The Qualities of a Product Manager
What I look for in a Product Manager.
Product managers have to be able to do many tasks across a wide spectrum. Usually, their strength comes from being able to be involved in many aspects of the product. In some of these aspects, they are experts and in others they are laymen and yet they still have to help their team get the maximum also in these areas. Regardless of whether they come from business, technology, user experience, psychology, or any other field they have to master many of these capabilities.
When I recruit a product manager I definitely look for the abilities to write requirements, prioritize, strategize, research the market, and many other skills a product manager has to master. But while I deeply care for these treats I care more about the attitude and inherent qualities, because these are very hard to learn or change, while the business, user experience, and technical capabilities can be usually learned.
Many have written about what they look for in a product manager. I will not be the first and not the last. Because product managers need so many skills it is very hard to choose which of the skills is the most important.
Below is a list of qualities I look for. On each one, I can write an entire blog, yet here I will try to summarize them shortly. You can’t always find them in one person and you usually won’t. As product people, we are very familiar with prioritizing, and prioritizing what we look for is no different. Each one of you can decide what they prioritize for in their next hiring, and it actually can be different from hire to hire as we build a diverse team.
Although not always considered as a quality of a product manager and sometimes overlooked, sharp thinking, in my opinion, is the most important and universal quality of a product manager. It is a quality I will never compromise on.
Because product managers come from so many different backgrounds and need to handle different products, a product manager has to be a fast and sharp thinker. You may want to call it “intelligence”.
A product manager must be able to understand problems very fast, ask all the hard questions, and pivot their thinking when assumptions change in reaction to reality. They need to point in the right direction to progress, whether it happens with customers and whether it happens internally.
You may argue that a product person needs to care first and most about their product. I will not argue with you. However, I claim that the only way to make sure the product gets the best case is to first care about the people that make this product happen.
As I wrote in Product Management is about People and Trust, as a product manager if you don’t know how to motivate the team if you don’t listen to their needs, and if you don’t know what is their pain, and try to help them in overcoming it, there is no chance they will be behind you when trying to assist in your customer’s pains.
To be a people person you need to develop your soft skills. As a junior product person, you usually focus on mastering technical skills. They are important. As you grow, you learn that almost 90 percent of the job revolves around being able to understand the forces at hand in your team and company.
Soft skills are actually a very generic term to many qualities a product manager may need. It involves personal communication, relationship management, how empathetic you are, and many more. If we mentioned intellectual intelligence before, this revolves around your emotional intelligence.
You need to be able to listen and understand not just what is said but also what causes people to act as they do. You need to be able to put aside your needs and care about other people's needs. You need to perceive yourself as an enabler, even if in practice you are a leader. The credit needs to go to your team every day and the blame to you. This requires maturity.
Another treat that might be counter-intuitive is how a product manager looks at herself. Many product managers think that if they are always in the center of action and decisions and the organization cannot act without them, they are doing their job.
A confident product manager that does not act from their ego usually puts the interest of the product and the people in front of everything. They know they need to be very sharp on focus. It usually leads to an empowered team and a successful product.
It is very important for a product manager to be secure and confident in their abilities. It means as a product manager I do not constantly need to prove myself. Somehow, it usually goes with the ability to put my ego aside.
When a product manager is not threatened by other people, she feels that she can easily empower others. She knows they can progress also when she is not there. She is not threatened by their ideas and suggestions but instead celebrates them.
The products we work on, as well as the area of product management, are ever rapidly evolving. As a product manager, you need to be willing to learn new things every day and challenge your beliefs and practices every day.
You should never say “I know”. You should always say “I want to learn more”. And the more you know, the more you discover you know nothing and there is more to know.
I really recommend watching Carol Dweck’s “The power of believing that you can improve” about the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
To be able to learn new things you need to be also self-aware and humble. None of us are without imperfections. It is human nature. The secret for improvement is our ability to acknowledge and reflect on these imperfections.
Once we can stare those imperfections in the eye and accept them for what they are instead of fighting them, it allows us to grow beyond them and not control our professional behavior.
Willingness to Listen
Another important quality is our willingness to listen to others. In our career, we can only hope to get good mentors on the way. If these mentors are really good and practice radical candor or something close to it, we might hear things on us that are hard to hear.
For many people, the impulse in such cases is to jump and defend oneself. This behavior, while understood, hurt us. It stops us from listening and it stops the other party, coming with the gift of reflection, from providing us with real feedback.
I always look for people who are not just self-aware and willing to learn but are also willing to listen behind the words. In every conflict in our lives, there are usually multiple truths. When we encounter a people challenge that moves us out of our comfort zone and get us out of balance, it usually involves imperfections both on our side and on the other party.
If we want to evolve, we should release the other party and focus only on ourselves. When someone outside the situation wants to help us, our job is to listen and not to argue. Later, we can decide to take only the parts out of the critic that really suits us and help us develop.
A product manager needs to be very curious. With every question I ask a candidate, I expect to get multiple questions back. I am expecting to hear the question mark behind every assumption instead of an exclamation mark that states they know everything.
There is always a layer beneath layer in every pain a customer is expressing, in every problem waiting to be discovered, and in any solution addressing that problem.
The last crisis of coronavirus exposed us to how fragile our work environment is. A product manager needs the willingness to adapt to different situations and to different teams and cultures.
They should not try to adapt the team to them but rather adapt themselves to the nature of the team. It does not mean they should not try to change processes or introduce new methodologies, but rather that they should not try to force them when they don’t fit.
Get Shit Done
There is a time for curiosity, and there is time for execution. Product management connects strategy and execution. At the end of the day, our job is to discover, execute, and iterate. If a product manager lives only in the realm of ideation and doesn’t know how to make things happen, they will never be able to deliver the value their customer needs.
When I am recruiting a product manager I look for the ability to jump in a heartbeat from a mode of discovery, ideation, and asking big questions into a mode of execution and the ability to work with what we have at the moment.
A product manager needs to be able to be calm while possibly everyone around us may be stressed. It is our job as I wrote in Product Management in Times of Crisis to make sure everyone is focused and that the team can do it work and not get confused with contradicting directions.
The most frustrating part for a product manager looking for a job is that many times it has nothing to do with them.
When I build a team, with every new product manager joining the team I look for different qualities in order to create diversity and make sure the team is bigger than its parts.
If I already have a product manager that is an expert on data, I may look for the next one to be an expert in UX or on business, and so on. I want a team that can work together and enriches each other because as I mentioned above, no product manager can really have all the skills needed for the job.
What I don't look for
One thing I don’t look for when I am looking for a product manager is their specific experience in the market of the product. I know I am rare in this aspect. Many organizations look only for people coming from the same area. People that can jump into the job from day one.
I care less about the specific market experience. This can be learned very fast if all the treats I mentioned before are already there. I would even take the risk and mention that bringing people from other areas can bring new and refreshing perspectives to the table.
In my opinion, the risk of recruiting an incompetent product manager is much higher than the risk of recruiting someone competent that needs to learn the product or market.
I would not be the first to say it: hire for attitude.
I would prefer attitude to skill almost any day. When I recruit a product manager I look for potential and for attitude. If they have the potential they can learn any skill. If they don’t have the right attitude, people rarely change.
Run a marathon. Not a sprint.