Whether you're a brand-new hire fresh out of school or gearing up for your fifth major product launch, the humble Product Manager (PM) is arguably one of the most important roles in any product team.
PMs are ultimately responsible for every major aspect of a product's lifecycle and launch, from ensuring that the marketing messaging is consistent and aligns with established business objectives to actually solving the problems your prospective users are struggling to overcome and making sure a product stands out from the competition.
As you've no doubt guessed, this isn't easy. To shepherd a product from inception to launch, PMs must draw upon a broad––and ever-expanding––range of skills to get the job done. These skills are essential to ensuring that you deliver results consistently as well as to your ongoing success as a PM.
In this post, we'll be looking at 10 crucial skills that the best PMs share.
1. Master the Meeting
Few words strike fear into the hearts of PMs and developers alike as effectively as “meeting.”
Despite how essential meetings are to successful product development, most meetings quickly devolve into shameful wastes of time that a concise email update or daily digest could easily replace. However, just because many meetings create more problems than they solve doesn't mean you can ignore meetings entirely.
As interdepartmental leaders, PMs are quite literally the glue that holds everything about a product's development together. PMs have to bridge the considerable gaps between the technical needs of Engineering, the positioning and messaging demands of Marketing, and the cold, hard commercial realities of Sales, meaning that PMs must be exceptional at planning and running effective meetings between these various stakeholders.
Since many different people are likely to be needed at meetings held by PMs, it's vital that aspiring and established PMs alike ensure that everybody is heard and that their needs are sufficiently represented. One of the best ways to do this is to give everybody a chance to add discussion items to the meeting agenda beforehand. That way, people aren't waiting for an opportunity to jump in with their needs, and it gives people enough time to think about what they want to get out of the meeting; asking attendees to add a tangible objective to the agenda can work wonders too.
You may also want to distribute meeting agendas ahead of time, so everybody knows what to expect. Only invite essential personnel and project stakeholders to avoid unnecessary distractions, and try to keep meetings under half an hour.
2. Bone Up on Your Coding Skills
As a Product Manager, nobody expects you to be able to write apps from scratch using C++, but you should be able to read and write enough code so that you can work with developers effectively.
The better your coding skills, the more you'll understand the technical demands of your project. A solid understanding of programming fundamentals will also help you handle resource requests from your Engineering team more effectively. Even a rudimentary understanding of object-oriented programming can help you set more realistic deadlines, which can help you plan your product launches.
If you've never read or written a line of code before, learning the basics of Python is a good place to start. It's open-source, which means it's both free and widely used, and as programming languages go, it's relatively friendly to newcomers, especially compared to C++ and similar languages.
However you decide to develop or brush up on your coding skills, be sure to ask plenty of questions and don't be afraid to admit it when you're out of your depth––your Engineering team will thank you for it. Speaking of engineers...
3. Learn How to Work with––and Sell to––Engineers
As a PM, you are the connective tissue that bridges Engineering, Marketing, and Sales. However, many PMs find knowing how to work with engineers in particular to be an invaluable skill.
Ultimately, if you want a feature to be implemented in your product, you have to know how to pitch it to your engineers. This means understanding the technical limitations of what you're asking for, how long a request will realistically take to implement, and how to pitch it to the Engineering team.
Julie Zhou, VP of Product Design at Facebook, put it so:
“Even if your company has five, or 500, or 5,000 engineers, engineers are not a ‘resource’. They are the builders of the foundations, the keepers of everything that makes your product tick.”
The more effectively you can sell an idea to your engineers, the better a PM you'll be––so learn, fast.
4. Provide Superstar Support
PMs may be responsible for shepherding a project from inception to launch, but managing product teams isn't just about delivering on a vision for a product or managing people from lots of different teams.
The best PMs know how to bring out the best in their people and leverage the skills of their team members to achieve stellar results. This means knowing how to cultivate buy-in from project stakeholders by giving them the support they need to do their best work.
Product management is an inherently supportive role. Yes, it's a PM's job to deliver results but doing so often involves helping others do their jobs.
5. Get Down with the Data
Statistics and data are a PM's best friends. They show us what's working and what isn't and allow us to make informed decisions about our products.
As a PM, you'll probably end up working with dedicated data analysts, particularly if you're working on a major project at a larger company. As such, few people will expect you to be a qualified statistician (with the possible exception of some particularly demanding executives), but a solid understanding of statistical analysis will serve you well in any product management role.
The better you understand the data at your disposal, the more effectively you'll be able to act upon that data. For example, you might want to run a behavioral analysis as part of your user research workflow––but to do so, you need to know which behavioral cohorts your test should focus on. If you don't know what the data is telling you, it's much harder to make informed decisions that could have a significant impact on the success of your project.
6. Listen to Your Customers
Talking to customers tends to be the province of customer success personnel, but the best PMs take the time to listen to their customers.
Notice we said listen, not just talk.
As PM, it's your job to not only create useful products that make your customers' lives better but also to understand what your customers value and what really matters to them. To attract and retain a loyal customer base, you should know how to ask the right questions.
Here are a few sample questions you could ask your customers to get the ball rolling:
- How does this product make your life easier?
- What problem(s) has this product helped you solve?
- What new problem(s) would you like this product to solve?
Asking questions sometimes means listening to difficult answers. Even loyal, engaged customers are likely to have at least a few things that bug them about your product, so be sure to listen carefully to your respondents. Few things will frustrate and alienate your customers quicker than asking questions and failing to listen to what they have to say.
Also, it's important to remember to meet your customers where they are. If your customers prefer to engage with your brand via social, be sure to engage with them on social. It's also highly unlikely that the majority of your customers will favor a single communication channel, so be sure to appeal to a broad cross-section of users across multiple channels.
7. Write Like It's Your Job
Just as nobody expects you to be able to write a functioning program in C++ as a PM, nobody expects you to have the writing chops of a professional copywriter.
That said, knowing how to write well is a vital skill for PMs.
When we say it's important to “write well,” what we really mean is knowing how to communicate clearly and concisely with various teams. This isn't just important for everyday emails––though knowing how to craft an effective email is certainly a valuable skill––but also for delivering clear, easily understood briefs and specifications to your engineers and developers.
Solid writing skills are also essential for drafting crucial project documentation, such as your product requirements document. This is the master plan for your entire product launch, which is why it's vital that you're able to write them clearly; as important as these documents are to a PM, they're also typically packed with information, meaning you have to know how to present this information in a way that makes sense to all project stakeholders.
8. Manage Your Time Ruthlessly
There's little point in speculating who the busiest people on a product team are, but PMs are frequently among the busiest people you'll meet in any company. That's what makes time management skills absolutely critical to seasoned veterans and greenhorns alike.
While PMs are often unfairly busy, far too many product management professionals confuse being busy with being productive. Anybody can fill every waking second of their day with meetings, but the best PMs know how to manage their time with the ruthless efficiency and precision of a commanding officer in the military.
The key to effective time management as a PM is knowing how to identify the most urgent tasks to be completed. Yes, it's important to know that key milestones are being met, but you don't need to get stuck in the weeds of every tiny detail.
Some PMs find it helpful to intentionally structure their day to allow for uninterrupted periods of work as well as spontaneous conversations and internal communications. Although planning every second of your day can create a sense of predictability, it can also be overly restrictive; failing to account for the unexpected can derail even the most carefully planned calendar, so be realistic about demands on your time and how to plan for it.
9. Know How––and When––to Delegate
Just as time management is a vital skill for PMs so too is knowing how and when to hand work off to others.
For example, it's important to know how your Sales team is selling your product, but you don't need to worry about whether quarterly sales targets are likely to be met––let the Sales Managers worry about that. By all means, check in periodically, but it's vital to know where the red lines should be drawn.
Something that many inexperienced PMs inadvertently also end up doing, however, is only delegating tasks and not the responsibility that accompanies them. If you delegate a task to someone on another team but end up being the go-to person anyway, you're not only failing to save yourself any work, but you're also denying that team member the chance to take the initiative and demonstrate their own ability to get the job done.
To delegate tasks effectively, try the following:
- Resist the temptation to “check in.” Once you've given someone a job to do, let them do it. Allow that person to take ownership of the task, including the responsibility for delivering on it. Even well-intentioned check-ins can undermine trust, so fight the temptation to touch base and let your colleagues do what you've asked them to do.
- Don't micromanage. If you give someone control over a task, let them take full control of it. Let them establish the time frames for deliverables. Let them schedule and run the meetings. Let them make the decisions. This might sound like shirking the responsibility, but it's actually empowering others to take the wheel.
- Debriefs are NOT optional. You wouldn't launch a product without tracking the metrics afterward, so you shouldn't delegate tasks without holding debriefs. Upon completion of a task or project, follow up with the relevant personnel to find out what worked, what challenges they encountered, and how they felt about managing that task. Doing so communicates that you value your colleagues' time and opinions and will let you delegate more effectively in the future.
10. Swallow Your Pride
Acknowledging that you don't know something is often perceived as a sign of weakness. In actual fact, knowing how and when to admit that you don't know something is an important skill for PMs to learn.
As a PM, you're a champion for your product. Asking questions doesn't undermine your expertise or authority; it shows that you're willing to listen and value the input and insight of your team. Refusing to recognize the gaps in your knowledge doesn't make you more credible and can actually damage your credibility in the eyes of your colleagues and senior management.
You should also think of this as an opportunity to lead by example. Just as you'd expect a subordinate to come to you with questions if they didn't understand how to complete a task, you should demonstrate a willingness to learn when you run into situations in which you're out of your depth.
Go Forth and Manage Like a Boss
Product management is an exciting, rewarding role that is fundamental to successful products. Few people are as influential to the success or failure of a product launch as PMs, which is why it's important to cultivate as many of these skills as you can if you want to succeed.
Some of these skills are easier to acquire than others; it's much easier to run tighter meetings than it is to learn the fundamentals of Python, for example. The point isn't how quickly you can master these skills but rather understanding that product management is a constantly evolving role that demands an inquiring mind and a willingness to learn.