Product managers play a critical role in many organizations. However, judging from the number of complaints I hear when working with CEOs and company leaders, good ones are hard to find and even harder to make sure their impact is as positive as possible.
When I ask these leaders why their product managers aren’t working out, most have a hard time explaining why, other than the obvious fact that they aren’t producing the desired results. In all likelihood, the lack of performance goes back to the hiring process. Too often, companies focus on a candidate’s technical background while overlooking other important criteria. As a result, they end up with someone lacking the essential skills and attributes to succeed on the job.
Like the CEO of a business, the position of product manager involves a broad and diverse skill set. In fact, the best product managers act as CEO of the product, taking full responsibility for all outcomes and measuring themselves in terms of the product’s success. Moreover, many of the traits that make for winning company CEOs can also be found in the best product managers.
Top-performing product managers:
- Define a clear goal.
Winning product managers define good products that can be executed with a strong effort and keep the team focused on them. In contrast, weak product managers vaguely define products that can’t be executed. Or, they allow engineering to build whatever they want, including adding new features that may or may not add value to the customer.
- Know the business of the business.
Effective product managers have to know all about the company’s market, product or product line, and the competition. But they also need to understand the business of their own business. This means knowing the organization’s vision of winning, its top strategic priorities, and how it makes money. Without this big picture perspective, product managers have no context for the products they manage.
- Are balanced on future and present.
By knowing the business of the business, product managers can more effectively devise and execute a winning plan for their product. This requires having a mindset that blends looking ahead (How can we? What if we could? Where will our customers be six or 12 months from now?) with what needs to get done today. Great product managers have a strong belief in the value of gathering information and make time to ponder and consider “what if?” while they execute on the most pressing day to day challenges.
- Are solutions-oriented.
Great product managers take full responsibility for all outcomes, and measure themselves in terms of the product’s success. They are constantly considering “how can we?” In contrast, bad product managers always have excuses for not reaching the goals. “My product didn’t receive enough funding.” “The engineering team is incompetent.” “I’m overworked and understaffed.” Instead of coming up with solutions, they focus on why they can’t do something, what’s getting in the way, and who’s at fault (not them!).
- Know their role and delegate what isn’t.
To be fair, most product managers do have a lot on their plates. However, it’s often because they fail to delegate what others can, and should, be doing. Effective product managers crisply define the target (the “what”) and manage the delivery of it while leaving the “how” to others.
- Are proactive rather than reactive.
Ineffective product managers tend to run around all day putting out fires. Rather than just running to respond or react, good product managers take the time to pause, think and plan ahead. They anticipate the serious product flaws that could occur and proactively build in solutions. They change perspective and pre-think about future challenges and hurdles to address them before they arise.
- Are excellent problem solvers and communicators.
Great product managers break down problems into manageable bites rather than trying to solve everything at once. Instead of jumping at the first feasible solution, they explore multiple options before settling on the best one. They constantly communicate the goals in order to keep people focused on winning, knowing that it’s impossible to over-communicate in today’s information-saturated world.
- Are customer focused.
Winning product managers focus their teams on revenue and customers rather than how many features the competition is building into their product. They think in terms of delivering superior value to the market place during inbound planning and achieving market share and revenue goals during outbound. They constantly remind their team about who they serve and why.
Most of these traits can be developed with practice. As with any role, the key is to define excellence in the role first, identify the presence or lack of these traits during the hiring process, and create ways of working to make sure the desired approach gets practiced. Practice creates neural pathways. You have to be intentional to build the right pathways. An effective product manager can help improve your company’s competitive positions and make it easier for the organization to win. And it’s always more fun to lead the market than to constantly play catchup to the competition!