Twenty+ years ago I graduated in Computer Science and was ready to start my career coding 9-to-5. Instead I was offered a job as a Product Manager at Microsoft — a role I knew nothing about. Luckily, I took to it immediately and never looked back.
Now I work at Skyscanner, and I’m often asked what we look for in our Product leaders. There’s some great resources on this including classics like Good PM / Bad PM and the Amazon Leadership Principles. Below is my take, including some tips for screening candidates.
While we sometimes talk about Product people as ‘mini-CEOs’ or ‘entrepreneurs’, I find those terms overly-broad and unhelpful. The job requires very specifics skills (more on this in Part 2), but all great product managers share a common aptitude — they are builders.
Builders make the best product people.
Builders are people who love to tinker and create things, and get excited about changing the world with technology. As kids (and as adults!), they obsessed with LEGO, tore apart and rebuilt their computers, and lined up their toy cars end-to-end. Many chose careers in engineering. All share a compulsive need to make things that others find useful. Making a profit, closing a deal, learning a new fact, organising chaos — all these can be fun, but for a builder they are means to an end.
Builders can come from any discipline, but they are NOT:
- Not pure managers—Release Managers, Project Managers, Agile Coaches etc. are super skilled at the How (process), but can struggle with What and Why. They are usually focused on tasks vs. outcomes. Look out for CVs filled with “managed W, oversaw X, coordinated Y, responsible for Z.” True Product people “delivered W, changed X, generated Y, released Z.”
- Not pure sellers — The title “PM” can be confusing because it can mean “Product Marketing” as much as “Product Management”. Sales, Marketing, and BizDev folks are very skilled at Why, and deeply involved in strategy. But working on product they can get stuck on the What and How. When screening CVs, look for evidence that a marketing candidate has switched to building things. Maybe they were tired of selling other people’s work, so they used their marketing Quant and Qual skills and started making things.
- Not pure scientists — Scientists find patterns in data, people or industries, analyse them, and derive new insights. They cherish learning above all else. They are very skilled at forming hypotheses and iterating scientifically, but they can lack customer and business sense (Why), or the ability to get things done (How) in a complex organisation.
The challenge is that these roles contain aspects of what makes great Product people. Some of our best PMs have come from Project Management, Marketing, Engineering or pure Science. Having an MBA is super valuable. So is business experience selling B2B or B2C, closing deals, or managing a budget. But we look for people who want to put these skills (+ a bunch of softer ones) to work bringing new things into the world.
All Product Managers, no matter how lowly, are expected to be leaders. I arrived on Microsoft’s campus for my first internship in 1995. I was 21. My manager dumped me in a room with 6 intimidating senior engineers and introduced me as their new PM. I knew nothing about their technical challenges or business priorities, yet I was immediately expected to lead them. It was a ‘naked in front of the class’ moment and I’m thankful there are no recordings!
We expect all Product Managers (and in the Agile context “Product Owners”) to be leaders. Product Managers are the voice of the customer. They set the direction for their product and guide the team to deliver. They ‘own’ the strategy and backlog, and act as the primary API between the team and the broader company. However, in most organisations, they do not have direct management authority.
Product Managers are leaders without authority.
This means that great Product Managers must find ways to get results by influencing those around them and building coalitions. In my experience the best leaders are those who lead by serving others —people with high EQ and low ego, who are attuned to their teams needs (personal and professional). They speak for the customer, not themselves. They put the team’s goals ahead of their own ambitions, and work to make decisions by consensus.
“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” — Harry S. Truman
This democratic style of leadership style is known as servant-leadership, and it is deeply embedded in the Skyscanner culture. It is by no means the only leadership style, but I have found it gets the best results from teams of super-smart, creative people. And frankly, no one likes working with an egotistic, bossy PM.
Product Managers exist to serve you.
Servant-leadership is hard to detect when screening CVs, and only comes out during interviews. Look out for high-ego individuals (I! I! I!) who boast about what they did vs. what the team accomplished, and don’t practice active listening.
However, a builder’s aptitude and servant-leadership are not enough. For a more precise breakdown of the PM skills please see: