Product Manager Skills – What Makes a Product Manager Great?

What are some Product Manager skills that separate the “ok” from the “great”?

This was a question I had to ask myself when asked to join the Product Team for a major corporation. What did I have to change? Good question right? Have you ever asked yourself what will you have to change when growing in your career? I am sure we have all faced this question at some point.

In my case, I didn’t think I had much changing to do. Here is why:

  • The person who asked me to join the product team was fully aware of my skills.
  • I had already been communicating with customers/users frequently, getting an understanding of users’ pain points with the use of all products (or, so I thought).
  • Troubleshooting was part of my daily routine, along with gathering data for the support tracking system to provide to the Product Team.
  • I routinely worked closely with PM and Dev teams to describe problem defects and set priorities for “fix”.
  • I’d created a learning path between the product and the support team.

So, you see, what more did I need to change right?

Learn from my mistakes

As it turned out, being a Product Manager (PM) takes so much more than what I’d imagined. I’m happy to share some of my experiences.

Incident 1: Wrong priorities

I was excited to roll my sleeves up and use some of the knowledge I obtained from managing tech support. With some of the issues raised from customer calls within technical support, and now being in a position of change, I went to my director and said…. and I quote, “Hey, we have an item that I am aware is a big issue that keeps getting reported as a problem.”

My director gave me this bewildered look and said, “Okay, what’s the problem and why do you feel it’s such a big issue?”

Then, we were exchanging bewildered looks. In my new PM mind, I had been thinking, ‘I know the problem, a ton of users have been calling in about the same issue, I know it’s a bug and we should fix it now.’

So, that’s what I told my director.

She still looked perplexed.

What were some of the key things that I’d overlooked as a Product Manager?

  1. I had not been thinking strategically at all. Not looking at the big picture. I’d only focused on a specific item to get resolved instead of how this one item would impact the overall customer base and product.
  2. We had a workaround that could have been applied. This item could have been placed in the backlog to get assessed and prioritized at a later date.
  3. There was no data to support my thought of this being such a big issue. I was only concerned about the volume of calls coming through technical support. Which in reality, wasn’t that many.

After a few more incidents like the story above, I thought I was skilled and ready to be great. I was wrong. This next incident showed me that I had grown but there was still plenty of room for improvement.

Incident 2: Too far in the weeds

I was feeling more confident. I had been attending my ceremonies, stepping up, and collaborating with the team. I was presenting my roadmap and having great discussions about the direction of my products when this happened.

I needed to work with the architect to get an understanding of the feasibility of change within my product suite. Does it make sense to do? Can we do it, technically? What is the effort?

Instead of leaving that on the table with the Dev team to figure out, I joined in the technical talk.

Soon after, I was so far in the weeds trying to figure out the “how”, other items on my plate were falling off and I had not been keeping up with my responsibilities. There was no updated roadmap, the sprints were empty, and the backlog was not prioritized.

My director asked me about the status of some of the PM responsibilities and my response was, “I’ve been busy trying to figure out how to resolve this mission-critical item.”

Here is that bewildered look again.

The director and I had a very brief discussion, during which he asked me one question. “Do you want to learn the business or go back to technical support?”

What is a Product Manager?

As a Product Manager, my focus should only be on the Who and the What; the How is always left up to the development team.

By definition, a Product Manager is a professional who oversees the development of a product or service. We are normally responsible for guiding a cross-functional team to create, develop, and implement a product.

So, there is a lot that comes with the term Product Manager. Building a product management skillset goes beyond just knowing everything there is to know about my product.

Product Manager skills I needed to develop

So, how was I able to stay in Product? I had to learn and apply specific skills.

Some of these are skills we use in our day-to-day lives, but then forget when we should apply strategically and tactically to Product.

Here are some of the Product Management skills needed to be great:

  • Business acumen and industry insight
  • Strategic thinking
  • General understanding of data
  • Great communication
  • Thick skin and firm decision making
  • Active listening
  • Cross functionality
  • Being a product evangelist and a great storyteller

Business acumen and industry insight

A great Product Manager must have a clear understanding of the competition. This goes beyond knowledge of just the competitors’ features and technical capabilities. The Product Manager will need to become familiar with their target audience, understand the key differentiators, and most of all, the competitors’ overall business model.

In some cases, a PM should understand projected revenue so they can make a case for a product development budget.

Strategic thinking

A great PM must think about the future of a product or service, work with roadmaps, and drive product growth. This is one of the skills I lacked when I fell into Incident 1 above.

General understanding of data

A great PM must also know what data can be pulled to make better product decisions, and how to translate large data initiatives into small actionable items. This would have also aided me in avoiding Incident 1 as pulling the customer service data would have shown me that the issue I perceived as a priority was not so vital a fix at all.

Great communication

Product Managers spend much of the day interacting with other people, both individually and in groups. There are

  • Product meetings and events (daily scrums, sprint planning, backlog refinement, UI/UX, sprint reviews, etc)
  • Presentations to the business stakeholders to keep them informed of the direction of the product or service
  • Communicating with clients on their goals and expectations

Product professionals regularly need to speak or write in a way that conveys their objectives and priorities in an easy-to-understand manner. PMs must also frequently communicate with their teams to provide direction and guidance and ensure product development is on the right track. Without excellent communication skills, product managers won’t be able to effectively perform many of their duties.

Active listening

This skill goes hand-in-hand with great communication, but it deserves its own focus.

The great PM must listen to the team but also the users. Hear the users’ pain points, opportunities for feature requests, and needs. Within the teams, crisis or conflict management requires listening, acknowledging, and identifying the root causes of issues.

Active listening requires effort and practice. In many cases, the key to success is simply listening without responding or preparing a response.

A thick skin and firm decision making

All decisions made by the Product Manager may not always sit well with others. However, the PM must be able to accept harsh criticism and feedback without backing down (assuming, of course, the PM has thoroughly vetted options and is confident in the decision).

At times they may have to say no. When this happens, they must remember not to take any resulting backlash personally. Sometimes a no can be masked with “it’s in the backlog.” But, in some cases, the “no” needs to remain firm and final.

Cross functionality

“Jack of all trades, master of none” isn’t complimentary, and shouldn’t be the goal of a Product Manager. However, PMs need to have strong working knowledge in most, if not all, of the skills required within their teams. They need to speak intelligently and make decisions based on a strong foundation of knowledge.

In many cases, great PMs learn as they go, always taking advantage of learning opportunities by working closely with their teams as time permits.

Being a product evangelist and a great storyteller

Being an effective storyteller will be the defining factor determining whether a product will be well received by the users or not.

To tell a great story, the PM will have to know their audience (internal and external users). Ultimately if the PM can tell the product story in such a way that everyone can understand what they are trying to accomplish and why, there should be no issue garnering support.

A great PM will be the evangelist, the person who can speak on behalf of a product because they believe in the product and the benefits users can receive.

While this is an extensive list of necessary skills, most Product Managers are already proficient in most, if not all, of them. Honing those skills through conscious daily application is what will make a good PM great.

What happened during my Product journey?

My growing pains taught me how to become a great PM. I had been learning how to change my mindset from tech to business, to understand more of the competitors, who my target audience was, and what and why I was building for this audience.

I was initially clueless about how to obtain data to support product business decisions. But, I learned with experience and can honestly say I continue to succeed in this role.

If you’re looking to enter the product space, or you’re already a PM but know you can improve, you can set yourself apart as a great Product Manager by honing in on and developing the skills mentioned above.

Never stop learning. You’ll need to develop and sharpen your skills constantly to keep up with changing consumer needs and demands. It’s challenging work, but if you’re a Product Manager, you clearly love a challenge, otherwise, you wouldn’t be in this field, to begin with.

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Shontese McBride, Product Coach
Shontese McBride, Product Coach