5 Critical Product Manager Skills
Learn in 5 minutes what has taken me more than 5 years as a product manager.
Product Managers deserve a place on the field — or at least the sidelines — and not just in the front office. For those that are not football inclined, in my experience, embodying a coaching mentality instead of the proverbial “CEO” mantra has produced the best results in my time as a product manager.
A coach cares as much about the success of the organization as they do about helping create the secret sauce to win. A coach spends time in the trenches with the team every day in order to achieve that success. The best coaches are often those which execute with strong emotional intelligence.
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” — Lao Tzu
Here are 5 skills that have helped me succeed:
- Customer Empathy
- Enjoy the journey
- Coach Mentality
- Move Over
Breaking It Down
1. Working with Customers
I’ve spent more than five years working as a product manager. When I started I had no idea what it meant to work as a product manager. My early professional experience was rooted in working to solve problems for customers — reflecting now I see it was then that I started honing my ability to use empathy professionally. Only later did I learn that customer empathy would be such a critical skill in a successful product management career.
2. Enjoy The Journey
Satisfied customers are the destination but what about the journey?
When you’re working as a product manager you quickly realize to be successful you need a competent and skillful team. In order to foster that dedication and encourage the team around you to be driven, you have to be capable of exhibiting empathy. As the product manager, you must constantly balance the demands of your customers & sales teams with the capabilities — the velocity — of your team and you’re quite often perceived as the “bad guy” because inevitably you’ll bring change the team won’t want to endure.
Just as any number of films reflect when a team is inspired they quite often come together to produce unexpected results. I’ve seen and lived this — the startup with a team of individuals who truly care about the success of what they are building. One differentiator of many successful organizations is their ability to rally teams together around a mission that transpires the normal work to be paid exchange.
This all starts with a good coach — product manager. When working in an agile team setup the product manager is the main conduit of communication in and out for their team. It’s up to the product manager to share the good, the bad, and the ugly information and feedback for internal and external stakeholders. It’s in those moments that a coaching mentality can foster a mindset that leads to a team above and beyond expectations.
3. Coach Mentality
In Silicon Valley, you can find any number of people who will describe the Product Manager role as the “CEO” of their product. Listen, I get it, and I don’t necessarily disagree — a successful product manager should work to be “in the know” about all things related to their product. However, I’ve found my greatest success when working hand in hand with my teams to draw up the “next play”.
Back to my earlier analogy — the coach has a shared interest in the success of the team, whereas the CEO or owner cares about the profitability of the organization. It’s a subtle difference and in most cases winning equals profits but don’t be fooled an owner can replace a coach just like a CEO could dismiss a product manager.
Walking in someone else’s shoes, so to speak, is often pointed out as the best way to understand the challenges they face. In my experience to understand how I can better inspire the team to do their best work I make it a point to understand the intricacies my teams face every day — “hand in hand”.
4. Move Over
There is an equally important concept that every product manager needs to follow to be successful — get out of the way. Micro-management can be devastating in any professional setting and that’s no different for a product manager. It will demotivate your team and take away their sense of innovation and ownership.
A coach will call the play but when the game is on the line and the situation on the field is changing, the quarterback has to have the ability to call an audible and change the play. In development there is an often referred to mindset of product is the “what” and engineering is the “how”. Again there are nuances and it doesn’t mean product managers can’t be involved but when the goal is a touchdown to win the game so long as the team gets there the “how” is less important — until we review the film to improve, the retrospective.
A great coach can take a group of team and make them a high functioning team. It takes time to understand individual motivations but if everyone is there for the right reasons and believes you can be successful then a good product manager can ensure they all row in the same direction.
In true reflection, a good PM will also realize they have many resources at their fingertips and should always keep learning. I’d recommend reading The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen (who I had the chance to meet a few years ago). The book is described as “a practical guide to building products that customers love.”
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I work solving problems, driving operational excellence, and launching products. Along with being a DaaS focused Product Manager, I consult for organizations focused on maximizing value through product-focused growth and data value. Join the Buzz