The question of what makes a good Product Manager seems to be a strongly recurring theme throughout the world of those who are interested in becoming Product Managers, those who already practice the craft, and even those who must work with us on a daily basis or have to hire on a Product Manager to fill a gap that they’ve identified in their organization. The reasons are varied, but one constant source of such questions is the simple fact that there is not one reliable, solid, generally-accepted definition of the role of a Product Manager. Rather, organizations play with the title and assign what seems like a random set of responsibilities to anyone willing to put the “Product Manager” hat on.
However, I’m a firm believer that there is a core set of skills, abilities, and talents that can make anyone a successful Product Manager, no matter what company they find themselves in and no matter what title the actual role has. Here are four of those attributes that any successful Product Manager needs to have…
A Fanatical Devotion to the Customer
The single most important attribute of any Product Manager worthy of the title is a fanatical devotion to the customer (and no, we’re not talking about Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition). The customer, and more specifically the end-user, should be the North Star for whatever a Product Manager does, says, plans, or thinks about. If you can’t position something in terms of ROI for the end user, it’s probably not going to wind up worth doing — including architectural work. Further, framing things in terms of the benefits or drawbacks from the view of the end user defuses and diffuses the egos involved in any discussion — it reframes the discussion so that people aren’t thinking about themselves and their own goals, but rather about the goals, interests, and needs of the user who probably isn’t in the room. It forces people to reposition their asks and answers in terms that they might not be quite as comfortable with — but which truly do reflect the needs of the product and of the market.
Of course, you don’t buy the ability to be the customer’s advocate by sitting in the four walls of your office and imagining what it’s like to be your end user, or your buyer, or your prospects. You have to get out into the market and meet these people. You need to make connections so that you can call on people when you need just one actual customer testimonial to back your moves or to fend off the baseless moves of others. To be devoted to the customer, you have to actually know the customer — and to know the customer, you have to engage with them on a regular basis. People who are able to work their way into Sales calls, quarterly client account reviews, or even conventions and conferences, are those who do extremely well as Product Managers. They’re able to build a solid community of users against whom they can bounce ideas and concepts, and who will provide the Product Manager with the data (both qualitative and quantitative) to build the respect of others in the organization.
The Power to Facilitate Effectively
Aside from advocating for the customer, the buyer, and the market, the primary job duties of a Product Manager on a day-to-day basis require a massive amount of facilitation. You need to manage inputs from the field, from the support team, and from the management team; you need to ensure that the work that the developers are doing is the work that you and they agreed that they would do for the iteration; you need to understand the marketing calendar and work to ensure that the collateral being generated is as accurate and reflective of the intended future as possible; you need to prioritize issues being reported from internal folks, the field, and the customers; and you need to do all of that through collaboration with others. The only way that one can do this effectively, efficiently, and on a daily basis, is by honing their skills related to facilitation. You simply can’t afford to be in a pointless meeting as a Product Manager — and if there’s no agenda, or there’s no goal, it’s up to you to make that happen. If nobody’s taking notes or writing up on the whiteboard, you have to step up and be the one to do it. If there’s nobody laying out next steps, future deliverables, or creating a checkpoint to ensure forward progress, you have to be the one to do it. When the meeting starts to go off-track and tangents start to flow like a river out of a mountain valley, you have to be the “bad guy” to bring people back on task.
Effective facilitation is a really hard skill to practice and to hone, primarily because at the beginning you’re going to be really bad at it and wind up pissing people off. That’s okay, though — figure out what you did wrong and try to adjust for it next time. Facilitation is primarily the art of making sure that everyone’s interested and involved, that people are staying on-topic, and that the group is driving toward some defined goal. It’s a soft-skill ability that many people don’t really understand or practice — too many people just assume that if you get 10 people in a room for an hour, something valuable is going to come out of that room. But we all know that’s simply not the case. It takes the right amount of prodding and poking and mis-/re-direction to ensure that meetings are valuable uses of time — and as a Product Manager, this will be your day-to-day world. Make the best of it, and people will look forward to your meetings rather than dreading them.
A Humanizing Trait Called “Humility”
Some of the worst Product Managers that I’ve had the (dis)pleasure to work with have been those who assert their knowledge and understanding of the customer, the market, and the product as the only perspective that matters. They claim to be “experts” in the field even though they spend less than 25% of their time actually engaging with customers and prospects. They eschew the feedback from Sales as “only focused on the next deal”, or marketing as “just putting lipstick on a pig”, or even their development teams as “code monkeys”. And, invariably, they fail.
Don’t be that Product Manager. Ever. We all have limits to our knowledge, our skills, and our abilities — and a good Product Manager knows and understands where those limits lie, and works within them, obtaining the counsel and advice of others when issues or questions arise that require further information and investigation. A good Product Manager is willing to say, “I don’t know but I’ll go find out,” when faced with a tough or interesting question from the management team, or the support team, or their development team. A good Product Manager shows an interest in learning and expanding their knowledge and understanding about everything from the fundamental architecture of the product to the balance sheets of the organization. It’s amazing how strong a rapport you can build with people and teams just by asking them to tell you something about how they do their daily work or why it’s important. It’s amazing how much goodwill a Product Manager gains by thanking the Dev team for all their hard work after a successful product launch or taking the knocks when something doesn’t turn out as expected. Humility is one of the keys to effective Product Management, and one that we often fail hard without.
Become the Corporate Polyglot
Good Product Managers really are a hub around which the other functions of the organization rotate — which means that to be effective, you’ve got to talk the talk as well as you walk the walk. This means understanding at a very deep level what the motivations are for each of your stakeholder teams (and sometimes even individual stakeholders), and positioning your talking points with each of them so that you’re speaking their language. Start talking about NoSQL, PHP, and indexes to a marketing team, and you’ll see their eyes glaze over and their fingers immediately start typing on the laptops open in front of them. Switch that up to talk about being able to scale up for large customers, having a flexible and open framework that partners can connect to, and providing fast and efficient feature improvements, and you’ll see the opposite happen. Every stakeholder that you deal with has a different set of knowledge, capabilities, and motivations that you simply must cater to in order to build trust, respect, and rapport. You cannot afford to assume any level of understanding of technical issues by non-technical stakeholders, just as you probably wouldn’t expect your developers to fully grok what EBIDTA is and how it’s calculated. The best Product Managers have learned to be corporate polyglots — and are constantly able to adjust their vocabulary, even within a meeting with multiple stakeholders at the table.