The 5 Skills of Great Product Managers, According to Great Product Managers
Product managers are a crucial part of any product team; they are responsible for bridging the gap between the product, the business, and the user. Product managers are responsible for aligning the what with the why.
But despite filling a crucial role on the team, it is still hard to understand what makes a great product manager.
We set out to answer this question and more on the Better Product Podcast: What makes a great PM? And how do you learn those skills when you can’t get a degree in product management? After sitting down with industry leaders, we heard five important skills that separate the good from the great in product management.
Technical and Business Acumen
To be a great product manager, you have to feel comfortable communicating with everyone on your team. According to Carlos Gonzalez, CEO and founder of Product School, this means developing a level of technical acumen to communicate with engineers and have a deep enough understanding to make technical decisions with your engineering data.
On top of technical acumen, great product managers should develop the business acumen to balance inputs from your customers, your marketing and sales team, leadership, and engineering. So, as Carlos explains, you don’t need an MBA but you do need to be able to understand and translate all your inputs between teams.
Product managers need to be subject matter experts in their product’s industry, but not necessarily for the reasons you may think. While it is important for prioritization and filtering user feedback, having industry expertise as a product manager is critical for getting everyone on board.
As Carlos Gonzalez explains, “There are a lot of moments in the life of the product, or the life of your company, where nobody is going to believe in the product more than yourself. And it’s all about how you communicate your decisions to your engineers, how you take feedback, how you make corrections. These types of leadership or communication skills are critical.”
While technical acumen and industry expertise are important skills that can be honed over time, there are some softer skills that many great product managers naturally possess. We talked to Cam Curry and Yonas Dinkneh about what they hear on their own podcast, Without a Roadmap, where they interview product managers about their career journeys.
According to Cam, “From the people that we’ve talked to on our podcast, a lot of them started off in different roles other than product management, and the reason they got into product is because they just became curious about the product they were working on.” Product management requires a level of curiosity that pushes you to dig deeper into a problem to find the why, and having that curiosity will make for a great product manager.
Another skill that can’t necessarily be taught, but can be honed, is product intuition. Paige Conrad, a senior product manager at Honey, explained product intuition in her interview as a careful curiosity to understand your customer’s real motivation. As Paige explained, customers can say a lot about what they need, but a product manager is responsible for having the product intuition to peel back the layers and understand what the customer is really asking for. As Paige said in her interview: “People can’t often articulate what they want, otherwise everyone would be a product manager.”
People can’t often articulate what they want, otherwise everyone would be a product manager.
The next step of product intuition is anticipating not just what the customer needs right now, but also what the customer needs in six months, and a year. Product managers need to understand how the industry is going to change, and how that will impact the customer’s day-to-day. And while this may sound like a difficult skill to build, Paige says it all comes from deep empathy for your customer.
At first glance this skill may seem out of place but according to Erin Chan, former product manager at Shopify and now co-founder of Rhenti, the best product managers are humble. Product managers are responsible for fostering an environment where everyone is comfortable admitting that they don’t know the answer to a question, and then using their curiosity to find the best possible answer together.
As Erin said in her interview, “The thing with tech is the landscape changes so quickly, so whether it be your competitors, your company, or user behaviors, things change on a dime and even if you had 90% of the information at one time, the landscape will change. And then you as the PM have to go back and start asking questions again. So I think just embracing humility and curiosity is really important for PMs.”
Product managers have the weighty responsibility of aligning business needs with user goals and product initiatives, all while communicating the “why” across teams. It is a critical role, and a difficult one to break into. While this list is not exhaustive, and there are plenty of other skills you should hone to get started or move up in the field, the product leaders from the podcast identified these 5 skills as the ones that make great product managers.
To hear more about how to learn product management, tune in to the Better Product Podcast.