armed with opposed skills. They must have a big picture mindset but also a strong attention to detail, they must be talented at planning but also have to be great improvisator who can be flexible with plans. According to the Carl Jung and Myers Briggs personality type theory, these traits are incompatible.

All the startups and tech companies seem to have their own vision of what a product manager should be. That makes sense since their needs are very different too. Typically, companies whose business is API centric will be looking for a more technical product manager whereas a company selling consumer products may be looking for a more design savvy product manager or one with deep analytical skills. That said, unless a company is actually looking for a Business Analyst or a Project Manager under the Product Manager label, all these companies are looking for a some common core skills. I have tried to figure out what these are and ended up grouping them in 3 categories: people skills, analytical skills and visionary skills.

First, product managers are curious about people. They want to understand them. Whether it is the end users of their product, the internal or external stakeholders, their colleagues, etc… To facilitate collaboration, building empathy for all of them and understanding the issues they are facing is an important part of the product manager role. More than being good listeners, they often also needs to act as coach and evangelist in order to influence. That requires a lot of emotional intelligence and soft skills.

Next, they need to be very good at solving complex issues. Their natural analytical mind is thinking in systems. Fully understanding the core of the problem is key to design the appropriate solution and being comfortable with convoluted systems is a great advantage. That could be how a product interact within its ecosystem but also how people relate to it. Employees in a company are also making a system. Product managers have a stakeholders map in their head.

Finally, product managers are visionary people. Projecting themselves in the future comes naturally to them. They know where their product should go and have a clear image of that future in their head. They can also craft a strategy with concrete objectives to support their vision. They communicate it with enthusiasm and use it as a tool to motivate their colleagues and to realign the stakeholders if a feature request is out of scope.

People skills are using the right brain while the analytical skills are using the left brain. Building a vision is a very right brain activity, but it always comes with a strategy to support it otherwise it is just a mere dream. Crafting a strategy with a solid base of objective is very much a left brain one. To summarise, it looks like a good product manager is someone who is talented at using skills coming from both the right and left brain.

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