Product management is pretty much one of the dream occupations for the jack-of-all-trades, not-necessarily-master-of-any individuals. It is a role whose scope and daily activities can be significantly different across industries, companies, and teams, because every team has a different set of product challenges, as well as culture. This is why there’s no standard look to a Product Manager.
Although no background or education is ideal, there are certain similarities in successful product people and these are related to soft skills. Most of these things are either obvious, but no one ever says them, or non-obvious but important. They are all interconnected and they contribute to the one thing good Product Managers do well: get results through other people.
- Team spirit. Good Product Managers are team players, who understand that flying solo is a limiting and isolating choice. Unless you are a master in design, engineering, analytics, and sales, you will find yourself in a team context, and making your team look good works far better than creating a one man show.
- Trust. The only way to be a good team player is to really trust your team. Trusting your team means you are not the only one pulling the strings, and you avoid making people feel micro-managed. It’s human to question the abilities of people in your team, but in this case you need to find other ways to cover up the gaps through trainings, hooking them with more senior people, or even letting people go. Absence of trust always leads not only to individual’s but also to team’s underperformance.
- Communication. Product Managers are expensive communication routers. This is not far from reality if you consider Product Managers in the middle of an information triangle among market, team and company. In other words, you need to find the best method and style to communicate the thoughts, ideas, and feedback you get from all these information exchanges under every context (team meetings, business meetings, user interviews). Exercising these skills often through public speaking or writing are considerably valuable for Product Managers in learning how to articulate ideas.
- Leadership. Product Managers are probably in one of the most challenging positions to exercise leadership. They have to rally their teams behind a vision without much formal authority. They can influence and persuade people, but they don’t necessarily have authority over individuals or teams in the same way a traditional manager might do. So, product people need to lead by influence and example, through motivating, guiding and keeping their teams focused.
- Prioritisation. Product managers need to be able to cut through the noise and recognise what is important for the users and company and filter out the rest. You will always have incoming requests from internal and external stakeholders, so the ability to deal and filter these requests accordingly is crucial. Blindly following and executing on what users, buyers, sales people, customer support say or what competitors do is definitely not a good idea, as you always end up in a feature war. At the same time, always following your gut feeling doesn’t help either. The middle ground is a prioritisation framework, based on criteria your team and company value, that will guide you to take decisions and at the same time explain to others what should be done and why. This decision making framework should be visible especially to your own team. I have yet to meet an engineer or designer who wouldn’t like to know why a new feature is introduced and what success looks like.
- Process building. This includes frameworks for reasoning about a problem, how the team interacts and communicates, expectations of the product, expectations of the team, timelines, what success and quality look like, and how decisions are made. Rather than introducing formal processes to control people, this trait is geared towards being able to set up processes that generate common ways of thinking inside the teams and the company. There is no rule of thumb or silver bullet in setting up product development processes, as the culture of the company and team dynamics really vary. Hence part of Product Manager’s job is to be able to cherry pick aspects from different frameworks and apply them to the team, while nurturing an environment of creativity.
- Problem solving. The problem solving attitude of a Product Manager is twofold. First, the ultimate goal of Product Managers is to solve a pain users have through the product they are building. Second, Product Managers should solve any problems that come in the way of their teams by filling the gaps or removing obstacles. Most of us, spend too little time thinking about how to solve a problem, or even why this problem should be solved, and jump straight into the solution. Problems come in different shapes, and not all need the same process. The process that shipped the last product is unlikely to be the one that you need for the next.
- Curiosity. Nothing beats a curious mind. Staying curious about your market and users is an important part of a Product Manager’s job. This could be related to tasks such as frequently talking to your users and customer advocates inside your company, introducing analytics and trying to get the data talk to you, performing frequent market and competition analysis, running A/B tests to understand what is the best way to build a feature, experimenting with new technologies, etc. One of the sources of ideas and market problems we often forget as Product Managers is our own team. You will be surprised by how many insights your engineers and designers can reveal. Being curious is the only way to stay one step ahead of your competitors.
- Empathy. This point is probably the most important bit. Be gentle and show empathy for people: users, buyers, team, company, etc. Unless you step back and realise that all steps of the product development chain include real humans and you need to keep a balance among them, then it’s almost impossible to hit your goal as Product Manager, which is getting results through other people.
- Always try to improve in the above nine traits.