Sometimes I read descriptions of what it takes to be a great product manager and it makes my brain hurt. While reading essays such as Ben Horowitz’s Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager and Marty Cagan’s Behind Every Great Product are indisputably inspiring, it can be daunting to figure out how to execute that mentality day to day.
After working at both startups and large enterprise companies in a variety of different industries, connecting with rockstar PMs across the industry, and building multiple products from scratch, I have learned a few tricks along the way. Here is my distilled, simplified list of what I believe to be the top three skills of a great product manager:
They lead without authority
Product managers are responsible for aligning teams to a single product vision. This is hard, because every internal stakeholder has a different view as to what will make the product and company successful. A seller will most likely have a different view than an engineer, which can cause a lot of internal friction as it pulls the product manager’s attention in multiple competing directions. Great product managers don’t let this happen. They have confidence in their ability to be the voice of the customer and they use data and research to guide their thinking. Because product managers don’t manage other teams, yet need to unify diverse stakeholders around a common vision, leadership is crucial to their success.
They ensure the right people are working on the right things
Sometimes, the job can feel a little bit like Tetris. Different priorities are falling from the sky, and your job is to arrange and fit the pieces together mid-air without dropping or letting them fall out of place. You have to fit the pieces together correctly and at the right time in order to ship great software. The most valuable resource we have is time, and when building software products that generally comes down to design and engineering time. This requires the product manager to extensively and constantly be thinking and planning ahead. Discovering, scoping, and prioritizing while the pieces are still mid-air to ensure that designers and engineers are working on the right things can be the difference between a good product and a great one.
They deliver outcomes
Good product managers focus on features. Great product managers focus on outcomes. Building features is fun, but what’s not fun is finding out later that the feature you just spent three months building did nothing to increase your overall goal of increasing engagement. Great products happen when you start with a goal, have a hypothesis for how to reach it, test it on users, and iterate until you get it right.