The essential skills that PMs need to execute their product vision, manage their time, and lead exceptional cross-functional teams.
Editor’s note: This is the second piece in a 2-part series. Last time, we covered the important soft skills that every PM needs. Click here to read part 1, or continue on for an in-depth look at essential PM skills like coding, street statistics, and running more effective meetings.
The best product managers don’t just execute great ideas, they find them. An experienced product manager has the ability to spot valuable opportunities at the intersection of customers, markets, and available resources. PMs have curious and creative minds that connect the dots to uncover new ideas. And they have the ability to clearly articulate those ideas—and their business value—in an inspiring product vision.
Vision in hand, a product manager then crafts a product roadmap that prioritizes all the ideas into clearly defined initiatives tailored to the capabilities and business objectives of the organization. Using this roadmap as a guide, the PM helps the integrated team make good strategic decisions that keep everything on track.
10 skills PMs need to build exceptional products and lead successful teams
We’ve already talked about the interpersonal skills that product managers need to successfully lead their teams. Now, let’s take a look at some of the other skills that PMs should have in order to execute on their product vision.
6. Good time management
Good time management is a basic skill that any professional needs, but it’s especially critical for product managers because they have so many different demands on their time. It’s easy to fall into the trap of letting different teams and stakeholders derail you from accomplishing your own tasks.
Step 1 to successful time management is intermittently clarifying your big-picture responsibilities. The product manager’s role touches so many different parts of an organization and encompasses so many different ways to contribute. The nature of the job puts you at constant risk of accidentally taking on responsibilities that don’t really belong on your plate.
For example, you might become overly involved in sales decisions. What started out as a quick consult could evolve into a complex and ongoing debate that sucks up a lot of time. If that happens, you need to have the presence of mind to step back and reassess where your time is best spent. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Schedule tasks that are directly aligned with your core product management responsibilities first. Prioritizing these tasks might mean saying no to some tangential requests—and that’s okay.
Give yourself time to work
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 adequate to get the momentum you need to complete certain tasks.
Learn to decline meeting invitations
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. Consider each request carefully. What purpose will you serve? What do you stand to gain from attending? Is there someone else you can attend in your place? Is there another way to resolve the issue/get the information/move forward?
Tighten up your meeting strategy
Put time back in your day by making sure your meetings are as efficient as possible (see notes above). You can also optimize your schedule by establishing recurring “check in” meetings instead of allowing for unlimited ad hoc meeting requests.
Stop wasting time searching for stuff
As a product manager, you need to be able to access a lot of information quickly and easily. Product documentation, meeting notes, customer calls, and so on—you need an extremely efficient way to capture, store, and organize everything. From transcription services to tools like Evernote, there are a lot of tools to help you keep everything at your fingertips. Use them.
7. Know how to run good meetings and get sh*t done
A good product manager is the glue that holds all the other teams together and keeps them moving in the same direction. This makes you the person with the clearest understanding about where the team is going and the greatest sense of urgency about getting there. Because of this, you tend to be really proactive about driving action.
Often, moving forward requires gracefully managing competing interests (such as when the engineers want more time, but the marketing team wants to release for a big trade show). When things come to a head, it usually falls to you to de escalate the conflict and find a workable compromise.
Then there are the meetings—staying on top of what’s happening, what needs to be done next, and where the team is encountering friction requires regular meetings. Some might argue that meetings aren’t the best use of anyone’s time, but they can be a very effective and efficient tool when managed well. The trick is to follow a few simple best practices:
Prepare a collaborative agenda
Because your meetings include representatives from different teams, it’s a smart strategy to invite managers to add discussion topics to the agenda. This accomplishes 2 things: it forces participants to think through what they want to cover in the meeting, and it gives you a preview so you know what to expect.
Limit your attendees
Once you have your agenda, tailor the invite list to include only the people who absolutely need to be there. This is not only respectful of people’s time, but it also eliminates the potential for distracting side conversations on irrelevant issues.
Circulate the agenda before the meeting
Getting the agenda to everyone prior to the meeting increases the odds that people will come prepared to address the issues at hand.
Keep the meeting short
No one likes marathon meetings. The optimal meeting duration is 30 minutes. If you have more topics than you can cover in a half hour, consider breaking the agenda into 2 meetings, if possible with a split attendee list.
Define action items
Going into the meeting, you should have a clear idea of what you’re trying to accomplish. This will ensure that, coming out of the meeting, you’ll be able to provide everyone with specific marching orders.
Follow-up with a summary
It’s always a good idea to get things in writing, and that includes capturing key discoveries, decisions, and next steps coming out of a meeting.
8. Understand code
You don’t have to be a coding wizard to be a good product manager. But having a certain level of technical proficiency (and a healthy dose of respect and humility) will make you a better, more effective partner to your design and engineering teams.
A few tips to keep in mind:
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
If you don’t understand something, you won’t be able to support the team or offer viable solutions. Your engineers will appreciate your efforts to learn on the job by asking smart questions.
Pay special attention to technical limitations
One of the most frequent debates you’ll have on the coding side of things is around how long certain tasks should take. As the product manager, it’s your job to set reasonable deadlines. You need to know what’s realistic, and what’s ridiculous. On a related note, it’s important to understand the dependencies and constraints of different technologies so that you can accurately assess whether or not a proposed design or feature is feasible.
Make an effort to build on your knowledge
While most engineers don’t mind answering technical questions, they don’t love having to answer the same question over and over. Be diligent about capturing and retaining the information they share. Being respectful of your engineers’ time will help you earn their trust over the long haul.
9. Have a solid understanding of “street statistics”
A good product manager is naturally curious, skeptical, and analytical. You take nothing for granted and you understand that good product decisions are based on data.
Data is an increasingly important element of product management. While you will likely work closely with data analysts and other experts, a working knowledge of the data they provide will put you in a much better position to drive productive discussions.
As a product manager, you should enable a variety of in-product and external data sources. Tools like Google Analytics can provide a lot of web-based insights, while in-product data provides more nuanced information about how users are interacting with your product.
But be careful to avoid collecting data just because you can. There is such a thing as having too much data. Be intentional about what you collect, understand why you’re collecting it, and have a plan in place to leverage the information—otherwise you could end up with a lot of noise and no signal.
10. Understand your user lifecycle
When it comes to building a product, your job as PM covers every aspect of the product development lifecycle. But there’s another lifecycle you need to consider to be fully effective in your job: the customer lifecycle.
The Product-Led Growth Flywheel is a framework for growing your business by investing in a product-led user experience. It consists of 4 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.
Understanding user needs in each segment helps you focus company- and team-level strategies around accelerating the user journey. Creating this momentum at scale makes the flywheel spin faster and creates a positive feedback loop that drives acquisition and increases growth exponentially.
Evaluators are just browsing, but are cautiously excited about your product’s potential. They are likely considering multiple solutions, so the product’s job at this stage is to get trial and freemium users to the aha moment as quickly as possible. Effective tactics at this stage include selective guidance toward key features that will help them realize value. This might include contextual in-app product support, walkthroughs, and other information. The goal is to get them to activate.
Beginners have experienced the value of your product, and they are excited about it. If they aren’t already paying customers, they are primed to take that leap. At this stage, they are getting serious about using your product to get things done. Your product’s job during this phase is to eliminate friction by making it easy for users to access extra guidance. This part of the journey is about helping users complete tasks and explore the full range of your product’s functionality. The goal is to drive adoption, which results in habitual, more advanced usage.
Regulars are the folks who use your product frequently and consistently. They have come to rely on it to perform daily tasks, so they are invested in sticking with it. Reducing friction is even more important with this group because any disruption to their workflows will have a tangible business impact. In addition to ensuring ease of use and maximum speed, you also want to help these users by introducing more advanced use cases and ways to increase efficiency. This group can also be a valuable source of product feedback as you work on new features and integrations. The goal is to level up your customer relationship from purely functional to emotional, resulting in users who adore your product.
Champions are all in. They are the super fans of your product. They not only use your product themselves, they recommend it to everyone they know. They are passionate and outspoken. Your job at this phase of the relationship is to return that passion. Your champions think your product is special—let them know the feeling is mutual. You might express your feelings with swag, or you might offer advanced guidance/support, power-user features, or early access to beta versions. These are the folks you can count on for great product reviews and testimonials. They are the ones who will happily participate in surveys, collaborate on case studies, or join your customer advisory board.
A passion for solving user problems
Product management is a complex role that requires deep domain expertise, commitment, and mastery of myriad interpersonal skills. The responsibilities are many, and the exact job description varies from organization to organization. But at the heart of the role is an unmitigated passion for solving user problems.
Technical expertise, effective communication, and even project management skills can all be taught—but every successful product manager brings their own 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 process.
So, if you’re looking to step into a product manager role, don’t worry if you haven’t yet mastered all the prerequisite skills. Bring your passion for making people’s lives better, and then make a commitment to learning new skills as you go. That’s the best way to set yourself on the path to success.