I’m often asked by in both formal and informal discussions whether I think that Product Managers are stuck in whatever industry they start in, and if not how to break into a new one. And through all the years of having these discussions I’ve determined that the vast majority of the skills that make someone a great Product Manager are entirely portable between companies, products, and industries. You can learn a new product pretty easily, assuming that you have an organization with a good onboarding process. You can learn the market pretty quickly, assuming that the company has some internal experts already there to learn from. And you can learn the politics of the organization by just paying a small iota of attention in your first 30-60 days in the organization. None of those things are directly determinative of success as a Product Manager — what is determinative is the soft skills that you bring along with you, your approaches to problem solving and consensus-building. To that end, here are three key skills that any Product Manager should leverage no matter where they are and no matter where they want to go.
This is going to sound weird, but hear me out — you don’t have to know your customer well to have passion for their needs and problems — in fact, being too familiar with your customer can be far more of a liability than an asset. Some of the best Product Managers I’ve trained and worked with didn’t start out on Day One with some deep understanding of their customers — but they did start out as strong advocates for understanding the customer, defining and refining the problems they face, and focusing solely on the problems that were valuable to the customer and not just an internal stakeholder with an opinion. Having a true customer passion goes beyond just knowing who they are and what they’re doing; it goes beyond knowing your market and understanding how to position your product. True customer passion is a constant driving force within you to go out of the four walls of your office and figure out what the customer’s problems are from their own mouths. True customer passion is knowing that the problems that they tell you they have aren’t the ones they really need solving. True customer passion is entirely about knowing how to avoid the “faster horse” problem and get to the root cause of the problems so that you can innovate and delight, not just evolve and satisfy.
Perhaps one of the most portable skills that any PM can build up is an understanding of how the overall Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC) works. Now, I’m not talking about the specific implementation that your current company has adopted, which is likely some strange bastardization of Agile, Scrum, Kanban, and Waterfall, mixed in a blender and shaken, then strained into the organization like a bottom-shelf martini. No, I’m talking about the conceptual model of how SDLC works and how it should work. As Product Managers, we often have insight into how the sausage is being made (I promise, no more food metaphors). We get to see all the dirty, nasty, nitty-gritty details of how our product ideas get bent, twisted, broken, and reanimated as they go through the process. And that insight can allow us to see what’s working and what’s not working — which is an essential skill when you move into a new context. As the “new eyes” in the organization, you have about a 90-day window to identify what the company’s doing that you know is going to cause problems, because you’ve seen it before. And you can use that experience, and that exposure, to position yourself to suggest changes that can have an immediate impact. The more companies you work at, the greater the variety of these key indicators you’ll build, and it will eventually become more of a matrix than a checklist — when I see X, Y, and Z together, but not with A and B, that’s been a problem…but if A or B are there, X, Y, and Z work fine. The more you refine your understanding of the process as a theoretical construct, in addition to the practical application thereof, the more likely you’re going to be able to start hitting the ground running even if you know nothing about the product or the market.
Leading Through Influence
Lastly, and my personal favorite portable skill, is your ability to lead through influence. This skill develops entirely independent of your product and market knowledge; it exists as a function of how you do your job and not what job you happen to be doing. I first learned how to lead through influence when I was working as a support lead — it had nothing to do with product. I figured out, rather quickly, that I could get things done a lot faster by building social capital in the organization, providing people with assistance and favors (within reason), and ensuring that there was mutual trust and respect between me and the people I worked with. I could get the dev teams engaged on customer issues by doing basic repro steps and documenting them well; I could get feature requests expedited by making sure that the quality of what I sent to PM was high and actionable; I made friends in marketing so that I could see drafts of communications to customers before they went out, rather than only finding out what we told them via a phone call from an angry customer. None of this was originally learned in Product Management but all of it made me a far better Product Manager and a more attractive candidate when the position opened up. Understanding the value of building up social capital, of spending it wisely, and of building relationships built on mutual trust and respect (even if you don’t like someone) is perhaps the most portable and useful Product Management skill of them all.