Editor’s note: This is part 1 of 2. Below, we’ll cover the important soft skills that every PM should master. Check out part 2 for an in-depth look at essential PM skills like coding, street statistics, and running more effective meetings!
As software continues to eat the world, the product manager has become an increasingly important role. Stripped down to its core, this role is about building and implementing the vision for product success. It’s kind of the heart of a software business.
While the responsibilities and principles of the discipline may be applied differently within different organizations, this role always sits at the intersection of multiple functions. As the product owner, the PM is like conductor—directing the action across 3 areas: the business, the customer, and the technology team.
It’s a tough job that requires broad mastery across several domains and skills. PMs also need certain soft skills in order to successfully navigate the many interpersonal hurdles they have to clear on any given day.
What does a product manager do?
At a high level, the product manager guides a cross-functional team through the entire strategic and tactical product lifecycle, from ideation and roadmap to development, refinement, ongoing optimization, and growth. The role often also includes contributions to positioning, messaging, and pricing strategy.
In other words, the product manager is basically the go-to point person for any product-related decisions. The PM is responsible both for solving day-to-day problems and meeting short- and long-term customer and business objectives.
Because the product manager’s role straddles multiple functions, a lot of their time is spent juggling priorities and communicating between departments. They not only have to collect and assess input from customers, key stakeholders, business leaders, and functional team leaders, they also have to translate those concerns from group to group so everyone is speaking the same language. At the same time, the PM needs to articulate and champion their own vision for the product.
Sounds easy, right?
Oh, one more thing: The product manager needs to accomplish all of this on time and on budget.
What does a product manager job description look like?
We’ve established that the PM role is one that involves existing within multiple departments and mentalities at once, but what does this look like on a day-to-day basis? To give you a little flavor, here’s a short-form hypothetical job description, aggregated from real-life listings on SaaS job boards:
Sample product manager job description:
The product manager is a pivotal member of our team who is ultimately responsible for making business decisions and creating product strategies that solve user challenges and drive revenue. Our goal is to build products users love. Your job is to use your unique blend of business and technical savvy combined with a big-picture vision and killer leadership and management skills to get us over that finish line on time and on budget.
In this role, you will be a champion for the customer and the product while working closely with internal teams and key stakeholders, including company leadership. You will craft a roadmap informed by market fit, product requirements, customer needs, and the go-to-market strategy. You will own the entire product lifecycle from strategic planning to tactical implementation to measurement and ongoing optimization, all with an eye on driving growth.
Key responsibilities include:
Engaging with customers on a regular basis via multiple channels
Specifying and prioritizing market and product requirements, feature sets, and key positioning and messaging elements
Collaborating with designers and engineers to solve problems
Curating, communicating, and managing a long-term product roadmap
Analyzing external and internal data to identify gaps and opportunities
Defining KPIs and setting targets that move the team toward success
Conducting relevant research studies
Developing internal and external product training plans
Creating and maintaining profits and loss documentation
Exemplary interpersonal, communication, and project management skills
Excellent team- and relationship-building abilities, with both internal and external parties (engineers, business stakeholders, partners, etc.)
Ability to work well under pressure, multitask, and maintain keen attention to detail
Natural tendency to be positive, creative, and curious
Team player who enjoys collaborating with others
Genuine empathy toward customers and commitment to diving into the weeds on their challenges
Strong leadership skills, including ability to influence cross-functional teams via diplomacy and tact
Passionate dedication to your craft and desire to work with people who inspire you on a daily basis
There is also a new kind of product manager role emerging at product-led organizations. The “growth product manager” is a slightly different role that includes direct accountability for commercial business outcomes, like free to paid conversion rate and upgrade/expansion revenue,. Incorporating a growth mindset can be a pretty big shift for a more traditional product manager, but there's an undeniable shift toward product owning more commercial responsibility, and we think it's inevitable that all PMs at product-led organizations will eventually need this skill set.
You can read more about the growth product manager role and its unique requirements here.
How do they do all this?
Whether the role is a traditional product manager or a growth product manager, it’s clearly no easy task to fill such big shoes. To deliver outstanding products, the successful product manager needs many different skills, and must also possess inherent qualities necessary for surviving the rigors of the job.
To help prospective product managers (and the companies looking to hire them), we’ve compiled a list of 10 essential skills that every product manager needs. Let’s start with the “soft skills”:
10 soft skills that will help you become a stronger PM
1. Have a way with words
A product manager’s day is filled with communication tasks: meeting notes, Slack conversations, wikis, presentations, training materials, and—the Holy Grail—your product requirements document. You will spend a lot of time writing.
As the product manager, you are a repository keeper of all product knowledge. That means you should also be the disseminator of all knowledge. It’s your job to keep internal and external team members up to date on what’s happening. It’s also your job to provide clear and comprehensive direction and guidance to your design, engineering, and development teams. Poorly presented information can result in misaligned expectations and missed deadlines.
Writing your product requirements document is arguably one of the most important responsibilities you’ll have as product manager. It is the document your teams refer to from concept to launch for critical information about product direction, specifications, key dates, target audience, key performance indicators (KPIs), and much more. You need to be able to structure and write this document so that it’s easy to follow and understand, despite the depth and breadth of the information it contains.
Good writing skills also come into play when it comes to educating your stakeholders, partners, and company leadership about different product initiatives. You may at times need to employ the tools of persuasive writing to get buy in on a particular decision or justify a shift in strategy.
The bottom line is that words matter, so you need to know how to use them effectively to support your agenda.
2. Take time to talk to customers
Spending time with users can be the most rewarding part of the product manager role. It’s also one of the most effective ways to achieve product success. After all, customer loyalty is one of the key drivers of growth.
As the product manager, you are the voice of the customer within your organization. It’s your job to have an intimate understanding of their needs so you can effectively advocate for a solution that meets those needs. Having “passionate empathy” for your customers is especially critical in today’s SaaS markets where users have many options and can switch products easily and quickly.
The shortest route to deep customer knowledge is direct dialog. Take the time to get to know your customers. Make an emotional connection. Start by asking questions about how your product makes a difference in their lives. You want to get to the heart of the value they experience as well as any shortcomings.
Sample starter questions include:
What is it about this product that resonates with you?
How does it make things easier for you?
What problem has this product helped you solve?
What new problems would you like it to help you solve?
Be creative and consistent about engaging your users. You can send out surveys, post questions on social media, facilitate focus groups, or initiate 1:1 conversations. The point is to reach them where they are and communicate with them in a way that’s comfortable and convenient for them.
Most importantly, if you’re asking for customer input, make sure you put it to good use. Few things will cost you credibility with customers more than soliciting their opinions and then failing to act on them. When customers take the time to share their experience, make sure you acknowledge them. Respond to their posts, and keep them in the loop with how you’re putting their valuable advice to work.
3. Know how to sell (to engineers)
Julie Zhou, VP of Product Design at Facebook, states:
“Engineers make every good proposal real, and this fact should never, ever be forgotten. Even if your company has five, or five hundred, or five thousand engineers, engineers are not a 'resource.' They are the builders of the foundations, the keepers of everything that makes your product tick.”
As the product manager, it’s your job to sell your ideas to the people who can bring your vision to life—the engineers. To do this effectively, you need to understand how engineers think. This means need to be technically savvy enough to be comfortable discussing the technical aspects of your product. And you need to know how to effectively convey your product vision in a way that brings engineers on board.
Successfully pitching your ideas to engineers requires a combination of enthusiastic evangelism, inspirational storytelling, and authentic empathy.
Being an unabashed evangelist for your product is especially critical in larger organizations where you may be competing for shared resources. You need to be your product’s biggest fan—ready, willing, and able to convert others to your cause.
Inspirational storytelling is a powerful way to create support for your product. This might include data-driven materials like market research and customer surveys. It might also include anecdotal customer interviews and testimonials.
Finally, having empathy for developers is an important part of creating a productive dialog. Like Julie Zhou said, engineers are not a resource. Engineers are people who have their own pain points and battles. Showing that you understand where they’re coming from goes a long way toward establishing you as a good partner.
4. Know when to delegate
You’ve heard it a thousand times: Do what you do best, and delegate the rest. It’s smart advice that few people actually follow.
Product coach and consultant Matt LeMay advocates delegating not only tasks but also responsibility. If you delegate tasks but insist on still being the go-to person for all decisions, you're missing out on the opportunities to empower the people around you and lighten your own workload. Maintaining your point-person role means your team will still look to you for what to do next, and you’ll wind up managing their work on top of your own.
LeMay offers a few suggestions for effective delegation, including:
Be direct and clear.
Because product managers are used to taking responsibility for so much, they often lack experience asking for help. Don’t bury the lede in ambiguity. Be direct, specific, and concise. Use the phrase, “I would like you to be responsible for” if it helps you frame the assignment more clearly.
Fight the urge to check in.
Once you've handed a task (and the corresponding responsibility!) over, let the other person run with it. Invite them to consult you if necessary, but otherwise make it crystal clear that they have complete ownership. This approach gives them the chance to showcase their skills, provides space for a key learning experience, and ultimately sets them up for long-term success.
Just like you track the performance of your product after it's launched—to figure out what worked and what didn’t—you should also track how team members performed on delegated tasks. Talk with them about their experience. If things didn't go smoothly, brainstorm collaboratively about how to handle things better next time.
5. Be able to support and influence others
If you want to be a successful product manager, you’d better have serious people skills. Business and technical skills are important, but you won’t be able to bring your product vision to life without similarly strong leadership and interpersonal skills.
Product management isn’t just about being a taskmaster—it’s about supporting and empowering others by understanding their strengths and weaknesses. And it’s about having enough influence to get buy-in and keep everyone working together toward the same goal.
For this, product managers need soft skills (like those on this list). Emotional intelligence and empathy help you read and manage situations more accurately and tactfully. Relationship management skills enable smoother operations and help with conflict resolution. Self-awareness helps you stay objective so you can be an effective champion for the customer.
A good product manager also takes on the responsibility of maintaining alignment between the vision for the product and the product team. This requires connecting day-to-day tasks to the broader strategy so that a) initiatives are properly prioritized, and b) the extended team understands—and is inspired by—the ultimate impact of their work.
In short, you need to motivate people by clearly articulating the big picture and why it matters to the customers and the company; and then you have to help each team member to do their best work in support of your collective goals.
Wondering where the rest of the list is? Keep reading for more essential PM skills, including “street statistics” and how to run more effective meetings.
Eric heads up Marketing at Appcues. When he isn't helping companies become more product-led, he’s likely to be found keeping up with his wife and 2 children, exploring the White Mountains with his dog Barley, or fermenting things at home.