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Up-level your career: Sharpening your product management skillset

Up-level your career: Sharpening your product management skillset

We’re thrilled to launch our new virtual how-to series designed to equip product people with the fundamental skills, knowledge, and tools required to build today’s most beloved products. In the How to Sharpen Your Product Management Skill Sets session, Productboard’s Community Lead Scott Baldwin moderated a discussion with Aron Tremble, VP of Product at Thinkific, Misha Abasov, VP of Product at Rise, and Petra Wille, Product Leadership Coach and author of Strong Product People. Read an edited version of their conversation below.

Scott: What are the top three skills that are instrumental to being a good product manager? 

Petra: It’s hard to limit it to just three! But balancing the risks of software development is a key competency. This includes finding value for our customers, meaningful problems to solve, solutions that are usable and innovative, being technically able to build them, and considering the viability for our company and business as well as whether it’s morally and ethically okay to create this product. 

Misha: It’s essential to get good at learning, absorbing a lot of information, and structuring it, whether it’s about your industry, your domain, or the technology your company is using. And then communication—which includes getting your team excited but also knowing how to ask the right questions to understand the situation and your customers’ needs. And finally, we all could get better at speed—moving faster without losing effectiveness. 

Aaron: Curiosity to understand customers and their behavior. What happens when you do this or that? Influence as a way of getting others to buy into your vision and part with resources and time so you can go do that thing. And critical thinking, the ability to forecast value, to break things down into their sub-parts, and to assess trade-offs. 

Scott: What are some tactics you use to amp up your product team’s skills?

Misha: Having some sort of competency matrix or levels is essential to understand the different skills you expect your team to have and where they have areas for improvement. Setting expectations is critical. Have an expectation that the team members learn and find the best way to solve a problem they are tasked with. Often for ambitious and curious individuals, that’s enough to drive them to find the right resources and develop those skills. 

Aron: There are three fundamentals we try to develop on my team. First, we encourage our product managers to write down their thoughts. The second is to check in frequently, especially with ad hoc, casual conversations that are collaborative rather than critiques or reviews. That way we get leaders and managers who are working more as peers and collaborators. And finally, encourage team members to look outside your walls to find patterns, archetypes, and inspiration from other environments because that can help you accelerate faster.

Petra: One part I see missing in a lot of product leadership is a definition of good. What makes a competent product person in our company, ecosystem, and context? It is way easier to develop if you know where you stand and what the expectation is. If there is no such definition of good, you may want to reach out to your line manager and see if they can come up with that, even if it’s just an MVP version. Product leaders can help their product managers find their next big learning topic in one-on-one coaching situations. And following up is crucial! 

Scott: For product managers that are looking to move to a more senior-level individual contributor role, which skills should they focus on?

Aron: The best material I’ve read about this is in a book called Escaping the Build Trap, which breaks down the expectations for different types of work for different levels of seniority.

As you move up in seniority or scope, if you’re working as an individual contributor, the areas to focus on are all centered on strategy. That’s how you get from insights to action—being able to evaluate a good base of insights. Are you going deep enough to really understand how to make hard decisions and firm plans? Are you assessing the parts of opportunities and technology of the solutions you want to build? How do you look at alternatives? How do you create divergent thinking intentionally? There are some great models out there like the double diamond where you’re systematically looking for those divergent ideas and then you narrow in. And finally, how do you build a runway of strategic clarity, design runway, architecture runway, that allows you to move fast and reduce risk? 

Scott: Does that change as you advance into more product leadership roles?

Aron: As you advance, you’re going to make that choice between being more of a people leader and an individual contributor. A senior individual contributor has a chance to go deeper and really dwell on strategy. If you go down a people management track, then you’re dealing with a whole other set of skills—influence, team leadership, cultural development, how to build out a workflow that works for your business, and making sure you’re aligning the individuals on your team with the needs and opportunities within the business.

Petra: Storytelling is another skill that becomes more important when you move up the career ladder. Being able to tell a compelling story in different lengths and sizes and to different audiences and put the user in the center of these stories. And there’s one super boring thing, which is being comfortable with repetition. The more you move up on the career ladder, the more you need to repeat yourself. You have to explain the idea and strategy over and over again to make sure everybody understood it. 

Misha: Often the skills and traits that have gotten you to your first management role might be at odds with what it takes to be successful as a leader. One of the mistakes first-time group product managers make is underestimating the weight of their own ideas. Coming up as an IC, you might have a lot of great ideas, and that was rewarded—you throw them out there and people love them. But now you bring those ideas to the team and suddenly it’s their manager telling them what to do. Knowing how to balance when to use authority and when to add your own opinion vs. continuing to solicit the opinion of others on your team is a really essential skill that you’ll need to practice.

What are some of the resources you recommend for keeping up with your product knowledge?

Petra: We learn by consuming things, applying them in our day-to-day lives, reflecting on what worked and what didn’t, and finally by sharing with the product community. It’s useful to find a learning buddy within your organization, someone who has the same challenges currently. That’s the smallest community you can be a part of. Then, hopefully, there’s a product community in your company where you share what you learn and what works well. Find a great external community that does some of the curation for you and find events that you really like to join. I just really fell in love with Product Management in Practice by Matt LeMay. It talks about the complexity and ambiguity of our job and includes voices from all over the globe. 

Misha: Both books and communities are really important. I can’t recommend book clubs enough. Here in Vancouver we’re part of Product BC. Product Twitter is great. There are so many voices sharing a lot of ideas and often they’ll bring up best practices and books to read. I really love Shreyas Doshi, John Cutler, Melissa Perri, Emily Tate—there are so many others. Start there and they will often reference each other and give you a great group of people to follow.

Aron: You both covered it really well so I’ll just take a contrarian view and tell you that there’s no book, podcast, or conference that’s going to make you successful. What will make you successful is the curiosity to look for information in new places, to look for new patterns, and to be able to ingest that and think independently. It’s so important that you have that curiosity to go look for new practices or new information. And it might not always be about product management. Think about how to give yourself diverse sources of information. And do what works for you. It’s not a sprint. 

Want to hear even more actionable insights from our panelists? Watch the webinar on-demand here.

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