Seven Non-Negotiable PM Skills
These skills may be soft, but they’re indispensable for product managers
The most frequently used visualization of product management is this Venn diagram by Mind the Product founder Martin Eriksson which shows the product manager sitting at the intersection between business, technology, and user experience (UX):
This Venn diagram shows the domain skills that are necessary for a PM. They are also somewhat specific to the product: A B2B SaaS web application, an e-commerce company, a PaaS service for developers, and a B2C mobile app are all going to have vastly different requirements in terms of the PM’s skills in UX, technology, and business. If a PM working on one of these products were to move to one of the others, their domain skills may be completely inapplicable.
There are, however, some skills that are more generally applicable to product managers across different technology companies and products. They are all “soft” skills, but that doesn’t mean they are less important than the “harder” domain skills in UX, technology, or business. In fact, they are more important: Product management is a soft skills job. The product manager will pretty much always work together with others who have deeper “hard” domain skills, like engineers for the technology domain, designers for the UX domain, and senior management, sales, or finance for the business domain. The product manager’s job, more than anything else, is to be the “glue” that binds these domains together. That requires some depth in these domains in order to understand objectives and constraints, and based on that, evaluate trade-offs, but it doesn’t require true expertise.
Being effective in bringing those domains together does require deep “soft” skills, though. Here is a list of seven ”soft” skills that I consider essential to be a great product manager:
- Leadership / vision
- Decision making & follow-up
- Time management
- Curiosity & learning
More details on each of them in the following.
One analogy that is often thrown around is that the product manager should be the “CEO of the product”. The phrase harkens back to Ben Horowitz’s landmark 1997 document “Good Product Manager / Bad Product Manager”. The PM role of course has evolved quite a bit since that time, and the analogy was always imperfect: the team a PM works with typically doesn’t report to the PM, and the PM often can’t hire/fire or give direct orders to anyone.
However, the core of the analogy is something else: like a CEO, the product manager needs to display ownership of the product. Ownership means feeling accountable for the success or the failure of the product.
Ownership is, first and foremost, an attitude. It means that a PM doesn’t say “that’s not my job” about any problem related to their product. From resolving conflicts between senior level stakeholders to getting coffee for the team, whatever it is that currently needs doing in order to move the product forward, the product manager will be there to do it. In other words, product management contains a large amount of “hustling”.
Ownership is an attitude but it’s also a skill: it requires attention that is both broad, covering all critical aspects of the product, and deep, understanding a sufficient level of detail across these aspects to have meaningful conversations and evaluate tradeoffs. In other words, the product manager is the polymath of their product.
Empathy is defined as the ”capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.” It is often shorthanded to being an aspect of emotional intelligence (EQ), but it doesn’t have to be only about how other people is feeling — it can simply be understanding their motivations, incentives, and constraints, and how those impact the course of action they take.
Empathy comes up very often in discussions about product development in the context of empathy for the customer / user. Putting yourself in the shoes of the user, understanding what their problems and needs are and how they perceive your product and try to use it in order to fulfil their needs is crucial for identifying ways to improve the product. There is even a UX tool for this purpose, the ”empathy map”.
User empathy is of course relevant for product managers, but even as important is empathy for team members and stakeholders. The product manager’s job is to bring the different viewpoints to the table (for example, those of engineering, design, and business stakeholders), and facilitate finding a common course of action. The only way to be effective at this is being able to see the situation from the perspectives of all those stakeholders and then helping make a decision that is in the interest of everyone.
Communication is perhaps the most critical skill as a product manager. In contrast to engineers, who produce software, and designers, who produce visual designs and assets, product managers produce hardly any output that’s not communication. Be it written documents, presentations, or informal discussions, communication is the centerpiece of a product manager’s job.
The weight of different forms of communication differs between company cultures. In some companies (Amazon being a famous example), written communication trumps everything. In other companies (often bigger corporates), preparing and facilitating meetings with senior stakeholders is critical. In many startup environments, high-frequency informal communication prevails.
There are some invariables though for being an effective communicator. Regardless of the form, communication should be concise (conveying the points as efficiently as possible) and precise (reducing ambiguity where possible). Communication should also be well structured, laying out arguments in a way that is easy for the listener to follow. More specifically, product managers should be good at storytelling — being able to provide enough context and framing and then communicate the points of the message in an order and a fashion that engages the audience throughout the delivery.
Effective communication also requires empathy (see above): In order to be most effective, the way a message is communicated should be adjusted depending on the audience and its frame of reference.
Leadership / vision
Most of the time, product managers are not in a formal leadership position — they don’t get to tell anyone what to do. They still have to be leaders, though — they need to take the company and product vision and make it actionable for the team. Since they can’t rely on formal authority, product managers actually require stronger leadership skills than some line management positions.
Key to being an effective leader as a product manager is aligning the whole team on how they are delivering on the product vision. This means developing a more actionable short term direction for the particular part of the product that the team is working on, aligning it with the team and stakeholders, and then working with the team on delivering on that direction. In order to be effective as a product manager, the team needs to be involved in that direction setting, but it is very often the product manager’s responsibility to maintain the link between overall company and product vision and the work that is going on in the team. Leadership as a product manager means continuously rallying the team behind that vision and letting everyone understand how their work is contributing to pushing product and company forward.
Decision making and follow-up
Since the product manager in reality isn’t the ”CEO of the product”, the product manager also shouldn’t be the one to make all the decisions. The product team should make the decisions. However, very often it falls on the product manager to facilitate the decision making progress. This starts with understanding the perspectives of the various team members and stakeholders, identifying and evaluating trade-offs, and defusing any conflicts that arise.
What makes this particularly challenging is that the product manager role isn’t a neutral facilitator role, but is representing a particular perspective as well — namely that of the business. Product managers therefore need to be able to both relay the argumentation from their perspective and evaluate trade-offs that take all perspectives into account. If they fail at the former, the business perspective won’t be taken into account in decision making. If they fail at the latter, they will lose trust of the team or stakeholders. Both will eventually mean that the product manager fails.
In addition to ensuring decisions are being made in a way that takes the trade-offs into account, good product managers also ensure that these decisions are being followed up on. This usually starts in a decision meeting with clarifying the exact decision and defining action items and owners. After the meeting it might involve things like writing meeting notes, sending follow-up emails, creating tickets, or prodding people directly: when the ball is at risk of being dropped, good product managers step in and move the process along.
It varies from company to company how much project management a product manager is required to do. One thing is the same across companies: product managers have a very full plate. PMs typically are required to coordinate with members of the team as well as with external stakeholders (like senior management, marketing, sales, finance, legal, etc.), which can leave them stuck in meetings for a lot of the day.
Effectively managing their own time and the various demands on it is therefore crucial for product managers. This means being diligent in terms of capturing tasks and follow-up items, ruthlessly prioritizing, and also providing pushback to stakeholders where required.
Good product managers always follow up, and do whatever it takes to get their jobs done. That doesn’t have to mean working crazy hours, but it does mean being really great at task and time management.
Curiosity & learning
Curiosity and learning aren’t necessarily a skill, per se. Everyone can learn, although some learn more quickly than others. Having a mindset of curiosity and constant learning is paramount for product managers, though. The moment you think you know everything about your users/customers, your technology, and your business is the moment you stop being innovative. Hence, product managers need to constantly strive to improve their domain knowledge.
Moreover, we know that most of our improvement ideas fail. If an organization doesn’t learn from the ideas that fail, it has therefore wasted a lot of time and energy on something that didn’t bring any advancement. Setting up discovery and validation process in a way that enables learning from all ideas, even the failed ones (beyond just ”this idea didn’t work”), means that the organization will be most effective in discovering what really delivers value to users, customers, and the business.
In summary, while domain skills in technology, business, and user experience are important to be effective as a product manager, I believe these ”hard” skills are often built up rather quickly if you have a solid base to start from. The seven ”softer” skills outlined in this article are much harder to acquire. When hiring and developing product managers, I would therefore focus much more on the non-negotiable skills outlined in this article than on the classical trifecta of technology, business, and UX.
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