Which qualities make impactful PMs (Product Managers) ?
What differentiates a regular Product Manager from an extraordinary one, able to profoundly impact your business? From our experience at ManoMano we believe that true listening, problem framing, radical focus and conflict resolution can make a huge difference. As you might see, they are different from generally stated (but still pertaining) qualities you can find in many articles: drive, problem solving, communication… Stay with us to find why and how to assess them during an interview.
True listening is the ability to understand the other point of view. Bad listening is trying to push your case or to contradict the other. Because some PMs like shining in front of others they might prefer debating rather than truly listening.
When starting my first company (foodtech) which offered employees an online ordering service to collect their meal without lining in restaurants, I interviewed around a hundred customers in restaurants to understand their needs. In fact, I was more checking that lining was a problem for them. When “listening” to them, I was instead wondering how I could have them validate my hypothesis than trying to understand what was their pain point at lunch (money). I lost several months before realizing it and pivoting into a solution offering discounts based on employees’ company voucher amount.
When interviewing people, check that they do not interrupt when you are talking and that they are comfortable with having some blanks in the conversation. You can stop talking and look at what happens: does the candidate wait a bit? Or does he talk back immediately? You can also ask for ambiguous questions to see if the candidate asks for precisions by him/herself (eg. I love asking in one of our case studies “which USPs are persistent?” Some candidates will jump directly into solutions while others will spend some time understanding what persistent means and what you really have in mind).
Problem framing (vs. problem solving)
Problem solving is often a mandatory skill in every PM job description. But solving the wrong problem won’t get you anywhere. People tend to underinvest in problem framing because they are attracted to quick and visible results: solutions.
I remember working for an insurance company trying to reduce churn. A quick look at the problem space could have led us to conclude that commercial incentives were not attractive enough to keep customers on board. But when digging into research we realized the real problem was that these incentives came too late, whatever their amount was. So the real problem was not “which amount of incentive to make” but “when to offer the incentive” (note that too soon would also be damaging for company’s profit).
When interviewing Product Managers, try to have open questions in your case study and see how much the candidate asks questions without being prompted to understand which problem really lies behind your question. I love asking at ManoMano candidates why some users don’t use filters in some of our never ending listings. Answer is:because they dont trust our filters, because some products are poorly qualified, because some descriptions from our sellers are incomplete, because adapting their product information to our model is a constraint, etc…. Number of whys they go through is a good indicator of problem framing.
Once again, the ability to prioritize is usually part of the qualities checklist. But what matters is cutting your backlog to be able to concentrate your resources on the most impactful solutions. You could argue that by prioritizing well you should be working on the right features? You might work first on them (good point) but you might shift too quickly on secondary problems that might have wait a couple of weeks before being addressed. Interruptions cost a lot to the team and prevent it from investing enough time to crack the problem. It results into low quality or incomplete solutions (remembering done is often better than perfect). Gauge your work on the impact you created not the number of tickets you closed.
Let me share with you a first example of radical focus. ManoMano had to ship in 2018 and 2019 two massive projects, Mano Fulfillment and Mano Pro. The main key success factor analyzing these two significant achievements was the radical focus we went through for these two projects. We almost abandoned everything else in the company to concentrate our full tech capacity successively on these 2 projects.
When interviewing candidates, ask for their most significant achievement. Check in their answer how radical and deep went the candidates to achieve their goal. Check how the candidate can protect his time in busy environments (remote, time management by calendar…) as it will be complicated to be focus without this skill. You can ask for remarkable achievements in personal life for junior candidates (eg. sport at high level) to see if the candidate is able to go deep into one discipline.
Again, many will state “drive” as a must-have quality for PM. But at some point, a conflict will arise and drive won’t solve it. The bigger the organization, the more likely the PM will have to solve conflicts on a regular basis. Note that conflict is different from debate and that PM should leave room for debates.
I had a compelling case at ManoMano with a solid PM in this area. He was first able to spot that a conflict was about to come, even if this conflict was rampant and silent. Indeed, he was able to notice that one business owners was progressively checking out from the discussion (different from classic conflict where vocal disputes usually happen). He knew it was a sign of resignation and that next step would be frustration and disengagement probably leading to conflict with the rest of the team. He then was able to go and see this person, have a talk with him to understand why he checked out at some point (“I had the feeling the interests of my team were always discarded”), reassured him (“Of course not, we have such feature coming in the backlog precisely to take your point of view into consideration”) and got him back in the game at the next meeting with a very positive attitude.
When interviewing candidates, ask them when was the last time they encountered a conflict. First, see if they have enough self-awareness and social listening skills to spot these situations. Secondly, ask them how they went through such conflict.
If you really want to make a difference as a PM, try to constantly
- Truly listen your stakeholders to really understand what they mean, not to make your case
- (Re)Frame problems relentlessly and resist the temptation to jump into solutions. Solving the wrong problem won’t help !
- Adopt a radical focus attitude and put all your efforts onto the problem that matters the most. Other things can usually wait.
- Spot and solve conflicts before they become an issue, don’t be dogmatic. You will save a great amount of time and energy