Seven Characteristics of a Good Product Manager

“Hard things are hard because there are no easy answers or recipes. They are hard because your emotions are at odds with your logic. They are hard because you don’t know the answer and you cannot ask for help without showing weakness.”

Ben Horrowitz

Let’s face it: Product Management is tough. Really tough.

You must communicate with a variety of stakeholders, manage (sometimes contradicting) expectations while convincing your team to follow your vision of a future product not yet materialized.

As a Product Manager, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades guy. To add onto the complexity, the role may be significantly different depending on the industry, product and type of customer (B2B vs. B2C) you’re dealing with.

As opposed to other professions like Software Engineering or Finance, there is no ideal path to a) becoming a product manager and b) getting good at it.

Nonetheless, there is a certain set of characteristics that good (or even great) product managers share. So, let’s dive into the seven characteristics of a good product manager (in no particular order).

1. Prioritization

As a product manager, you often work together with different parts of the organization. These may include teams such as (software) engineering, marketing, sales, customer care, other PM’s or even top management.

On top of that, there will be external influences in the form of customer data and feedback as well as competitor and market movements.

All these influencing factors will inevitably cause a lot of noise. One of your key duties as a PM is it therefore to filter out all this noise through focused prioritization of efforts.

Product people prioritize by keeping both short term success as well as the long-term vision in mind. Hence, the product vision you (and your team) create will act as a guiding north star for everything you do.

On a mid-term basis, we can use our product roadmap as well as OKR’s to facilitate decision making. While on the day to day, there are various techniques to assess a task’s priority:

  • Scoring (i.e. RICE)
  • Kano Model
  • MoSCoW Method

All of these frameworks and techniques are only worth their time if effectively communicated and explained. Which leads us to the next point on the list.

Learn How Remote Product Managers Prioritize Their Work

2. (Visual) Communication

As stated in the previous chapter, product managers communicate with a variety of people throughout the day.

For instance, talking to C-level executives might require you to focus on the business side of things without stressing too much about technical depth (and maybe even speaking in laymen terms). On the other hand, your tech team would possibly like to have detailed conversations about the technical feasibility of a feature or the effects of a bug.

You need to be able to handle all of this incoming information while presenting it in a digestible way. On top of that, PM’s need to be able to present information not only through spoken words, but visual means.

Whether it’s quickly drawing up a prototype, creating a holistic product roadmap or displaying user data, using visuals effectively will help you get your point across much faster and more reliable.

3. Emotional Intelligence

As a PM, you have to show empathy towards any outside influence you encounter. Examples may include:

  • Understanding your customer’s pain when using existing solutions
  • Understanding what agenda and objectives your company-internal stakeholders must follow
  • Understanding the overall direction of your company, taking into consideration competitor and market changes

Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis published a great piece on what constitutes emotional intelligence. It constitutes self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.

Self-awareness as a PM teaches you how to leave your feelings and personal preferences out of the equation. They must kill the need for wanting to be right. Instead, one should utilize data (collected through interviews, surveys or product usage) and a healthy portion of experience (i.e. intuition) to make decisions.

Self-management, as evidenced by self-control, adaptability, achievement orientation and a positive outlook, is a core trait of great PM’s. Juggling tight deadlines, different team objectives, revenue targets and so forth can not only challenge you professionally, but as a person. The best product people know how to push forward when it matters while remaining calm and collected. Think yourself as the captain of a ship, leading your organization to a promised heaven.

Social awareness, being comprised by empathy and organizational awareness, gives you a toolset for communicating with different product stakeholders. It makes you understand the pain of your customer and the needs of your bosses. As a PM, you operate within a certain set of constraints (e.g. budgets, team availability, changing customer preferences etc.). Your ability to influence people under these limitations and gain a deep understanding of what bothers them can greatly accelerate plans such as hiring, new feature development or time to go to market.

Relationship management, amongst others,is a PM’s ability to resolve conflicts, successfully negotiate budgets or working with different teams towards a shared goal. Great relationship builders are able to form authentic and trustworthy connections with their peers. Having those relationships at your disposal will allow you to

  • Find necessary stakeholders much faster
  • Get buy-in from the relevant stakeholders
  • Receive additional funding for new projects or MVP’s
  • Get other to do their job faster or work a little longer (e.g. quick bug fixes or feature testing)

With regards to external stakeholders (i.e. customers), having great relationships can lead to faster and more detailed feedback, free beta testers, or even deeply convinced product advocates.

4. Technical Expertise

While you as a PM won’t be the one writing code, it is absolutely essential that you understand the technical feasibility of implementing new product components. After all, it doesn’t come as a surprise that many of today’s product people come from a software engineering or other technical backgrounds.

After all, good PM’s add to engineering teams. They can help in assessing how much technical depth is required, how feasible a feature or bug fix is and whether the dev team has over- or under-scoped a project.

Product managers furthermore represent the technical teams when interacting with other stakeholders. While there is no general requirements for technical skills, a PM should preferably possess previous technical expertise in the field they’re working in.

5. User Experience Understanding

Before you start screaming and shouting at me: no, product managers should not be responsible for the design of the product. That’s why we have product designers. In very mature organizations, PM’s and designers are sometimes even assisted by UI designers as well as researchers on the design and interface end.

What is essential is to establish a UX mindset, more specifically by using design thinking skills and putting the user at the centre of attention. Questions worth asking could include:

  • What is the general problem at hand?
  • What are the priorities and needs of the user?
  • What are his or her pain points?
  • How experienced is the user in using your or similar solutions?
  • What are the characteristics of your personas?

To better understand our users, we engage in user research. Techniques include field research, usability testing, customer journey mapping storyboards or classic user personas.

Next to user research, PM’s should possess a basic level of design understanding. Hereby, we use techniques such as wireframing, site maps, user flows, or design patterns to give our designers and engineers a basic understanding of the end product.

6. Analytical & Statistical Thinking

While you don’t need to possess a statistics PhD from Stanford, having numerical literacy is nevertheless a key product manager skill.

Having an analytical understanding beyond profits and losses can aid you in determining whether

  • new features have a greater impact compared to previous implementations
  • a feature test was successful or not
  • users are more engaged with your product

and many more. There is a set of basic statistical tools every PM should possess.

Descriptive statistics are used to summarize or simply describe the characteristics of a data set. With descriptive statistics, we can measure the frequency (i.e. count or percent), central tendency (i.e. mean or median), variation (i.e. variance or standard deviation) and position (i.e. percentile or quartile ranks).

As such, we can describe the basic features of our data. In the context of product management, descriptive statistics can give us insights on aspects such as

  • how many customers use our service in a given time period
  • how our customers are distributed by age, gender, country and so forth (through averages, counts or percentages)
  • which features is utilized the most, based on a summary of clicks, time on page or similar metrics

One key aspect of descriptive statistics is its relativity and usability. Knowing how old or from which country your users are is in itself not valuable information. What makes it useful is the comparison across other periods (i.e. timelines) or competitor data.

Inferential statistics allow us to reach conclusions that go beyond what the data shows on a surface level. We use inferential statistics to assess if an observed action or difference is intended (in other words: statistically significant) or random.

In the product management world, we use A/B tests to assess whether an observation we make is statistically significant. We thereby test two types of hypotheses, namely the null hypothesis (our initial state) and the alternative hypothesis (the new solution we test).

We then choose a dependent and independent variable for testing. For instance, we could run a test on the following hypothesis:

If we add reviews to our product description pages, we should be able to raise our conversion rate from currently 5 percent.

In this instance, our product page would be the independent variable and our conversion rate the dependent variable.

In the case of A/B tests, two things have to be kept in mind:

  • we need to ensure that we have enough data at our disposal (B2B companies, for instance, normally don’t have enough users to run sufficient tests)
  • we should measure only one dependent variable for every test (e.g. not measuring conversion rates, bounce rates, traffic etc.)

Visualizations are a key component of analytical prowess and display (no pun intended) a person’s ability to present data in a meaningful and easy to digest way. Nowadays, many data visualization tools such as Excel, Tableau or Power BI exist. Other folks rely more on scripting with R or Python.

Furthermore, there are various types of graphs that you can include, for instance

  • Tables
  • Line or bar charts
  • Scatter plots
  • Pie charts or tree maps
  • Heatmaps

What’s important to understand is that the tool should only act as an extension of the story you try to convey. Visualizations should therefore be used to empower a specific audience and address their needs.

Additionally, it is critical to provide context when telling your story. A conversion rate of 3 percent is just a number, but if that is a 50 percent increase YoY or 2x better than your competitors, it begins to add meaning.

Lastly, every product manager should follow the KISS principle and revert from overcomplicating or clotting the visualization with unnecessary information.

7. Visionary Thinking

Every great product begins with bold vision. Product managers therefore also have to be big thinkers and even bigger risk takers.

Visionaries see beyond what is available to them – they foresee trends and a future state where their product is not an exception, but the norm.

Thinking beyond the box starts with a healthy portion of curiosity. This involves staying up to date with the latest trends, consistently talking to your users and stakeholders as well as digging deep into the data at hand.

On the other hand, you have to learn how to say no. In theory, every idea sounds appealing. But as previously discussed, there is only a limited amount of resources at your disposal. And don’t forget: for every Android, there’s a Google Glass.

Thanks for stopping by! And while you’re here, you might want to take a look at other goodies, including what type of tasks product owners work on or how to make more time for ad-hoc work.

Hi folks, Viktor checking in! Years of experience in various tech-related roles have led me to start this blog, which I hope provides you with as much enjoyment to read as I have writing the content.