Due to the vagaries of how different companies and industries define the role of Product Manager, it’s often a struggle to determine what skills and abilities one must have in order to separate themselves from the crowd. But while the roles may differ, I’m a strong believer that there is a core set of capabilities and competencies that any Product Manager can leverage in order to break from the pack. I’ve captured three of these here for your reading pleasure – if you focus on these areas in your personal and professional development, they will certainly give you the tools that you need to advance as a Product Manager.
The number one thing that separates a “great” Product Manager from a “good” one is likely to surprise a lot of people, because it’s something that we only have indirect control over. But that’s the primary source of a Product Manager’s ability to influence the direction of our product and our strategic direction – we manage through influence, which means that in order to be a truly great Product Manager, we’re going to need to excel at creating and managing our relationships with others in the company.
Having a strong network of relationships both inside and outside the organization is critical to the success of every Product Manager – it is only through these relationships that we can drive things forward. There is almost no Product manager in the entire world who can cover the entire breadth of a product with any level of mastery – from finances to strategy to marketing to sales to development to support to operations to implementation to services…it’s simply too much for any one person to tackle in an organization of any real size and a product of any real complexity. Thus, we build relationships with those people who are actually charged with managing these things, so that we can gain their insights, leverage their strengths, and bolster the weaknesses that they and their teams may have.
The better we are at establishing, maintaining, and growing our relationships with others in our organizations, the better we will all be as Product Managers.
Second to relationships is a natural and honest curiosity, not only about our product and our customers, but about the world around us in general. The absolute best Product Managers that I’ve seen don’t limit themselves to what they see every day, and certainly not to their immediate daily surroundings. They’re open to learning anything and everything they can, about whatever they may encounter that interests them. This is absolutely not about being curious about technology, though technology is certainly one area that it helps to be curious about. The concepts, ideas, and new directions that we come up with can only ever be truly different if they’re informed from different contexts and experiences.
What we do at work is greatly influenced by what we do elsewhere; if we want to change the approaches that we take at work and in our products, we have to start elsewhere first. New concepts, new ideas, and even new problems to solve don’t just appear magically within the four walls of our office – they exist outside our daily context. They exist in new and different experiences. The more you try, the more you test, the more exposure you have, the more interesting and different the ideas you’ll come up with.
Innovation is the result of thinking outside the box – but you can only think outside the box if you take time to exist outside the box.
A lot of people think that Product Managers should have a singular focus – on the customer. While I agree that’s a very important part of being a Product Manager, I think that the reality is that Product Managers need to not only be focused but also to bring focus to whatever they do; and this focus that you bring may or may not be solely focused on the customer. For example, when things are going sideways, and people are responding in an emotionally-charged fashion, Product Managers bring focus to the table by obtaining objective data with which they can drive the organization to focus on the rational circumstances rather than the irrational reactions that can make us randomized and lose track of what’s really important.
When bringing focus, it’s also important to make sure that we’re bringing the right focus to the table – and this is where the customer must always come first. And that will make you a pretty good Product Manager, focusing on the customer. What makes a great Product Manager is knowing which customer to focus on and when it’s more appropriate to focus on an aggregate view of the customer and when it’s important to focus on the needs of an individual customer. This is where the ability to balance out your short-term needs and long-term goals allows you to separate yourself from the pack.
It’s not enough just to be focused as a Product Manager, we need to have the ability to bring focus to our organization and our teams when they need it most.