Six qualities that all strong product managers possess
Janel Wellborn, Founder & Managing Partner @ Peerless Partners, shares her advice with Master of Engineering students at UC Berkeley
On Friday, January 10, 2020, Janel Wellborn delivered a guest lecture on digital product management in the E270G: Marketing & Product Management bootcamp course for engineering leaders. Her lecture covered the definition of a product manager, the product development life cycle, scope slicing and minimum viable products (MVPs).
Janel’s expertise spans 20 years in digital and omnichannel industries. After graduating with a degree in marketing from Texas A&M, she dove right into “big five consulting” at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Although it wasn’t officially called “product management” back then, Janel was in charge of understanding customer problems as well as business objectives, and thinking of ways to solve those problems using technology. Her portfolio includes building strong product management organizations at large companies across north and South America like Gap, Macy’s, Walmart International, Proctor & Gamble, Latam Airlines, BCI, Cencosud through hiring, training, and coaching of digital product managers and digital executives.
A digital product is like a piece of cake
Contrary to tangible, physical products like Alexa, Tesla, or an ATM, a digital product refers to a feature, functionality, and/or capabilities in a mobile app or website.
“A digital product is defined as the ability to meet a customer need and to drive measurable business value by leveraging technology,” says Janel.
Digital product management can further be explained by this image of a layered cake. “When a company is struggling with a product,” she explains, “they are often defining a product as a single horizontal slice (think: yellow layer) of the cake, instead of approaching it as the entire cake and its presentation as a whole.”
The digital product manager is responsible for the “piece of cake” at the intersection of UX (user experience), technology and business by communicating with customers, stakeholders and delivery team on the following:
- Stakeholders: Defining business objectives, key performance indicators and operational impacts.
- Customers: Gaining insight on their specific needs and ideal experience including behaviors, expectations, frictions and more.
- Delivery Team: Understanding technology constraints/capabilities, competitive landscape, internal and external data analysis and industry trends.
The methodology that product managers often use to effectively deliver technology and manage the various needs as outlined above is Agile product management. The product manager’s goal is to achieve a $14:1 dollar internal rate of return.
When asked what qualities make a good product manager, Janel had six pieces of advice to offer:
- Effective communicator: A good product manager asks thoughtful questions and exhibits active listening. She simplifies the complex. Whenever sharing information, she considers the audience and asks, ‘What do they need to know?’ instead of ‘How much can I show?’ “I specifically look for product managers that can develop a strong point of view that is weakly held,” says Janel.
- Critical and curious thinker: A good product manager values perspective and seeks the right answer rather than ‘being right.’ She evaluates information in different ways, angles and perspectives. She has the ability to view and analyze a situation from a logical, systematic perspective — ensuring that the root problem, not merely a symptom, is identified, and doesn’t take a problem at face value, but tries to understand how it evolved. After doing so, she is able to view and evaluate multiple potential solutions and the impacts of each, ultimately landing on an optimal recommendation.
This person doesn’t necessarily need to be someone with previous digital or product management experience — or even industry experience. It’s more important to find the critical and curious thinker at the core of the individual and how they approach the role.
- Analytical problem solver: She leverages qualitative and quantitative data. While good product managers love data, they are not beholden to it and understand that data is ‘just another input,’ given that even the best studies, experiments, surveys and analyses often tell only part of the story. They have an intuitive sense of when the law of diminishing returns has been reached on data collection, and are able to make decisions with incomplete information.
- Has customer empathy: A good product manager is able to and is passionate about assessing the customer journey — identifying frictions, mental models, behaviors, shifting expectations, etc.
- (Implicit) Leadership & Influence: She has the ability to influence rather than rely on direct authority, exhibiting implicit leadership. She develops credibility within the organization—with direct reports/extended team, colleagues, manager, partners, and grounds her point of view in quantitative and qualitative data. She has the ability to articulate her point of view and defend it, maintaining a logical (vs. emotional) debate — passion notwithstanding. When acting in the best spirit of her colleagues and customers, she leads with action and asks for forgiveness in the event of mistakes rather than waiting for permission and expects others to do the same also.
- Adaptable and Agile: She embraces constraints — believing that many of the world’s most creative solutions have arisen out of deep constraints that would have been paralyzing to many others. She understands the paradox of choice and knows that open-ended statements like ‘We could do anything’ can be counterproductive. She is able to nimbly respond to changing circumstances and take advantage of emerging opportunities.
Jennifer Yang, the instructor for the course, was thrilled to bring an expert-in-the-field into the classroom. When asked about what she hoped the students would takeaway from the guest lecture, Jennifer shared, “The combination of technology, marketing and leadership is powerful. We work to develop students that are prepared to make positive impacts in their fields and in society.”
About Janel Wellborn
Janel is a senior-level business leader with a passion for helping people be more effective at what they do — at the individual, team & organizational levels. She specializes in training & coaching product managers and digital leaders. She has 20 years of experience (across retail, travel and banking industries), specific expertise in digital & omnichannel, with proven leadership abilities in strategic planning, change management, operational effectiveness, organizational & process optimization, marketing, technology delivery. Connect with Janel.
Written by Ashley Villanueva