10 Skills Every Product Manager Needs
As a product manager, you have one of the most important jobs on your team. From product concept to launch to growth, you're responsible for devising strategies that ensure your product stands out from competitors and solves the immediate and long-term problems of your target audience.
This is no small feat, which is why you need specific skills to be an effective manager. These skills are crucial to not only helping you be as successful as possible but also ensuring that you consistently deliver and grow stellar products.
Here are 10 essential skills you'll need to ace to be a standout product manager.
1. Know how to run good meetings
Some might argue that meetings aren't the best use of time, but that doesn't have to be the case. Meetings are a necessity in business—and with direction and planning—can provide lots of value.
As a cross-functional leader, you're the glue that brings together engineering, marketing, and sales teams. Because you'll encounter competing interests in the room—marketing wants a bigger advertising budget while sales need more in-field support—preparation is key.
Since representatives from different teams attend your meetings, it's your job to make sure that everyone is adequately represented and heard. To do this, allow managers to add discussion items to the agenda beforehand. This forces them to give some thought to what they want to discuss, so you're briefed on what to expect.
Circulate the agenda before the meeting so that everyone knows what will be discussed. Along these lines, invite only the people who absolutely need to be there; unnecessary attendees will distract from the main focus of the meeting by discussing topics that aren't directly relevant.
Meetings should be short; the longer the meeting, the less likely people will stay engaged. Up to 30 minutes is optimal.
To be effective, your meetings should have clear objectives. People should leave with action items that will be discussed at the next meeting.
Pulkit Agrawal, co-founder and CEO of Chameleon, a platform for user onboarding, suggests that you “try to summarize an agreed course of action or point of view or key takeaway verbally or in writing (or both).”
2. Understand code
You don't have to be a coding wizard to understand code, but you do need to know enough to work with developers.
Start by asking questions to understand what you don't know. In time, you'll be able to get more involved when issues emerge, allowing you to offer viable solutions for the team to explore. If you don't know what you're talking about, there's no way you can help them.
A solid understanding will also help you grasp the challenges the team is facing, such as programming tools, for example: Are better ones available, and how will they affect your launch?
One major debate you'll face is how long tasks will take to complete. Understanding code means you can set reasonable deadlines with developers. The last thing you want to do is add unnecessary pressure by setting unrealistic deadlines.
The big takeaways here are to pay attention, be humble by admitting what you don't know, ask questions, and have a willingness to learn.
3. Know how to sell (to engineers)
The only way to succeed as a product manager, especially if you're working inside a larger organization, is to sell your ideas to the people who can implement them—engineers.
Julie Zhou, VP of Product Design at Facebook, states, “Engineers make every good proposal real, and this fact should never, ever be forgotten.” She continues, “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.”
Your job is to understand how engineers think, be comfortable talking about the technical aspects of your product, and to convey a vision that they can get behind.
4. Be able to support others
As a manager responsible for bringing together different teams, leadership and interpersonal skills are essential.
Matt LeMay, co-founder of Constellate Data, a company that works closely with data-heavy companies in need of consulting, research, and training help, frames it this way: “[P]roduct management is a fundamentally supportive and facilitative role, not a 'visionary' role.” This means you must not only dole out commands but also seek out each person's strengths and highlight them.
LeMay explains that part of your focus when working with others is to impart the company's goals and values to them. You want to get their buy-in so that everyone is working toward the same thing: a successful product that meets the needs of your customers.
That's why leadership and influence are so important: You have to be able to clearly convey what matters most for the company in a way that gets people to act.
5. Have a solid understanding of “street statistics”
As a product manager, data is what guides your product decisions. It tells you what users are doing within your product, what features customers are most receptive to, how good your product is at attracting new customers, and even what your revenue flow is. Understanding what your data is telling you will help you run quick experiments to harness this information.
For example, you might want to run a behavioral analysis, but to do that, you need to create behavioral cohorts. If you don't know what this information is telling you, you can't make the right decisions based on your experiment.
You'll no doubt work closely with data analysts, but you need to have a working knowledge of the data they provide. You'll be in a better position to have constructive, well-informed discussions with them.
6. Take time to talk to customers
Without loyal customers, it's impossible for your product to grow. That's why it's important to know who you're targeting and how to reach them.
To build a strong customer base, take the time to get to know them, because you'll be rewarded with a deeper understanding you need to make long-lasting emotional connections with your customers.
To reach this level of deep understanding, ask questions. Get your customers to think about how your product is making a difference in their lives. Ask probing questions to get to the heart of what they value.
Here are some questions that you can ask to get started:
- 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?
Set up recurring user research sessions, send out surveys to your email distribution list, post weekly questions on social media. Your customers aren't in one place, so find multiple avenues to reach out to them. The point is to communicate with them in a way that they can relate to.
Remember, if you are asking questions and expect customers to be honest, make sure you're listening to them. If customers are responding to your questions via social media, comment, and implement solutions that make the most sense for your product. Perhaps customers want more features. If that's the case, make the change, and then tell them about what you've done.
The last thing you want is for your customers to feel as though they're telling you what matters to them but you're not listening. Product management is about connecting with people as much as it is about understanding data.
7. Have a way with words
If you're new to product management, you might wonder why this is important—you're not a copywriter, after all. That may be true, but you're going to spend a lot of time writing. While you'll be conducting your fair share of meetings, much of your communication is still going to be written.
You'll have to use this skill to educate other teams on why certain approaches are relevant. You are close to the data and have to find an easy way to showcase this information to other teams to get their buy-in.
Being a good writer is also required because you'll work closely with the engineering and development teams. They depend on you for clear and concise project specs. You need to know what information to include and how to state it in a way that makes sense to them.
The product requirements document is one of the most important things you'll work on. It's basically the Holy Grail for your product. It's the document that teams will refer to, from product concept to launch, to understand product direction, product specs, key dates, target audience, key performance indicators (KPIs), and much more.
That's why it will be important to understand how to lay it out in a way that's clear and easy to follow despite containing a wealth of information. For this, being a good writer is imperative.
8. Manage your time
You're working with many different teams and stakeholders, so the pressure is on to coordinate effectively and meet your goals. Being organized with your time is the key to success.
Don't be busy just for the sake of being busy: Fill your time with tasks that are directly in line with your responsibilities to the product. If you find that you've become overly involved in sales decisions, it's time to take a step back. Your time is best spent allowing the sales team to take ownership of certain decisions. It's OK to check in with them, but know where to draw the line.
Chris Savage, co-founder and CEO of Wistia, a video marketing and analytics platform, creates blocks of time in his day that are dedicated strictly to work, not meetings. This gives him the time he needs to focus on projects that are the most pressing rather than an endless stream of meetings that aren't productive.
In addition to managing your calendar better, let people know that you're available to talk outside of scheduled meetings. While this might seem counterintuitive, Savage frames it this way: “If you urgently need to talk to me about something important, and all you see on my calendar are recurring 1:1s and team meetings, we’ll never find time to talk about the right stuff.”
Help instill a culture that promotes dealing with issues promptly so employees don't waste time waiting to talk to someone.
9. Know when to delegate
We hear it all the time: Do what you do best, and delegate the rest.
Matt LeMay explains that you should delegate not only tasks but also responsibility. If you've “delegated” tasks but you're still the go-to person for all decisions, you're missing out on the opportunity to empower the people around you. Being the point person means you're just as busy as ever, and your team is still looking at you for what to do next.
LeMay offers a few suggestions for effective delegation:
- Fight the urge to check-in. Once you've handed over a task and the corresponding responsibility, let that person run with it. Let them take ownership and know that they can consult you if necessary. This positions them for success because they have a chance to show what skills they've developed, providing space for a key learning experience.
- Ease off of micromanaging. If you've given someone responsibility for a project, let them take full control. Let them set up timelines and meetings and make decisions as needed. It might not always turn out the way it would have if you'd done it, but the point is to let go and trust your team.
- Debriefs are a necessity. Just like you track your product after it's launched, helping you to figure out what worked and what didn't, you have to treat delegation the same way. You should talk to team members about how they found the project, and if things didn't go smoothly, brainstorm how to tackle things differently next time.
10. Don't be ashamed to admit what you don't know
Many managers struggle with admitting that they don't know something. But it serves you best to own up to gaps in your knowledge. As Ben Horowitz and David Weiden note, “A good product manager doesn't ruin their credibility by over-stating their knowledge.”
You're seen as the product champion, so take the opportunity to seek out ways to get the information you need to be effective in your role. You do this by talking to other teams, talking to customers, and even getting to know more about your competitors.
The more you know, the better able you are to make the best decisions for your product. Rather than pretending you know something that you don't, ask questions. Your team is likely to respond more positively to this.
Now, get out there and manage
Think of product management as owning the product. You want to do everything you can to make sure it's a success.
Some of these skills are easier to implement than others; for instance, it's easier to run productive meetings than it is to learn code if you don't have a technical background. But the point is to make an effort to implement each skill over time.
It makes you more effective in our role and helps you build a team that trusts and relies on you. Once you take time to learn what you need to, you've set yourself a path to success.