A New Skill Model for Product Managers
Skill Set vs. Subject Matter
Product management is often situated at the intersection of user experience, technology and business. And while these skills are certainly essential for a product team, they do not align very well with the day-to-day work of a product manager. Yes, a product manager might be responsible for communicating between designers, developers, and business leaders. But the skills required to be a designer, a developer, or a business leader are very different from the skills required to create alignment between designers, developers, and business leaders. UX, tech, and business are areas of subject matter knowledge that might be relevant to some product managers, but they are not the actual skills required to be a great product manager.
In the absence of this distinction, it is easy to confuse candidates who know how to talk about product management with candidates who will make great product managers. Too often, I’ve seen product management candidates evaluated for their ability to recite a broad but shallow smattering of information about design best practices, programming languages, and product-market fit. And just as often, I’ve seen well-studied candidates who talk themselves into the center of the UX/Tech/Business diagram struggle with the actual work of triangulating between these perspectives.
Different Organizations, Similar Skills
The UX/Tech/Business model is further complicated by the enormous variability of the PM role. At a large, traditional organization, a product manager might be accountable for a specific product’s P&L, but rarely work directly with IT or design. At a high-growth startup, a product manager might be accountable for a product’s performance, but largely insulated from financial decision making. And yet, across wildly divergent organizational contexts, the skills required to succeed as a product manager are often quite similar: a product manager must be able to communicate between customers and stakeholders, organize the product team for successful collaboration, and manage the execution work necessary to build and deliver great products.
Product managers live or die by their communication skills. A great product manager is capable of openly and empathetically listening to customer needs, aligning those needs with the company’s goals, and articulating a plan to internal stakeholders. Since product managers rarely have direct authority, they must possess the necessary communication skills to manage through influence.
Great product managers not only tolerate, but actively enjoy the challenge of creating alignment and understanding between different roles and perspectives. When I meet a technical PM candidate who tells me that they would much rather be writing code than sitting in meetings all day, my next question is inevitably, “Then why would you want to be a product manager?” PM candidates who lack strong communication skills are often better suited to more execution-oriented roles such as developer or designer.
Beyond their own personal communication skills, product managers must organize their teams to work well together. This is not (just) a matter of being an expert in any one product development methodology (Scrum, XP, etc.) — though somebody who has successfully led a team using one of these methodologies likely knows a thing or two about organizing. If communication skills come down to managing one-on-one interactions, organization is about scaling and operationalizing these interactions.
Not all individuals who excel as individual communicators are naturally gifted organizers. Product managers who lack organization skills — no matter how knowledgeable and charismatic they are — often become a bottleneck for their team. They run around giving directions, unblocking team members, and resolving conflicts — but their team is incapable of functioning without their direct and constant intervention. PM candidates who lack strong organization skills are often better suited to marketing and traditional communication roles.
Product managers are, of course, still responsible for making sure that stuff gets done. This is where subject matter expertise can be tremendously valuable—insofar as it can help PMs meet deadlines and make tradeoffs. At a tech startup, some knowledge of user experience and technology may come in handy. At a company that primarily sells physical goods, a PM may want to study up on manufacturing and supply chains. What is important is not so much that the PM already possesses the relevant subject matter knowledge, but rather that they are willing and eager to learn whatever will help them get the job done. No work is “below” an execution-minded PM — anything that helps get the product out the door is valuable and worth pursuing. (As Ken Norton says, “always bring the donuts.”)
Product managers who lack execution skills often get bogged down in the theoretical underpinnings of product management. They reorganize and relentlessly optimize internal processes, but often lose sight of what they’re actually working towards. I truly believe that non-technical folks can make great product managers— but I take issue with PMs who regard technical work as either below or above them. Yes, it can be challenging to have a technical conversation if you are not a technical expert, but execution-minded PMs keep these conversations firmly grounded in goals and results, and approach these conversations with curiosity and fearlessness. PM candidates who lack execution skills are often better suited to consultative and organizational design roles.
Casting a Wider Net
In many ways, it is easier to hire for subject matter knowledge than it is to hire for skills. A few cursory conversations will easily reveal a PM candidate who can speak with some confidence about lean principles, mobile-first design, or in-memory caching. Sussing out candidates who possess communication, organization and execution skills can be more challenging, but it is certainly not impossible. (There is a wealth of information out there about how to interview for communication skills, and I’ve started compiling some specific interview questions that might help identify communication, organization and execution skills in the context of product management.) But it is well worth taking the time to thoroughly evaluate candidates for the actual skills that may determine their success as product managers.
As an added bonus, this model opens up the field to potential candidates who may have leveraged these skills in completely different disciplines. Candidates with extensive backgrounds in writing or performance might have the communications skills necessary to transition into a PM role. Candidates who have experience with political organizing or leading arts ensembles might have the organization skills necessary to transition into a PM role. And, yes, candidates who have previously worked as designers or developers might have the execution skills necessary to transition into a PM role.
As I have written before, the traditional “profile” of a PM is often frustratingly narrow. We owe it to ourselves and our organizations to invite new perspectives into this role, to look beyond superficial subject matter knowledge, and to think critically about the core skills that make a great product manager.