A Great Product Manager

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In yesterday's article, we discussed what product management is, and why it matters so much to companies. It also is important to early stage companies, who, at least in theory, cannot afford either the extra head count or the founder's time. Actually, seeing how crucial product management is to getting product-market fit - as Steve Blank would say, that is the very essence of a startup - it probably is more important for early stage firms, since they have little to no wiggle room.

So what makes a great product manager? I have heard many answers to the question, including:

  • Technology background, preferably former engineer, so they can gain the respect of and thus have a positive relationship with the engineers, and understand what can and cannot be built into the product
  • Great marketing skills, so they can understand how the product will be positioned and fit in the market
  • Sales skills, so they can talk to customers and see what gets them to close the deal
  • Finance skills, so they can build projections and models to understand the entire business value of the product offering
  • People skills, also known as political savvy, so they can move an organization they do not command

In truth, all of these are, at least partially, correct, and none is.

Any product manager who is not, at the very least, competent in each of these areas will fail.

Every one of the skills listed above is crucial, because every one of the tasks above for which the skills are required is crucial.

A product manager cannot be successful if she or he cannot:

  • Get the respect of and thus build a positive relationship with the engineers
  • Understand what the market strategy is and how to work with marketing in order to build demand for the product and gain market share
  • Talk to customers and even sell, or at least help close, a few deals so as to truly understand from an individual customer's perspective why the product is valuable
  • Connect all of the financial dots, what the gross margins for the product will be under different scenarios, operating margins, time to recognition of revenue and receipt of cash, and impact on business value and valuation
  • Connect all of the people and persuade them to move in a common direction, without the CEO's ability to command it

I would venture one further and say that having too much strength in one area can be a liability. A former salesperson in finance is in such a different area that she is not likely to be pulled naturally into her sales comfort season. But product managers naturally touch every area of the company. A former engineer in product management is going to be deeply involved with engineering and is going to feel the tug to try and dictate technology solutions (the how, which is the domain of the engineers, as opposed to the what, which is the domain of product management) or perhaps even provide them. This will come at the expense of other areas.

On a personal note, I am an engineer by training who has done a lot of product management, both as an employee and as a consultant. It is only by conscious effort that I keep from getting distracted by and pulled into the technology side which is between 1/10 and 1/20 of the job.

There is nothing wrong with coming from one of the functional areas; it is necessary. But only by being aware of the tendency to pull back to those areas can someone overcome it.

In addition, I would add three critical personal skills for a great product manager:

  1. Communications: The product manager is the hub of the product through which everything flows. If the product manager does not communicate what the product must do to every stakeholder and, more importantly, why, people will not come on board, or they will and will make the wrong decisions for the right reasons.
  2. Listening: Even more important than communicating outward is listening, constantly and always, to everyone. Very very few people in a company or of the customers are doing things for selfish, malicious or negative reasons. Most just want to get their job done with pride, make sure it matters and get paid well. A product manager who listens can understand what people's concerns are and how to address them, which will make for a much more effective and desired product and company. However, there is a deeper level. A product manager who knows how to "shut up and listen" conveys empathy. People will start to seek him or her out, and the information critical to the job will come in without much effort. Just as marketing creates demand that simplifies sales, great listening and empathy create the demand to share which, in turn, makes product management a whole lot easier.
  3. Humility: Everyone in the company is smart, especially in their area. Confidence is important in a product manager, but humility, truly recognizing that each person does his or her job well and knows it better than the product manager does, will teach far more than any book or market research, and will ease the flow of information.

Now go find a great product manager and hire them.