I’ve always been a big fan of the concept of a “core competency” or “distinctive competency” — the one thing that you, your product, or your company does better than anyone else, and that is difficult to easily replicate. Unfortunately, I find that far too few organizations really understand, at a deep level, what this is — or worse, believe they do but when pressure tested the belief fails to live up to expectations. For some organizations, their core competency is obvious — Amazon has a clear competency in logistics, Zappos has a clear competency in customer service, Google has a clear competency in paid advertising. But for others it’s not so simple. Understanding and being able to articulate your core competencies is essential to success as a Product Manager, and as a product or a company as a whole.
I’ll be attending my second formal training this year, getting my Certified Scrum Master certification to match the Certified Product Manager certification that I picked up earlier this year. After 15 years in the business, you might wonder why I’m just now getting around to being “certified”, and I hate to say it but the real reason is simple — the company I work for is paying for it. Otherwise, I’d happily chug away for another 15 years without any form of certification, because I firmly believe that the experience that I have in transforming companies into agile engines is far more valuable in the abstract than any specific certification that I might collect along the way. But, there are a few times when and where a certification might be worth pursuing…let’s talk about those today.
As a Product Manager, it’s in our bones to always do the best job possible, to deliver the best product possible, and to satisfy the most customers possible. But what if I told you that by always succeeding, we’re actually hampering ourselves? While it might feel good to hit a home run every time you step up to the plate, you’re probably not playing in the right league. It can be easy to fall into a pattern of complacency, of certainty, of feeling invincible because you never miss a swing — but the simple fact is that if you’re never wrong, you’re playing it too safe and you’re limiting yourself to only what you know that you can accomplish. It takes bravery to step outside our comfort zones, to stretch ourselves and test our boundaries, and to try new things that aren’t guaranteed to be winners. In fact, failure is essential to growth not only as a Product Manager but as a person in general — for it is only in failure that we learn from our mistakes and can adjust to ensure that the next stretch, the next test of our abilities, passes with flying colors. If you never fail, you never grow…
It’s far too common in the world of Product Management for us to wind up being narrowly focused on the actual product development cycle – define, build, measure, repeat. But there’s far more to building, launching, and maintaining a successful product than just what goes on between Product Management and Development. The best and most successful Product Managers try to look at the “whole product” and not just one small (though essential) part like the development process. To get the whole picture, we need our eyes, ears, and fingers on the pulse of all the activities that go on around the product — development, sure, but also marketing, sales, support, implementation, services, and anything else that might be considered “product-adjacent”.
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.