Product management is a vital role that sits at the intersection of multiple functions. To succeed, good PMs need a certain skillset.
If there was ever a profession that relies on a broad range of skills, it’s the product manager. The PM role channels an architect, a fortune-teller, and a therapist—all at the same time.
So what is a product manager (aka PM)? The PM oversees the development of a product for a company. They sit at the intersection of the customers and developers by voicing the customer’s needs to the people who create the product. PMs need to see both the big picture and the small details and balance customer needs, market demands, and engineering resources (we’ll add “juggler” to the list of product manager skills).
If you are interested in a career as a product manager—woo hoo! There are a lot of products out there that need awesome PMs to guide the way. We’ve rounded up some of the top product manager skills, so that you can make sure your resume—and you!—are up to the job.
1. Communication skills
As the product manager, you are a Keeper of All Product Knowledge. It’s your job to keep team members up to date on what’s happening. It’s also your job to provide clear, comprehensive guidance to your design, engineering, and development teams. Poorly presented information can result in misaligned expectations and missed deadlines. And when deadlines are missed, everyone is unhappy.
With so many responsibilities, your day will be filled with all types of communication: meeting notes, Slack conversations, wikis, presentations, training materials, and—your Ultimate Guide—the product requirements document. You will spend a lot of time writing.
Writing your product requirements document is arguably one of the most important responsibilities you’ll have as a product manager. It’s the document your teams refer to from concept to launch for the product deliverables, specs, milestones, key performance indicators (KPIs), and much more. Therefore, you need 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 communication skills also come into play when educating and getting buy-in about different product initiatives. You’ll be talking to everyone—including stakeholders, customers, and company leadership.
Bottom line: You need to be able to write and speak clearly.
Along with great communication, diplomacy is a key product manager skill. You’ll often face competing interests—such as your stakeholders versus your developers—and need to negotiate between the two.
Listen and empathize with both sides and then try to find common ground. Engineers say the project will take two months to complete, and the stakeholder wants it done next week? You will often serve as the go-between. These conversations can be difficult and involve both parties “giving” a little.
Diplomacy may be required in customer interactions, too, especially if they’re unhappy. Give the customer space to air their grievances and then be prepared to offer solutions while not over-promising.
3. Technical knowledge
You don’t have to be a coding wizard to be a good product manager. But having some technical proficiency (and a healthy dose of respect for the people who do code) will make you a better, more effective partner to your design and engineering teams.
At a minimum, you’ll need skills in the following areas:
Data Analysis: How to collect, organize, and interpret data
Microsoft Excel: Nothing like a great spreadsheet to present your findings
With some technical knowledge, you’ll be able to bolster your communication with your engineering team by spending less time trying to understand them.
At the same time, don’t be afraid to ask questions. The most self-aware PMs know where their knowledge ends and when to push for more information. You often need to assess what’s realistic and what’s ridiculous when it comes to deadlines, including things like, “If we touch X within the product, will Y break?” These dependencies are often the make-or-break details of a feature’s feasibility.
As the product manager, it’s your job to sell your ideas to the people who can bring your vision to life—the engineers.
Julie Zhuo, former 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.”
To effectively sell your product idea, you need to understand how engineers think. You must be technically savvy enough (see above) to be comfortable discussing the technical aspects of your product. And you need to know how to so you can effectively convey your product vision in a way that brings them on board.
Be your product’s biggest cheerleader, especially if you’re in a larger organization where you’re competing for your team’s time and talent. Storytelling is a powerful way to create support for your product. Combine anecdotal customer interviews and testimonials with data-driven materials like market research and surveys to make a compelling case for your idea.
Finally, empathy for developers is an important part of creating a productive dialog. As Julie Zhuo said, engineers are not merely 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.
5. Delegation skills
You’ve heard it a thousand times: Do what you do best, and delegate the rest. Unfortunately, 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 not really lightening your workload that much. Plus, you’re missing out on the opportunities to empower the people around you.
Product managers at smaller companies should take this advice to heart as they tend to wear a ton of hats. Whenever you can, delegate. As long as you are clear about the expectations (and fight the urge to micromanage), you can rely on smart people within the organization to help with some of your product management responsibilities.
P.S.: There are other ways to reduce your workload besides delegation. Products like Zapier can automate mundane tasks. And as your team grows, you’ll want to think about when it might be time to add a product ops team.
6. Strategic thinking
Product strategy involves both short-term and long-term goals. You often have to make quick decisions based on these objectives... and be able to back them up. You’re keeping a pulse on both overall company objectives and user needs. What should your product’s overall direction be? How should you prioritize different features? Two high-priority bugs have been reported—which one do you tackle first?
A product-led growth strategy means leaning into your product when making these decisions. For product managers, this translates to even more reliance on the user experience. Understand how users interact with your product on a detailed level and use that information to guide your choices as a PM.
A lot of this comes from experience, but don’t worry if you’re a new PM. In past roles, there were likely times when you had to exercise sound judgment. Think about the factors that contributed to your decision and the outcome, and how you can apply those lessons to your work as a PM. The company will be relying on you and your ability to guide the product to future success.
You’re not going to have someone watching over your shoulder all the time as a product manager. Between strategy and daily tasks, you have to self-manage priorities and deadlines. You need the skills to autonomously run meetings, manage your time, and generally get sh*t done.
To improve your self-management, consider building your schedule around blocks of dedicated work time instead of leaving your entire day open for meetings. Some projects require larger blocks of focused attention. Attending meetings at all times of the day (and night) leaves you with only small chunks of work time that aren’t enough to get the momentum you need.
Speaking of meetings, be selective about which ones you attend. Indiscriminately accepting every meeting invite you receive is a sure way to lose control of your schedule. What purpose will you serve? What do you stand to gain from attending? Does it fall into the “this meeting should have been an email?” category. You should be equally cognizant when you send out meeting invites to others.
Remember those writing skills we talked about earlier? Your self-management includes organizing a lot of information, and writing is the best way to make this happen. It’s always a good idea to write down key discoveries, decisions, and next steps coming out of meetings in particular.
8. Interpersonal skills
If you want to be a successful product manager, you’d better have serious people skills. Strategic and technical skills are important, but you’ll have a tough time bringing your product vision to life without 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 keep everyone working together toward the same goal.
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.
In short, you need to motivate people by clearly articulating the big picture. From there, help each team member individually to do their best work in support of your collective goals.
9. Research/Analytical skills
Data is an increasingly important element of product management. You’ll likely work closely with data analysts and other experts, and a working knowledge of the data they provide will put you in a much better position to drive productive discussions.
Use a variety of in-product and external data sources. Tools like Google Analytics can provide a lot of web-based insights, while product analytics provides more nuanced information about how users are interacting with your product.
But be careful to avoid collecting data just because you can since there is such a thing as having too much data. Instead, be intentional about what you collect, understand why you’re collecting it, and have a plan in place to actually do something with the information. Otherwise, you could end up with a lot of noise and no signal.
10. Understand the user life cycle
When it comes to building a product, your job as PM covers every aspect of the product development life cycle. But there’s another process you need to consider to be fully effective in your job: the customer life cycle.
The Product-Led Growth Flywheel is a framework for growing your business by investing in a product-led user experience. It consists of four sequential user segments—evaluator, beginner, regular, and champion—and the key actions these users take to graduate from one stage to the next: activate, adopt, adore, and advocate.
You are putting your users front and center, from their initial awareness to your most dedicated product fans. Moving users through the stages of the customer journey with increasing speed makes the flywheel spin faster. The result? A positive feedback loop that drives acquisition and increases growth.
The most important product manager skill? A passion for solving problems
Product management is a complex role that requires mastery of a myriad of skills. The responsibilities are many, and the exact job description varies from organization to organization. But at the heart of the role is a relentless passion for solving user problems.
Many product manager skills can be taught—but every successful product manager brings this passion to the table from day one. Without that, they’d never be able to survive all the ups and downs that are a natural part of the product development life cycle.
If you’re looking to step into a product manager role, don’t worry if you haven’t yet mastered everything on this list. Bring your passion for making people’s lives better, and then commit to learning new skills as you go.