Product managers are sometimes referred to as the CEOs of a product. They have the vision, intelligence, drive, and savvy to lead and make things happen. They don’t own the product, but they’re instrumental in bringing it to life.
Product management had its start in the early 1930s when Procter & Gamble named its first “brand man.” The more recent surge of the tech industry further carved out and defined the role. It’s difficult to imagine not having this position at any company that puts out a product.
Many product managers have come to the job with backgrounds in fields such as engineering and computer science. For sure, those credentials are extremely useful for products such as computer software, apps, and websites. But the field is opening to a broader range of professionals interested in product management.
Regardless of education and experience, certain skills may be the true test of superior product managers. If you want to excel in the profession, or you want to move into it, take note. Here are three ways to be a better product manager.
1. Collaborate and Communicate
As a product manager, you’re the person who asks customers what they want. From there, you develop a vision of the product your company must produce to satisfy those wants. The vision dancing in your head needs to dance out on stage so internal teams can see what you see.
According to Shortcut, solid collaboration with the members of the teams responsible for bringing your ideas to fruition is critical and leads to better ideas. Product management and engineering and marketing have diverse perspectives. But it’s your job to get everyone reading from the same playbook.
Moreover, real collaboration doesn’t occur without effective communication. As a product manager, you’ll trust the development of your vision to your teams. You have to make sure they can readily access and share information on their work and avoid getting siloed.
To quote Peter Drucker: “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” To excel as a product manager, you must pay attention to what customers and teams aren’t saying. As a leader, you also need to hear what they’re saying from not just your perspective, but theirs.
Being that big-picture visionary is a key aspect of what you do. But if it stops with you, and the doers can’t see the goal, your vision won’t be realized. Effective collaboration and communication are the means to that end.
2. See the Pixels in the Big Picture
Being a big-picture professional does not mean you don’t also need to see the pixels within it. The best product managers can see both. And they use that ability to keep strategy on the path to the goal.
Google’s Ken Norton is one of the most notable product managers in the profession’s distinguished history. Nonetheless, Norton is the guy who “brings the donuts” to his teams. He sees every step necessary to take a product to the next level, even if he’s not the one taking them.
As a product manager, you aren’t the hands-on doer. However, to manage product development, you need to know how teams move products from point A to B. That’s because it’s your job to make sure progress from start to finish remains on track.
To be the best product manager, you must go beyond just seeing the details. You need to be capable of anticipating roadblocks and providing options to get around them. Strive to make your foresight, not your hindsight, 20/20.
You may bring the donuts, but you also bring the road map. It reflects your vision, goals, tasks, timelines, status indicators, and massive amounts of data. You can’t create it without understanding each and every item on the map first.
The must-haves, should-haves, could-haves, and will-not-haves on the road map aren’t always easy to plot. But with the right experience, expertise, and a willingness to learn about the details, you can succeed. Furthermore, your team will know exactly where to go.
3. Practice Empathy
If your background is in engineering, computer science, or a similar discipline, this one may challenge you. You may think that analytic thought and emotional intelligence are strange bedfellows. Instead, you should see them as opposites attracted to one another.
Your cognitive prowess should allow you to view things from perspectives other than your own. Thus, you have the ability to be sympathetic. But to be empathetic, you have to see and experience things with internal and external audiences.
Empathy begins with your customer or user — those for whom you want to develop a product that fulfills their need. If you can feel their problem, you can understand it personally, which helps you solve it professionally.
The same applies to teams working on the product you’re developing. You have to experience their challenges before providing clarification from solely an intellectual standpoint. The solutions will be stronger, which means the product will be better.
However, this requires that you stop believing you have all the answers, which is a common tendency among bright people. Instead, you should be asking what the questions are. This means you need to listen, gather input and use it and have more genuine conversations.
The good news is that, as an IBM Research Insights report states, empathy is a behavior you can learn. Since product managers are intelligent lot, you’re capable of acquiring the knowledge. You just have to commit to the learning.
Becoming a better product manager isn’t about taking engineering or computer science courses. (Although it’s true that in some industries, this knowledge would help.)
Rather, being a better product manager is about being a better leader, researcher, co-worker, and customer experience professional. You must have all the CEO qualities to develop stellar products. But to be better in your role, you need to improve at some other things.
In product management, you must be smart, agile, knowledgeable, and an intrepid decision-maker. After all, you are chiefly accountable for a product’s success or failure at the end of the day. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to be decisive — and resilient.
These three ways you can become a better product manager aren’t taught in an engineering curriculum. You’ll have to learn them on the ground. But if better or best is what you want to be, take steps to move to the head of the class.