How management consultancy skills can help create great PMs
Analyse, over-communicate, strategize and collaborate. When you get right down to it, these are the four core skills that management consultants and product managers have in common. I’ve had the opportunity of working in both roles, and can see how my time as a consultant has greatly prepared me for being a product manager at Productboard – even though I could feel that people here were skeptical at first that a consultant could be a good product manager.
Certainly, the jobs aren’t carbon copies of one another. I have had to adapt and learn a few new things as a PM, but consultancy undoubtedly gave me a solid foundation for my next move up the career ladder. I often advise those who are just starting their careers to spend some time as a consultant. The experience is guaranteed to broaden their know-how and hone the skill set they’ll need to become great PMs.
How has my consulting background helped me to excel as a product manager? What consultancy skills do I continue to use in product management and which have I had to ditch or adapt to fit my current position?
I’d like to share a few things I learned along my journey from management consultant to product manager. Perhaps my insights might help you better navigate your own career path.
Consultant vs. Product Manager: Where’s the overlap?
My first big job after university was as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company. I was part of the digital practice, where we mostly worked on agile and digital transformations for large companies such as banks or telecommunications companies. During agile transformations, I was often responsible for designing agile processes, such as financial and people processes, designing a new organisation structure, and coaching product owners. But that’s where the project usually ended, and we handed it back over to the clients. Someone else was in charge of that next interesting phase where the actual implementing, building, releasing, and improving took place. Missing out on this thrill and wanting to have ownership over a product is why I eventually decided to try my hand at product management.
I wanted to have the experience of building a product and staying with it, setting its vision and improving it over time. I didn’t want to be left with just building things for others.
There are a couple of other key areas in my opinion where these two jobs overlap, with a few caveats:
- Stakeholder management. I had to juggle both on a daily basis as a consultant. A lot of the job involved holding my ground with senior-level managers or execs as well as managing different stakeholders. This is similar to what I deal with today. There are a lot of people I need to keep aligned here at Productboard, from my team to my bosses to product, design, engineering and customer-facing teams and marketing. This is where my consultancy background comes in handy.
- Analytical thinking. Analyse, achieve findings, and work with them. This was the bread and butter of a consultant, and it’s exactly what a product manager does, too. At Productboard, I have a specific domain. I look at the data and customer insights, link it all together, and then make decisions based on that.
- Over-communication. As a consultant, I was very focused on presentations and slides. It was unthinkable to come to a meeting and not have a powerpoint presentation. This was quite a switch moving to a tech company. The first time we had a meeting where the presenter read from a Notion doc, I was shocked. However, the ability to tell a good story during a presentation that’s well-structured, top-down communication is a handy skill even here.
- Strategy. Management consultants are generally experts at developing strategies that help companies achieve their goals. As a product manager, it is part of your job to develop long-term and short-term strategies for teams that align with the overall business strategy and support the company’s growth. I’m specifically in charge of a domain, and it’s my job to come up with a vision and be able to think about what will happen in a year or two.
- Collaboration. Management consulting is teamwork, and you are accountable as a team. Relying heavily on the team is also a good product management skill. Try to divide the work within a team and work together. This is what consultancy prepares you well for, because both roles are about teamwork, and you would not be able to achieve much without it.
How product management differs from consultancy
There are a few things that didn’t translate into my role as a PM. One of the biggest challenges I had to confront when I came to Productboard was how to plan for things you cannot plan for in advance.
Thinking through the consequences: As a consultant, you don’t always stick around for the execution of your ideas, which means that you don’t see what can go wrong and how to plan for it. I now find myself in a situation where I have to implement my own strategy, so if I get the strategy wrong, I’ll suffer the consequences later. These days, I think twice before I make promises.
Prioritisation: As a PM, I’ve had to learn how to say “no.” A consultant is not very good at this. A client requests an analysis? You give it to them even if it means staying in the office until 2am. These days, saying “no” is an essential part of the job. I have a lot of work on my plate and I have to prioritise, which means having to say “no” – a lot.
As a consultant, I felt I had to prioritise much less. Thanks to the team leadership, part of my work’s scope was already decided by the project scope. As a product manager, I have more autonomy about what I do and had to learn the hard way that I cannot do it all – no matter how much I wanted to.
Different problem-solving approaches: I have also had to retrain the way I think since becoming a product manager. Consultants are trained to think in a hypothesis-given approach – you have a day-one hypothesis that you validate or disprove. As a product manager, I have to be quick to learn other frameworks, such as problem-solution thinking. I don’t just focus on one problem but gather information and data on much broader topics, look at everything in much more depth and try to connect the pieces.
Laying a good foundation: When you get right down to it, a management consultant and a product manager have a lot more in common than their differences. You could say, with a bit of exaggeration, that both jobs require a kind of quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. And that’s why I think a good consultant has all the prerequisites for becoming a great product manager.
Is there anything you’d add to this list? What was your path to product management? I’d be delighted if you’d drop me a line on LinkedIn.