Product managers have an interesting role. They own a product’s life cycle, from the strategic planning phase all the way to keeping it competitive after it hits the market. That means they’re managing expectations and needs for multiple teams throughout the organization. It’s a difficult job. So what are the key product management skills that make this job a little easier?
We asked six product managers to give us their take. We also asked them which skills they think are a little overrated.
This is the third post in a four-part series on the role of a product manager. In the first post, we covered a product manager’s responsibilities. In the second post, we covered product management certifications. The fourth post is about how you can get your first product manager job. We’d like to thank them for participating in this series.
Keep in mind that the opinions expressed beyond this point are solely those of the product managers and aren’t necessarily representative of the organizations they work for.
What are the essential product management skills?
Product managers have to be able to juggle lots of tasks and responsibilities. So what kind of product management skills come into play?
A product manager is responsible for both building a product strategy and carrying it out. In both cases, they need to have a strategic mindset. Catia Crespo, Product Manager at Ansys, emphasizes this: “Strategic thinking plays a big role when releasing a new product or keeping it on the market. It’s important to be aware of all the different variables when putting the puzzle together.”
Albin Poignot, co-founder and product manager at Linky Product, considers this a distinguishing skill between product managers and other roles: “One sentence I hear often is we’re not doers, we’re strategists. We’re helping build the strategy, we’re not there to execute. We’re deciding what the next priority and our main goal are.” So while project managers and product managers may have similar skills, product managers need that strategic mindset in a way other roles might not.
Seems obvious, right? Any role with manager in the title needs leadership ability. But while leadership is a popular skill to have, there’s a particularity to the product manager role that makes a certain sort of leadership important. As Poignot explains: “You have to have leadership to be a product manager, because you don’t have any authority. You aren’t a manager, so you don’t have power. You can influence leaders and teams, but you can’t impose something.” While product managers are a key strategist for their product, they can’t power through a disagreement the way a CEO or other executive might. It’s a subtle leadership that needs to rely on something author than pure authority.
Minh Tran Van Ba, a Product Manager at Mastercard, believes this has to do with who product managers have to interact with on the day-to-day: “Stakeholder management, and the ability to influence are very important. You need to be able to rally all of your stakeholders to how you see things.” In our product manager responsibilities we revealed that product managers have to be the reference point for stakeholders across the organization. That’s why product managers lead with influence rather than authority.
Being a great leader is all well and good, but how can you lead if you don’t have an accurate sense of what’s going on? The key to that is being able to accurately understand what your teams are telling you. This is what Ellen Chisa, Product Manager, Entrepreneur, and Founder of Dark hits on: “The longer I’ve worked, the more I’ve concluded that listening has to be the top skill. I don’t think you can be a great product manager without it.” Chisa points out that PMs have to listen to a host of people, from customers to teammates and other PMs.
Ahmed Majaat, Product Owner at GSoft, reinforces this: “A lot of a PM’s work involves keeping a great number of collaborators from different teams, all with their own priorities and agendas, in sync. This requires excellent communication and interpersonal skills.”
Pro tip: Building up your communication skills
Communication is essential for every role, not just product management. Strong communication skills make working with other teams smoother, keep projects on track, and avoid potential conflicts. “Communication” is a broad category of skills, but generally involves improving your ability to listen, being more empathetic, speaking more clearly, and building communication into your processes. Working on these skills is a day-to-day affair, and can completely transform the way you work.
Are any product management skills overrated?
Turns out product managers need a good stable of skills to excel at their role. This means they don’t have a lot of time to work on skills that might be less useful. So what skills should product managers avoid focusing on?
Many of the product managers we interviewed were aligned on this; a technical background is far from essential for someone looking to become a product manager. While the knowledge that comes with this background can be helpful, the skills aren’t necessary. “You don’t need to understand the code behind the product, but you need the eagerness to understand the product from a developer’s standpoint,” says Majaat.
Crespo adds that this has a lot to do with the teams that the PM will surround themselves with: “A PM does not need deep engineering knowledge, at least nothing that compares with the skills of software engineers.”
Tactics vs. strategy
For Chisa, there’s an additional layer to this. She drills down to differentiate between what product managers need to know — strategy and planning — and practical skills that they shouldn’t worry about: “I think anything tactical is overrated. Is being able to run your own SQL nice? Yes. Is being able to code a prototype nice? Yes. Sometimes, people need a specific skill and that’s why it’s in the job description, but more often they make a laundry list of skills instead of focusing on what’s necessary to get the job done.”
Ludovic Maire, Group Product Manager at SSENSE, had a different perspective: “None are overrated. They’re all important.” In his view, anything a product manager can bring to the table can benefit the product somehow. But he does concede that aspiring PMs need to be careful: “Because there is such a wide spectrum of skills required, you have to pick your battles. You won’t be able to have the same expertise in all of them.
So while in Maire’s view, a product manager can benefit from any skill, they need to be ready to rely on the teams around them to shore up their weaknesses.
Build up your product management skills
Product management is an intense, diverse role. Your day-to-day can involve conversations with multiple teams, keeping stakeholders aligned, and fine-tuning product strategy on the fly. For that, you need a host of skills. Time to start practicing.
Read the rest of the product manager interview series
- Product Manager Responsibilities According To 5 PMs
- Is a Product Management Certification Important? 6 PMs Weigh In
- How 6 PMs Got Their First Product Manager Job (and How You Can Too)