Here's what a good product manager looks like

A good product manager embodies certain key attributes – among them, the capacity to think big, a good grasp of customer needs, taking ownership, excellent communication skills, and the ability to take everybody along.
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After my last post on the role of a product manager, I was thinking what could be the next topic to keep the conversation going. I thought writing about the traits required to be a successful product manager would be a good logical extension primarily because of two reasons:

  • This will help people who are aspiring to be a product manager assess their personality for the role
  • People who are starting their career in product management would be naturally good with some of these traits. They can work on others right from the beginning and start displaying them in order to thrive in their role as product managers

This post is not about interview preparation for the role of product manager. It is mostly focused on what is required to prosper in this role.

Think big

A good product manager has a very clear vision about his/her product. The delta between where the product is and where a good PM wants it to be is really huge.

There is a clear long-term roadmap for the product and it makes perfect sense to invest and build teams and at times companies for product execution.

Thinking big and having a clear vision doesn’t imply that you have each and every detail about all the features you will be building. It is completely fine to be flexible on the details and work these out basis available resources, constraints, time to market, external signals, etc., as you travel this road.

You can assess yourself on this trait by trying to answer the vision/long-term roadmap question about the product you own. In case you are not a product manager yet, you can try answering the same question for your favourite product or a problem area about which you are really passionate. For example, if you really like using WhatsApp and you are a power user of the product, given an opportunity where would you like to take this product in the next three years?

Product thinking

While having a long-term vision (or thinking big) applies to other domains or departments also in the organisation, product thinking is what really makes product managers special.

Once you have a long-term vision or a well-defined problem statement, there are multiple ways to solve it.

For example, if you want to solve the problem of commuting, there are ways to solve it. You can hire operators who can take bookings using phone calls some ‘X’ hours in advance. They can maintain spreadsheets of booking requests and driver availability and match them manually. They can accordingly then either confirm or reject the booking in some time. The alternate solution could be a product solution like the cab aggregators (Ola/Uber) you use today.

Now I am not trying to say that one should not try finding low cost ways to validate their hypothesis like the operators’ solution described above. Nor am I stating that one should go to the market only after building a full-fledged end product equivalent to the present state of cab aggregators.

The point I am trying to make is that product managers think of the product that solves their problem statements which are scalable, largely automated and easy to use by leveraging technology. To build on the commute example, a product manager will think of available technology and signals like GPS in phones, Google Maps, etc., which already exist and try putting them together to solve the problem.

Know your customers

Steve Jobs said, “Some people say give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

I completely agree with this quote but it is often misrepresented. The sentiment here is that we can’t just ask for what customers want as they don’t always know how to articulate it. But there is huge value in understanding your customers.

A good product manager understands the pulse of the customers. If you recall from the last article, a product manager is at the intersection of different functions (engineering, design and business). In his/her interactions with other functions, he/she presents the customer’s point of view (POV).

The better the understanding of the customer, the more accurate is the customer’s POV presented by the product manager.

No ego

The role of a product manager doesn’t have well-defined boundaries. During the implementation phase, certain tasks might emerge which don’t have predefined owners. Under unfortunate but not uncommon circumstances, it is the product manager who has to own these tasks. Most of these tasks could be highly operational in nature and could force you to think if it is your job or not.

A good product manager rolls up his sleeves and either owns these tasks or tries to find suitable owners for them. Either ways, he/she doesn’t leave such tasks hanging in the middle.

A good product manager ducks underneath the feeling that his/her job was done when he/she handed over the requirements to engineering for execution.

Another aspect to this trait is truth seeking. When a good product manager enters into any discussion, his/her focus is on accuracy over confirmation. He/she is comfortable in getting challenged on his/her beliefs and is willing to consider alternative hypotheses from a diverse set of stakeholders.

The last but not least aspect of this trait is accepting failure of the product/feature. If the feature didn’t work, a good product manager would be interested in the learnings to iterate and win in future rather than getting emotionally attached to his/her product and try putting it forcefully in the win bucket.

Excellent communication skills

A good product manager has both excellent written and oral communication skills. Product managers have to author critical documents like product pitch, roadmap, product requirement document, standard operating procedures, etc.

These documents are consumed by partners and stakeholders across the organisation and are considered as the source of truth.

A product manager should thus be writing these comprehensive documents in a very structured format which are easy to consume by a diverse set of audience across all levels in the organisation. It is not always about writing these lengthy documents. Depending on the stage in the product life cycle and the process followed in the organisation, a product manager could be writing small user stories and hypotheses. Still the content should be comprehensive and easily understandable by different stakeholders.

Oral communication is required to align a diverse set of stakeholders with your product vision, debate alternate hypotheses when people with beliefs different from yours are present in the room, communicate the progress status and results, and a lot of day-to-day things.

Ownership

A good product manager understands that he/she is the master of his/her own destiny. The journey of product ideation, implementation, launch, adoption, feedback and iteration has roadblocks at every step.

The roadblocks could be in terms alignment, finding product solution, resourcing and/or prioritisation.

A good product manager understands that while most of these problems are not his/her fault, they are his/her responsibility. He/she needs to make choices at every step and solve these problems.

In case of alignment issues, a good product manager keeps going back with precedence, new data points, customer research, competitor scanning, etc. to align diverse stakeholders.

When constrained with resourcing constraints, he/she makes a strong case on return of investment and/or tries to find other teams in the organisation who are also interested in solving the same problem statement and have resources to spare.

In short, a good product manager not only owns the product but also the problems which are in the way of making the product vision a reality.

Good at marketing

A good product manager is also good at marketing which is required at every step of product development.

An organisation is juggling a lot of problem statements. It is thus important to market your product vision or problem statement you intend to solve to get it prioritised.

Your partners like engineering and design want to contribute to something meaningful given the limited time and resources available for everyone. Therefore, it is important to market the proposed product solution as well (why the proposed solution is the best solution for the identified problem statement).

Once the product is live and you have the results, it is about marketing the impact which the product has created. Celebrating success gives a sense of fulfilment to everyone who contributed to product development in one way or the other.

It also helps build your credibility for future partnerships.

Being good at marketing, also helps product managers contribute effectively during the product design phase and the post go-live phase (adoption phase) as they can make a good pitch to the customers to try their features/products across all touch points.

Conclusion

I have tried to list down a few traits which I have seen in good product managers in my journey so far. Needless to say that the list is only indicative and not exhaustive. Of course, to be a successful product manager, hard skills like data and technology understanding, business acumen and user experience design are also required.

But soft skills which I have focused on in this post contribute a significant portion of the recipe to be a good product manager. And most of them can be acquired through practise, mentorship and the right mindset.

I wish you all the traits of a good product manager.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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