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15 Expert Tips on the Skills and Mindset of a Successful Product Manager

April 26, 2016

The product manager job is quite a  new distinction in the work force, even among companies with established Information Technology departments.

In many ways, the Product Manager is the odd sheep in the flock.

Whereas the Product Manager usually sits within the marketing organization, he or she will manage developers, business analysts, user experience architects, designers and other resources which lie outside of the PM’s department.

We’ve asked 15 leading experts in the field of product management for their input into what skills – soft and hard – people in this role should have.

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We wanted to understand what success looks like for product managers.

How can we define the perfect fit for someone in this role?

This is critical, not just for ensuring that you hire the right people with the appropriate sets of skills, but also to understand exactly what mindset a product person should have when coming to work every morning. Or even what keeps product managers up at night, if you will.

The people we reached out to are industry leading experts that have proven to be able to successfully manage product strategies at scale.

As you go through their answers you will not only see how diverse each of their understanding of the role is, but also just how high the bar has been set for a person in this position.

 

Todd Koehler

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  1. Self starter / task master – You need to make it happen, and most of the time you are on your own.  Given the tremendous amount of influences you need to work with on a daily basis, it is very easy to get sidetracked with concerns, but staying above the noise is key to launching your product in a reasonable timeframe.  Also, the outside influencers you need to work with each day don’t share the same enthusiasm as you, and a good chunk of your day is simply spent wrangling all parties to drive consensus.
  2. Discipline – As a product person, you must have a structured approach to your day or else you will be a victim of reacting to only your very busy calendar.
  3. People person – A successful Product Manager is someone who can work well with others across a wide spectrum of personalities and disciplines.  If you can’t get along with others and be able to influence them to a common goal, you will fail.  When I hire, this is the most important trait that I look for in a candidate.
  4. Creativity – When defining requirements from such a large group of influences, creativity is key to figuring out the overall product strategy, and more importantly, getting others to understand and follow you.  Defining your product plan requires the PDM to create ENGAGING PowerPoints, drawings, UX, etc. documents that ultimately sell the experience to a large team for acceptance.  I put “engaging” in all caps due to how important it is to succinctly deliver your experience/message to a group.
  5. Focus on goals – good PDMs obsess about KPIs.  There are a lot of metrics to concern yourself with, but at the end of the day, key performance indicators are the metrics your company will use to judge your effectiveness.
  6. Thick Skin – Given the many influences you need to work with each day, you are bound to have disagreements, and not everyone will be happy.  Having thick skin allows you to stay focused on the task vs. getting involved with disagreements along the way.

Pranjal Bora

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I consider a highly effective Product Manager to be one who owns a metaphorical closet full of hats.

These hats are that of a Salesperson, Business Analyst, Quality Analyst, User Experience Architect, Designer, Architect, Project Manager – you name it.

My reason for believing this is that a Product Manager wears the Leadership hat most of the time, but should have the ability to communicate with the different teams that constitute the ecosystem of product development with equal ease.

A Product Manager should be at ease discussing product development and implementation with the technical teams as easily as s(he) discusses product strategy with the business stakeholders. While coding is not necessarily a needed skill, understanding the logic is important; while writing test scripts may not be a critical skill, understanding the test plan surely is. Same goes for understanding information architecture, design language etc. But most of all, I consider the foremost skill required to be leadership.

Seeing the big picture, removing hurdles, guiding the team, helping them see the end goal of a product and following each member to help address their individual responsibilities is what makes a Product Manager good at his/her job.

 

Taryn Cahill

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As a product manager you are constantly performing research, interviewing users, and testing everything possible to bring your product to the next level.

Internal feedback (or beta testing) usually gives product managers the opportunity to tweak and perfect any product to achieve as flawless a release as possible.

 

Surbhi Gupta

surbhi_gupta

Product Management is research driven. Consumers have opinions. Users generally don’t know what they really need. A PM has to distinguish User needs from User wants. As Design thinkers, we have to do the Disruptive Innovation to redefine existing consumer behaviors or to create new ones. To create simple and logical features, there is lot of thought and work behind design. A great product design is based on the greatest insights.

Michael Reddy

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With this in mind, a person must have certain skills to be successful in this role:

  1. Strategic: A great product manager must be able to think strategically, be in touch with product management trends and industry trends, and be able to create the product roadmap.
  2. Leadership: A product manager is responsible for leading the team to create successful products. A product manager gets the most out of the team by inspiring them with their vision. In many cases the people on the team don’t report to them, meaning they are following the manager not because they are forced to, but rather because of the manager’s leadership abilities. If you are the product manager, you must be skilled at organizing the team to be as productive as possible: removing roadblocks, setting the right people to be accountable for the right areas, understanding your team’s personal goals, setting clear expectations, and perhaps most importantly, trusting your team.
  3. Empathy for the user: A great product manager can relate to the user of their app  / website. You feel the joy and pain the user feels as they use the app / website. You then translate this into a better product.
  4. Team Player: The product manager must work well with stakeholders, other product managers, and leadership to push the entire product forward. Ability to facilitate and participate in brainstorming with all team members / stakeholders.
  5. Problem Solver: Ability to help the team come up with creative solutions to problems and impediments.
  6. Analytical: A product manager needs to have a keen understanding of their goals, how to measure them, and how to adjust the roadmap according to those goals.
  7. Understanding of each team’s role: Must have some abilities in each area of their team’s responsibilities (UX, Design, Development, QA, Project Management, Analytics, etc.)
  8. Ability to stay out of the weeds: Even though the product manager may have abilities in each area of their team, for the team to be productive the product manager needs to let the right people on the team make the right decisions based on their more in-depth knowledge.
  9. Ability to get into the weeds: There will be times where the team desperately needs the product manager’s help, and that’s when you should step in. Examples: QA, writing test cases, reviewing interactions in QA, etc.

Jamie Norman

jamie_norman

The value in a good Product Manager lies in their decision making and ability to interpret challenges into goals.

Yes, you need some understanding of the principals of code, testing, etc., and you need to have an appreciation for the fundamentals of design.  For example, I could put a website together, but you wouldn’t want me to when there are people that do it all day everyday, with much greater experience.  You need to know enough to understand any problems or challenges (and know when someone is stringing you along), but that’s not where the value is.

A good product Manager can get to the nub of an issue and make a sound judgement on the best route forward.  They have sound strategies for prioritizing what’s important vs. what isn’t worth thinking about (yet).   They need good communication and relationship-building skills in terms of presenting Development to the business, and vice versa. And they must be able to articulate the goals of the business and translate these into an idea the development team can get behind.

 

Greg Kohut

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You know how you determine you’re dealing with a good product manager?

Show the app or mobile web site to a 6th or 7th grade kid. Watch how long it takes for the kid to figure out how to use it. If the kid gets it – you’re in good shape. But if the kid is confused using it, you’ve got a problem.

A great product manager really knows how to come up with and write excellent product requirements. When you use a mobile app you don’t necessarily think that someone needed to craft a set of requirements to tell developers how the product needs to function. Product Managers must distill business requirements from stakeholders — which are often nebulous  into discrete requirements that developers can implement and testers can verify.

Before crafting product requirements, the product manager may need to help stakeholders turn general concepts into business requirements.

 

Stefan Maryniak

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  1. A good product manager is an advocate for the end user, and ensures that they are represented in any product conversations. Know when and how to listen to consumer feedback. KPI’s are good, but so is user testing and speaking to your consumers and understanding the difference between wants and needs.
  2. Understand your market and identify where opportunities for disruption exist.
  3. Be a dreamer. Think outside the box, challenge convention, and always question.
  4. Great Product Managers inspire and provide a very clear vision and strategy for the team.

Lawrence Guzzeta

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Product Managers and engineers need to use the tools they build.

There is no substitute for standing in their users’ moccasins to truly advocate for them during the specification process. If the product manager fully identifies with the user, he or she can pay attention to the details that are required to create an experience that’s so natural and so fluid that the technology itself goes unnoticed.

 

Saurabh Verma

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Consumers often think “adding features” is synonymous with improving the product.

Most people have a ready answer to what should be added to the product to improve it. Not many product managers have the framework to think about what should be removed from a product to make it better.

 

Maksim Ovsyannikov

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The hardest part about product management that goes unnoticed is probably the process of prioritization. On any given day a busy product team hears of at least 5 enhancement requests that are needed by their customers, the sales team, etc.

Putting these on the roadmap in a way that is aligned with your strategy and your wish to wow your customers is pretty hard.

 

Ian Campsall

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There is very often an inherent conflict between what the stakeholder is asking for and what the users of their product actually require.

The stakeholder views the product within the context of their business requirements and goals, and often feel that the feature they are asking for will help them meet those goals.

However, UX research with users often reveals a very different set of needs and priorities. A good Product Manager will not simply acquiesce to the client but will try and find the sweet spot that will deliver what the users need while still meeting the client’s business need.

This process of negotiation and balance is what keeps Product Managers up at night, but also drives them to deliver truly awesome products and features that offer real utility and value.

 

Richard Lankford

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A good product manager should understand and care about all aspects of a product.  A background in UX is beneficial in understanding and collecting user feedback for the longevity of a product.

Requirement gathering and prioritization can be very difficult.  Product Managers must balance business objectives, competitive threats, and customer needs with each and every release.  Prioritizing these requirements appropriately each and every release is how a product stays relevant.

 

Tyler Louie

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No matter how you interact with the app, the reason it can be a pleasure (or not) to use the product is due to the consistency and ease with which you can digest the information presented.

No one wants to build for or (as a consumer) encounter edge cases. As such, making sure that users get a seamless experience when dealing with both edge case scenarios — as they do when they are on the “happy path” scenarios — is incredibly important. Dealing elegantly with these different scenarios makes the difference between a good and a great user experience.

 

Yash Bandla

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Great product managers focus on delivering a best-in-class personalized experience. Personalization strategies that are not executed well, in a way that it clearly provides value to the end user, either goes unnoticed or unappreciated.

One very simple example I can state is Netflix recommendations. Netflix overreaches into my activities and assumes them to be my interest very early on. A simple use case is that when a user subscribes to Netflix, they would browse the  catalog to explore what’s there. This should not be treated as interest or used to derive conclusions about the user’s preferences. As a father of two young kids, I often look for kids’ offerings when looking at any service. Netflix assumed that to be a primary interest and bombarded me with Toon recommendations.

This is a great example of personalization that is not done right. When it’s executed in a way that clearly provides value to the user, personalization can be a clear differentiator for any company competing in the digital space.

And it’s not only about personalization. Product Managers need to know how to actively communicate with the people using his or her product. It’s better to let the user know the UX is adapting to things they have liked or reacted to.

 

The role of a product manager is always evolving.

Product managers face uncertainty on a daily basis.

Challenges range from dealing with stakeholders to defining and implementing product visions that hit business goals — all while producing great user experiences.

As these product experts show, there is no specific strategy for becoming a product manager – I personally know great managers who come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

How do you get to become a product manager?

This is not pre-determined by your previous career or academic choices. Instead, it’s influenced by how you embrace the many and varied points of view captured in this article.

All 15 product managers featured in this article highlight the variety of challenges and strategies that they must use every day to defend the user experience, reach the product KPIs, and keep business and internal stakeholders happy.

At the end of the day, product managers never win a popularity contest. They lead by example, setting the tone of the conversation, trying to balance various priorities, shifting strategies and tactical deliverables while learning how to nicely say no to various stakeholders or deliver bad news.

They do all that while focusing on the only priority that matters: building an app that people will enjoy using and will return to again and again.

I hope you liked our interviews. Feel free to share them on your favorite social network if we helped you to have a better understanding of the Product Manager role and responsibilities.

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