What Makes a Great Product Manager?

What makes a great product manager

Product managers are often referred to as ‘the CEO of the product’.

Whilst that’s not strictly an accurate representation, it does encapsulate the end-to-end nature of the role quite well.

A product manager oversees their product right from the idea stage through design, production, launch, and beyond. They’re also responsible for the health of the product after it’s through the doors, taking on customer feedback to plan new releases and making sure routine maintenance is carried out in good time.

Sound like a handful? You’re not wrong.

That’s why it’s important that your product managers have the right skills for the job. Average product managers build average products. Great product managers don’t guarantee great products (team effort, after all), but they are an absolutely necessary component.

Who you hire as your next product manager, then, is no small decision. We’ve put together this guide on what to look for in a great product manager to make things a bit clearer.

Background

One of the great things about product managers is that you can find good ones from a variety of backgrounds.

Sure, if you’re looking for someone senior, you’ll want direct product management experience – preferably years of it. For more junior positions however, you can find great product managers, or product managers with great potential, from lots of different walks of life.

Practical, hands-on experience in the areas you’ll expect them to manage is always useful in a PM – and is a bonus even for senior positions. Don’t be afraid to root back through their resume and question them on their pre-product management experience.

Useful backgrounds include:

  • Design/UX: extensive knowledge of user testing, customer interviews and the overall product development process
  • Development: familiar with the product development lifecycle, realistic understanding of timescales needed to complete development work
  • Customer service: experience talking and empathizing with customers, understanding their problems and finding solutions to them
  • Marketing: a nice ‘middle ground’ – experience in collaborating with design and development teams, whilst being involved in launch and customer-facing aspects
  • Project management: organizational skills, budget and resource management, collaboration on inter-departmental projects

Also important to consider is industry expertise – someone that has worked in your industry will have a much better understanding of end-user needs and processes.

On the other hand, exposure to many industries, and at firms of different sizes is also hugely valuable. For example someone who’s worked at a F500 company, a startup and a financial institution could be very valuable as a product manager since they can bring ideas and insights from a few different perspectives. This is often more valuable than the number of years they have worked directly as a product manager.

Whatever their background, a great product manager should be collaborative by nature. Look for evidence of this in their previous roles – if their background is as a developer, for example, establish how they worked with others and interacted with the wider project team.

Role-based competencies

Like any position, there are a few specific skills or bits of experience you should definitely be looking for when hiring a product manager.

For a more junior position, you can settle for fewer of these – but look for the potential to develop the ones they’re missing. If they haven’t run any customer interviews before, for example, look for other customer-facing experience in their employment history. Did they enjoy it? What did they learn from it? How would they apply these lessons in different interactions with customers?

Below, we’ve broken the product manager skill set down by product stage so you can get a feel for how varied their role can be:

Design

  • Planning and managing design sprints
  • Setting up and helping run user testing efforts, including panel discussions, interviews, and surveys
  • Road mapping

Development

  • Planning and managing development sprints
  • Pioritizing features
  • Beta testing
  • Reporting on progress to senior management

Marketing/sales

  • Market analysis and research
  • Participation in campaign creation and planning
  • Participation in sales strategy planning

Scope definition and stakeholder management

  • Idea validation
  • Prioritization: defines what the team will work on first and what can wait
  • Define ideas and define actionable next steps for building them
  • Listening to stakeholders (or clients) and then organizing work in a way that kicks off design sprints and then development sprints
  • Soft skills and conflict mitigation to bring business functions to work together on a common goal

Customer feedback

  • Managing response to customer feedback
  • Translating user demand for new features into business case for them being built
  • Managing design/development sprints
  • Managing maintenance processes, e.g bug fixing
  • Educating business stakeholders on how to interpret customer feedback

Analysis/reporting

  • Defining KPIs and deciding which metrics to track
  • Pricing and revenue modeling
  • Developing business cases for new products and features
  • Translating metrics into meaningful and actionable insights tailored to the needs of all relevant stakeholders

You’ll notice here that product managers occupy a fairly unique space between the ‘business’ side of things and the ‘technical’ side of things. They need to be comfortable translating business requirements into technical or feature requirements for the design and development teams, and explaining how a particular feature meets business requirements to relevant stakeholders.

Overall then, when it comes to job-specific skills, great product managers:

  • Are highly organized: they need to run meetings, set deadlines (and make sure people stick to them), and coordinate their projects across several different departments
  • Are comfortable talking tech: PMs won’t design or program, but they do need to be comfortable managing teams that do. They’ll also need to make decisions about their product based on info from their more technically-minded colleagues
  • Have a head for numbers: revenue forecasts are important. They’ll also need to manage and allocate resources well,

This brings us neatly onto:

Budget/resource management

Product managers are a bit like project managers in that they’re in charge of drawing up timescales for sprints, setting deadlines, running a budget, and allocating resources to different parts of the team they manage.

The main difference is that product managers deal with multilayered technical and functional constraints in addition to what resource management entails. Optimizing velocity and successful product delivery, therefore, requires a higher level of coordination and engagement. They’re in it for the long haul.

This means that long-term budget and resource management is an absolutely essential part of a product manager’s job. Look for well-honed number-crunching skills and the ability to anticipate spend over an extended period – and the ability to make sometimes-difficult allocation decisions with a cool head.

Obviously, this is super difficult to do whilst keeping everyone on-side. That’s why the best product managers need:

Emotional intelligence

Dealing with people is a huge part of any product manager’s job. Day to day, they’ll be running meetings, checking in the progress of various strands of their product, encouraging people to hit deadlines, allocating budget, explaining to others why they haven’t allocated that budget to their team…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Needless to say, keeping everyone happy and spirits buoyed as they do this can be something of a challenge. That’s why a considerably above-average EQ is a must-have for all great product managers.

Internal relationship management

Like managers of all types, product managers need good people skills to be successful.

Unlike other managers, they often don’t have access to the ‘stick’ part of the ‘carrot and stick’ formula. They need to collaborate with, encourage, and coordinate a large group of people across different departments without being able to fall back on the ‘I’m your line manager, and I’m telling you to do this’ approach if all else fails.

This makes people skills doubly important. A great product manager can identify how people tick, and use this to get the most out of them. They are direct without being abrasive, and need to be fundamentally likable – colleagues need to want to hit that deadline for them, rather than being forced to.

Good internal relationship management is the difference between a hit deadline and a missed one, between being allocated more budget and not, and between squeezing that last bug fix and having to wait until the next sprint.

Customer-facing responsibilities

These relationship building skills are also essential externally.

Good relationship-building skills are the key to having plenty of willing participants in user testing efforts. A great product manager is the difference between, for example, having a small, indifferent user panel and one where members clamor to help out and are genuinely excited about your product.

A great PM ensures you’ll always have enough Beta testers, interview participants, focus-group feedback and more to inform the design of a particular feature-set.

Emotional intelligence and product design

Taking this beyond ‘good people skills’ to true emotional intelligence is what separates a good product manager from a great one.

As they oversee the development of the product and manage it post launch, there will be several instances when product managers need to make decisions based on user tests, interviews, customer feedback, and other input.

Empathy is important here because product managers know their own products inside out – much more than the audience they’re intended for. A product manager lacking in empathy is more likely to make the mistake of using their own opinions to inform key decisions rather than sticking to user research, or relying on an unhelpful ‘read the f… manual’ approach rather than taking time to understand where things are going wrong.

Empathetic PMs are the key to empathetically-designed products.

Empathetically-designed products tend to be more successful than those that aren’t because users find them easy to navigate and more geared towards their actual needs (as opposed to needs that over product-aware teams have assumed they have).

So, empathetic product managers are a cornerstone to the product’s financial success. Take your time choosing the right one – it makes all the difference to the end result.