The traits you need as a Product Manager that you won’t find in job descriptions

You’ve read the job descriptions, familiarized yourself with the responsibilities, and understand where PMs fit in at a company. But what really makes a successful PM?

Almost all job descriptions for tech company Product Managers (PM) have something similar to the following:

  • Lead the ideation, development, and launch of products
  • Define a product vision, strategy and success metrics
  • Define requirements for products through various research, analysis, and studies
  • Drive product development and iteration with a team of (“world-class”) engineers and designers

You also may have heard a lot of tech companies in Silicon Valley describe the PM as a CEO of product.

Those are somewhat obvious representations of what PMs do—but any experienced PM knows there are many other traits that are important in being a successful PM.

For context, I am a Product Manager at Square, where I’ve worked alongside around 100 engineers during my three years at the company. I’ve worked on various app features, Invoices, and most recently on Square’s industry-leading contactless and chip reader.

I understand that every PM has a way of describing his/her role, and depending on the nature/size/stage of the company or product, PMs might have to adapt and make use of a certain set of traits more than others. But one particular view, or attitude rather, has kept me grounded and helped to develop close-knit, collaborative, successful teams.

Fair wind

I compare my role as PM to fair wind. As defined by Google: “Noun (nautical) A wind blowing in the direction the sailor wants to go, i.e. favorably”. So imagine that you have a destination you want to get to (success metric, goal, product launch, etc.). You have people on a boat who want to sail to that destination (your crew, including designers, engineers, and your many cross-functional partners). There are so many different routes your boat could take to the destination—and, inevitably, obstacles along the way.

The PM’s job is to be the fair wind that guides the boat to its destination in the most effective way. While there’s no denying that PM is a leadership role, I deliberately didn’t use the analogy of the boat’s captain. Fair wind is in the background — people might not notice when fair winds are blowing and it’s smooth sailing, but they will definitely notice when fair winds are not there. To be a PM is largely a behind-the-scenes job.

Now, back to the main point. What are some of the lesser-known traits that are important in being the fairest wind?

1. Be a champion for your team

This is not necessarily unique to PMs, but is good practice for all leaders. A PM often is the “face” of the team as the main contact person or DRI (Directly Responsible Individual, borrowing Apple’s term). This means when things are going up and to the right, the PM tends to get credit or visibility on behalf of the team from other teams or execs — and when things are going south, the PM also needs to take responsibility on behalf of the team.

Good PMs will own both sides. You should be taking as many opportunities as possible to give credit to the team and individuals going above and beyond, and celebrating small wins often — and conversely, shielding the team from unnecessary distractions and blame, and helping them focus, particularly when things are not going well.

2. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

Let’s start with being a good note taker. :) While taking notes, be curious (identify open questions, ask for more details, question the rationale), and be clear (note the decisions made with rationale, options considered, specify next steps and action items with clear owners).

If your team is small and communicates often, you may not think this is important. But this practice serves multiple purposes beyond intra-team communications. First, you have something to go back to if your memory fails you. I don’t know about you, but my senility is catching up with me. When new team members of the team or other partners ask you what you have considered, tried, and decided—and why—you don’t want to depend on your memories. Second, as the team or company grows, there might be broader implications on decisions. It helps to communicate widely in a succinct form to keep people are in the loop. Third, specifying clear next steps, action items, and owners helps give the team focus and accountability.

Keep in mind that good communication doesn’t just apply to within your team. For a bigger company with many product teams, the PM will also have to be the biggest evangelist for the team’s work and make sure it’s visible to a broader audience. Consider monthly/quarterly summary emails with key accomplishments, Lunch & Learn-type presentations to the company, a roadshow in various all-hands meetings, etc.

3. Be smart about delegating decision-making.

This may seem counterintuitive, but PMs shouldn’t be the decision maker on every single thing. I see a lot of junior PMs fall into this pitfall. You do not need to have a strong say or opinion on everything. You work with smart engineers and designers, and you all share the same goal. Trust them. If an engineer needs to work with a designer, have them talk to each other directly. The PM doesn’t need to babysit or facilitate. Have them own it. Verify their decision and intervene only if you have a strong opinion. Also, trust me: if they reach an impasse, they will come to you. If a decision needs to be made on a technical implementation detail, leave it to the Tech Lead or Eng Manager. If there are product implications, make sure you work with your team to weigh pros and cons. Providing autonomy on problem-solving and room for making decisions will empower the team — and free up the PM’s time to do more high leverage work!

What are other important PM traits you have learned over time?