How to be a Great Product Manager (PM)

Aug 24, 2021

9 Min Read

“What is the role of a product manager?” is a frequently asked question.

When evaluating a role, an aspiring product manager should consider three primary factors:

  • Interpersonal skills.
  • Business strategies.
  • Firm fit.

Interpersonal skills

As a good product manager, you need a basic understanding of customer interviews. The best product managers can communicate with customers, are tuned into their body language and emotions, and cleverly figure out the problem areas that the product or feature will alleviate. In addition, a product manager with high interpersonal skills has meaningful partnerships within their organization and a keen sense of how to navigate internal and external hurdles to deliver a great product.

As a product manager, you need to have the following key traits:

Relationship management

As a product manager, you need to be able to manage relationships. The best product managers inspire people and help them reach their full potential by building authentic and trusting relationships with internal and external stakeholders. When a product manager is tasked with balancing customers’ needs, resource-constrained engineering teams, and the company’s revenue goals, relationship management is also essential for successful negotiation, resolving conflicts, and working together toward a shared goal. 

Trusting relationships within an organization can lead to more support when:

  • Additional funding is needed for a product.
  • An engineer needs to be persuaded to include a quick bug fix in the following sprint.
  • A customer needs convincing to beta test a new feature for early feedback. 

They can also be the difference between angry customers who complain about a bug in the product and those who say, “don’t worry, we know you’ll fix it.”

Self-awareness

Product managers must be aware of themselves and avoid projecting their preferences onto their customers to remain objective. “False-positive feature validation” occurs when product managers fall in love with a feature because it addresses their pain points. If a product manager is not self-aware, they may insist on prioritizing a feature they came up with, despite customer interviews and other evidence being against it.

This lack of self-awareness may jeopardize more important priorities or harm the product manager’s relationship with engineers, who may lose faith in their product manager if users do not widely adopt the feature.

Self-management

Managing products and teams can be highly stressful. The CEO wants one thing, the engineering team wants something else, and customers have their own opinions about what features are most important to them.

Managing deadlines, revenue targets, market demands, priority conflicts, and resource constraints simultaneously requires a lot of energy and focus. Product managers who cannot control their emotions and remain calm under pressure risk losing the trust of their stakeholders. With urgency but without panic or stress, the best product managers know how to push for the right priorities. Product managers are also aware of when to take a break and regroup.

Social Awareness

Below are the qualities associated with good social awareness:

  • Empathy
  • Organizational awareness
  • Service

Product managers must understand customers’ emotions and concerns about the products they use in the same way that sales teams should know whom they’re selling to. From obtaining budget and staffing to securing a top engineer to work on their product, product managers must understand how the organization operates and build social capital to influence their product’s success.

Social awareness ensures that the best product managers provide their customers with a product that meets their needs, eventually, drivings product-market fit.

Business Strategies

Business strategies can be discovered in the classroom, but most are from a product manager’s experience, inspiration, and mentorship. Some examples of these areas of expertise are listed below:

  •  Feature prioritization and road map planning
  •  The art of resource allocation
  •  Conducting market analyses
  •  Translating business-to-technical requirements and vice versa
  •  Defining and tracking success metrics
  •  Pricing and revenue modeling

These primary activities are the foundation for any product manager, and the best product managers hone these skills over years of describing, creating, and iterating on products. It is a strength of these product managers to reflect on how each of these competencies has contributed to the success or failure of their products and to continually adapt their approach based on customer preferences.

Firm Fit

Is it true that the most successful product managers have well-developed core competencies and a high EQ, regardless of where they work? No, it’s not required. Indeed, applying these skills and personality traits to the right company will lead to success in the end.

A product manager’s identity is determined by factors such as a company’s size and industry and the type of product and stage of development. High emotional intelligence would help any product manager, but core competencies may differ depending on the company. For example, some companies may need someone who has a background in consumer products, whereas others may require expertise in fintech.

Technical Ability

How technical a product manager needs to depend on the type of product, who uses it, and the type of company. Google, for example, requires product managers to pass a technical skills test, regardless of the product on which they’ll be working at any given time. It’s more important to have experience with go-to-market and customer lifecycles when building a piece of software for consumers. 

It may require more technical knowledge to build a data science product with machine learning algorithms and APIs and communicate effectively with customers who will use it. Any product manager will benefit from a basic technical understanding of what’s going on inside, as well as familiarity with the tools that product managers employ. Online courses from a well-respected institution may be an option if you’re interested in becoming a product manager but are concerned that you lack the basic tech skills required for the position.

The View from a Company

A product manager’s role in the product development process varies depending on the company.

Below are the three most common types, with benefits and risks:

PM Guides Engineering Work

Product managers collect data, write the essential product requirements document, and hand it off to engineering for technical specifications. The process may be more agile and collaborative in today’s organizations. Still, the intention is that product managers know best what consumers need, and engineering is there to execute in this regard. 

Benefits

Waterfall Product Management shops with long life cycles tend to benefit from this because engineering can focus on coding without much distraction. 

Risks

A poor user experience can result in engineers losing sight of the big picture and not developing empathy for customers. When technical debt and “plumbing” work take precedence over customer requirements, there are often unhealthful tensions. 

Engineering Drives the Product Development

Companies that are more technically oriented (cloud, big data, networking) are more likely to be engineering-driven, with engineers advancing the science in their domain and product managers validating solutions or creating front-end access points (UI, APIs) to tap into modern technology. Of course, product managers and engineers can work together, but product managers are serving engineering in these companies most of the time. 

Benefits

This route could provide customers with services they didn’t even know they wanted. When it came to virtualization, VMware’s VMotion was an excellent example. A product manager figured out how to advertise it, and it turned out to be a billion-dollar game-changer for the business.

Risks

Prior to customer feedback, engineers chase shiny new things, over-architect the solution, or iterate endlessly in pursuit of perfection. Product managers sometimes, the most basic customer needs are ignored. 

When Product and Engineering Work in Partnership

Between product managers and engineers, there is a strong balance of opposing forces, with joint discovery and decision-making, and shared accountability. To unblock tasks or clarify requirements, engineers participate in customer interviews with product managers.

Nevertheless, the two roles respect the boundary that separates them. Engineering has empathy for customer needs but leaves prioritization to product managers, who understand what’s being coded, but don’t tell engineers how to code.

Benefits

Technical debt and plumbing projects are given higher priority in a streamlined prioritization process. Design processes are improved, resulting in a better user experience. 

Risks

Innovations that represent a breakthrough may not be approved, and the time to market may appear to be delayed. However, sometimes taking risks is far more in line with customer needs and more likely to scale successfully than anything else released.

Compared to the other two, the third philosophy about product managers is the most effective. Although not all of them are particularly bad, it all depends on what type of product you’re building, where your company is in its development cycle, and more. No matter what, the company’s product managers’ philosophy could be the deciding factor in whether or not a candidate is right for the job.

The Company’s Stage

When working for a startup, the product manager is likely to be responsible for “everything,” whereas, at a mature company, their responsibilities will be more clearly delineated.

Listed below are the various roles with their benefits and risks.

Startups

Product managers may be responsible for more than just product discovery, definition, and shipping. They may also be responsible for pricing, marketing, support, and even sales. When working towards product-market fit and learning how to operate at scale, these Product managers thrive in a scrappy environment and are comfortable with uncertainty and frequent changes of direction. 

Benefits

Product managers are more likely to be involved in company strategy, to have access to qualified leadership and the board, to be able to take more risks, and to have a greater impact on the company’s bottom line than other managers. As a result, they have more authority and influence over the company’s financial resources.

Risks

In most companies, there is little to no mentoring, role models, or best practices. You may have to go outside to find it. Typically, budgets are tight, and product managers may not have the necessary experience to be successful in certain areas.

Mature Companies

Pricing, go-to-market strategies, and so on may fall under the purview of the product manager, who coworkers may assist. It is possible that they work as an individual contributor or in a larger team of product managers.

Benefits

Product managers are more likely to have access to mentoring and role models and standards and best practices that have been developed and implemented. Having a close relationship with a team of engineers can lead to long-term benefits and career advancement. If the product is competitive, there is already a customer base and performance baseline to work, rather than relying on guesswork until it is perfect.

Risks

Customers have many different voices, and product managers have less exposure to the company’s strategic direction. As a result, they may become “stuck” and face more politics and tight budgets.

The Founder and the Product Manager

It’s essential to know how involved the founder/CEO/CTO is in the product development process, especially in early-stage companies. If they are deeply involved, the product manager’s role may be more of a support role, fleshing out their ideas or validating concepts with customers, rather than conceiving and driving their ideas. Product managers who enjoy working with founders and C-level executives on the product’s evolution may find this to be a lot of fun. However, it can be frustrating for other product managers if they prefer to take more responsibility for the product’s direction.

Also, it can be a challenge if the more technical founders or executives prefer to work directly with engineers. As a result, product managers may be left out of the loop or have their authority undermined unintentionally, leading to frustration and delays. Look for roles where you’ll be working closely with the founding leadership team to determine if this is the right fit for your interests.

A Few Final Thoughts

Other factors you should consider are the type of product you’re building. Do you want to work on enterprise software or products for consumers? Also, what industries are you interested in? Perhaps you want to combine your love or travel with your product management career. Finally, you should ensure that the product management position you’re aiming for aligns with your values. Make sure a company’s culture and vision match what you want. Don’t forget the basics like salary, benefits, and work/life balance! Think about all of the above before accepting your next job. However, if your goal is to be a great product manager, you will be developing core competencies throughout your career. Long-term success will be determined by where you work, how your coworkers work, who you work with, and who you work for.

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