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Written by Ken Sandy, experienced product leader, author of “The Influential Product Manager,” and industry fellow and lecturer at UC Berkeley, where he teaches the engineering school’s first product management course.
What distinguishes an outstanding product manager from a good one? I thought a lot about this question when writing my book, The Influential Product Manager.
It’s not a simple question to answer, as any product manager has to have well-honed business, technical, and people skills. That said, in my experience, the following five superpowers tend to separate the best from the rest.
Intellectual curiosity is about the willingness to get to the absolute root cause of a problem. Great product managers are incredibly curious. If something isn’t working, they are relentless in trying to understand why. They continually ask questions and zero in on the problem like a heat-seeking missile, but they are rarely satisfied with face-value answers.
Intellectual curiosity is about the willingness to get to the absolute root cause of a problem.
Sometimes, a customer may say they need X, but in fact, they need Y or Z. Where others are quick to jump to conclusions, great product managers dig deep into the data to understand the underlying dynamics.
Furthermore, they are always seeking opportunities to talk to customers and understand the problems they are having on a deeper level. And they don’t just talk to existing customers – they’ll talk to anyone they can, so long as it’s within their potential target audience. This desire to always be learning and understanding is a vital trait for any great product manager.
Despite the clear importance of this superpower, I can think of countless examples where product managers have failed to exhibit intellectual curiosity. For example, some product managers rely on other teams to do their analytics, rather than digging into the data themselves. Some fail to prioritize instrumentation within their products, because tracking how the product performs is an afterthought or seen as an easy target for descoping. Others outsource the process of talking to customers to other teams and then wait for them to provide feedback, which tends to be too high-level to be of any real use.
The next superpower is what I would describe as an endless sense of ownership. This is not the same as saying that the product manager is the CEO of the product. I’ve heard this idea being thrown about in the product world, and I don’t think it’s very helpful.
Product managers are not like CEOs in one important way: they don’t have the authority that a CEO has. A PM needs to work through influence, not authority. Typically, they don’t own the product, and they don’t get an absolute say in the allocation of resources that CEOs get. They may not even own the vision of the product.
A PM needs to work through influence, not authority.
So when I say a sense of ownership, I mean that great product managers own every aspect of the product’s success. They understand that if a single component within the product fails, or a single person contributing to the product doesn’t do their job, they will ultimately have to own that failure.
A great product manager sees every part of the product’s success as their responsibility. They collaborate with every part of the organization to realize that success, whether it’s marketing, sales, engineering, or any other key stakeholder. They don’t say, “that’s not part of my job.” If something needs doing, they roll their sleeves up and get it done.
A great product manager sees every part of the product’s success as their responsibility, and they collaborate with every part of the organization to realize that success.
Once the product is launched, they don’t wipe their hands of it and say, “great, I’ve done my job, now it’s up to the organization to sell it.” Great product managers don’t just focus on getting the product to market, they also think about what happens next and how to measure success. Once a product is launched, they’re the first to get the data on how customers are using it – and they’re already starting to think about how to optimize it.
Every professional must have good verbal and written communication. These skills are just a given. But I’ve found that truly outstanding product managers have a knack of prioritizing effective communication in their role.
What does this look like in practice? Well, it means being able to move seamlessly across an organization, talking to people in different roles in a way that is appropriate to their specific goals, language, or position. It means being able to empathize with the listener and deliver the message in a way that is most impactful for them.
This skill starts with a deep understanding of the different roles within the organization and their own particular goals and motivations. It involves the ability to converse in the language of the listener, whether that’s a marketing creative, an engineer, or a c-suite executive.
For example, when talking to executives, great product managers are succinct and to the point. They focus on aims and outcomes. With more junior staff, they might spend more time going through the details of the underlying data, giving them more time to process information and come along for the journey.
Some people need visual communication to get inspired, while others need numbers and data. Some ask questions, while others want to debate and argue. Great product managers are able to handle these different styles of communication with confidence and empathy.
“Great product managers are able to handle different styles of communication with confidence and empathy.”
There’s also an element of smart repetition and over-communication. To make a message stick, people often need to hear it multiple times, but not necessarily in the same way. Product managers might need to communicate the same underlying message through regular updates and emails, Slack channels, presentations, visuals, analysis, customer quotes, a vision statement, and prototyping to bring the message together into something tangible.
Ultimately, a product manager’s job is not about building the product right; it’s about ensuring that they’re building the right product. They have to take a strategic approach that allows them to use the available resources to deliver as much value to the business and customers as possible.
“A product manager’s job is not about building the product right; it’s about ensuring that they’re building the right product.”
The best product managers think several steps ahead of their team. They understand the long game and spend a lot of time looking around corners, envisioning what might go right and what might go wrong. They set aside time to understand the risks and how they might mitigate them.
And importantly, they spend time talking to customers to discover new opportunities, even while working hard to get something that has already been prioritized into the customers’ hands. They don’t listen only to satisfied customers, or get seduced by the loudest voice in the room. Instead, they are keen to talk to dissatisfied customers and come back with new issues or opportunities for their team to work on.
This concept is fairly easy to understand but very hard to live. To me, living an ego-less existence is about being mature enough to understand that you’re in the hot seat. If something goes wrong, no matter where in the chain it is, it’s your fault. If something goes right, that’s the team’s success and not just your own. Great product managers have the emotional intelligence to understand and accept this without getting defensive or needing reassurance.
The best product managers also have a strong growth mindset. They’re always thinking about how to become more mature and build new skills. They seek personal feedback, constantly looking for ways to improve and learn. And rather than avoiding negative feedback or becoming upset by criticism, they are ready to embrace it.
At the same time, they ensure that the team is being rewarded and recognized for the contributions they make. That’s not to say that they put up with shoddy work. They always hold their team accountable and provide constructive criticism where needed. But they understand the importance of recognition and always look for opportunities to highlight the team’s successes.
I find far too many product managers allow themselves to be consumed by the urgent, tactical issues, leaving little time for the important and strategic. They obsess over the delivery aspects such as project managing their engineering and design teams’ tasks. While well-intentioned (and contributing to timely delivery is a key part of the product manager’s role), this often means they haven’t spent nearly enough time understanding the next problem to be solved and ensuring that their teams are set up for successful long-term outcomes.
People often ask me whether these superpowers are learnable, or whether they are something we’re either born with or not.
Although we all have different natural abilities and skill sets, I believe that these superpowers are learnable. But there is a caveat: if you want to improve these skills, you have to care about them. If you aren’t passionate about the product you are building, you aren’t going to feel a sense of ownership for it, and you aren’t going to have a burning curiosity about how to improve it.
So, assuming you care passionately about what you do, how do you go about honing these superpowers? Well, the answer is simple: approach the learning process like you would the development of a product. Figure out what you need to work on and iterate slowly over time. Expose yourself to situations that force you to use and fine-tune those skills. Get good at one or two things, and then move onto the next one.
Learn more about the superpowers and how product managers can be more successful in The Influential Product Manager.
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