Attributes of a Product Manager

The role of Product Manager is demanding in any organization. The list of what it takes to be successful is long, and daunting. A great product manager is a great communicator, has technical chops, can climb enormous learning curves with ease, and can contribute at all levels in the organization, from the production floor to the C-suite.

Often I am asked “Where do you find good product management candidates?” or “How do I become a product manager?”. Not easy questions to answer, and I have posts elsewhere to answer specifically.

There is not a perfect antecedent to being a product manager.  The good ones most often fall into the role.  Often it starts like a cleanup hitter in baseball.  A jack of all trades, good at making contact, better at running the bases, and a threat on the diamond. Likewise, good product managers have spent time in the past in roles with close customer interaction. Support roles, or sales engineering are really good pools of candidates.

Rarely will someone start in a product management role (NB: this is for technology and software products.  Consumer Packaged Goods is quite different). Having an MBA, while providing useful analytical tools and skills, is not essential.  Educational backgrounds are varied, but usually something technical, not business-like.

  • Observant. Product Managers are curious, like to investigate new (and existing) things. They notice small details, as well as large. A good Product Manager will find flaws or unintended consequences of design during design reviews.

  • Continuously learning. Product Managers are always reading, learning new things, either in their field, or orthogonal to their field.

  • Creative. They are either artistic by nature, or have hobbies that are creative. They like to write blogs, play musical instruments, photography, drawing, etc.

  • Communicators. Like to write. Not afraid to put pen to paper and write a technical document, or verbiage for a brochure. Do it easily (and quickly). A flair for language, and a pretty broad vocabulary. I have been complemented on my command of the English language, and I attribute my vocabulary to my extensive and eclectic reading habits.

  • Analytical. We know how to extract order from the chaos of corporate reporting systems. We can determine trends, extract market segmentation, and leverage this in our product definition, and prioritization. An educational background in a hard science is an excellent jumping off point for this trait.

  • Decisive. Nothing paralyzes an organization more than a person who can’t commit to course of action. Product Managers are expected to get to a conclusion, supported by data and evidence, and rally the troops to move towards it.  Even if it changes in the future, this decisiveness is crucial.

  • Negotiator. Good Product Managers can broker truces between natural enemies. Getting to yes, and offering win-win scenarios is a natural.

  • Leader. Explicitly or implicitly, the PM is a leader in an organization, nearly as much as the GM. They have to ensure that they have followers, and that the troops rally to their war cry.

Clearly, these attributes are not taught in school. The certification organizations can help with the mechanics of the role, but unless product management is in your DNA, and unless you can take the stress and strain on your body and soul, you will not be successful.

That said, there is nothing that can make an incompatible person into an effective product manager. No training, no book, no internship on the planet that can guarantee success.

Sorry for the baseball analogy, I am not really a fan, but the concept of the “cleanup hitter” is spot on for describing the utility of product management.