We asked someone who has been both a product manager and a coach for others, Lisa Mo Wagner, what does it take to become a great product manager.
Lisa has had an impressive career to date and has made it her mission to help others develop their ideas, confidence and skills to move ahead in the product management world.
She joined this episode of Disruption Talks to discuss her career journey up until now, how she got where she is, her tips for others, and what makes a great coach and product manager.
What is a product manager?
A product manager is someone responsible for the development of products within a business. The role of a product manager may include working with various people in the business to share ideas, create designs, test effectiveness, gather feedback, and ensure that the product is made as efficiently as possible. Product management often requires a blend of technical skills, creativity, good communication, and soft skills.
Pedro Sousa: What’s the most exciting thing about being a product manager?
Lisa Mo Wagner: Everything really! I just really enjoy the people that I work with because it’s such a diverse group of people. I have two designers that I’ve worked with and UX researchers, and then I work with developers who are some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. Then, at the end of the day, we get to build something that’s out there.
You’ve been a founder, a product owner, a product manager, and now a product management coach. How has that journey been?
I started out in product management accidentally, like most people who've been in the industry. My first role was when I started out as a Head of Support for a small start-up that was building a marketplace. I had some suggestions on the product, and then sometimes the founder would ask me to work with the developers. It took a while before I realized that this is a real job that people have.
I learned a lot along the way about product management from all the roles I’ve had. That’s how I ended up being more of a coach. Even when I’ve had full-time jobs as a product manager, I’ve always kept coaching on the side because I like to pay it forward. It’s really rewarding to see people make progress and excel at what they love doing.
How would you describe the difference between product owner and product manager?
It really depends. A product manager’s favorite answer to anything is “it depends.” What I’ve seen a lot is that these two roles get used interchangeably, but I’d say there’s not a big difference between the two. It’s up to what the companies like to call them.
If I had to distinguish between the two, I’d take the same view as Melissa Perry, who’s a successful product person. She says that product management is the job, and then the product owner is the role on the team. I’ve also seen people call the product manager the person who does all the business stuff, and the product owner is the person who does all the technical stuff.
What projects are you most proud of in your career?
One thing I worked on that was really cool was an ecommerce flow for mobile phones. We had a stakeholder group that was a bit uncomfortable with all these new ways of working, so I suggested some alternatives.
I said, let’s do a design sprint, and they trusted us with a lot. We came up with this really cool prototype that we tested and created an MVP. We were able to release small iterations, and it was a great learning process to really deliver incremental value.
What has been a big lesson you’ve learned in your career?
When I was a founder, I had a small company where I was a reseller of makeup products. I built a website, got a shop, and loved doing it. But it didn’t go as well as I hoped, and I ended up working part-time and keeping it more of a hobby. Eventually, I decided to close it because it was becoming too expensive as a hobby, but I learned a lot of stuff.
One of the biggest learnings that I've had is I like to work iteratively. I probably should have started a lot smaller than I did. I also did it all on my own. If I could go back, I’d tell myself to go find a co-founder and then start small.
Start with a prototype and see if people are actually interested.
Then find a way to test it before you go all in and spend all of the money that you have on these things. Then just work your way up from there.
What does a product management coach do on a day-to-day basis?
At the moment, I’m doing one-on-one coaching for individual product managers. I’m just working through things with the people that I coach. I typically use a framework where you set a goal for the conversation, whatever you want to solve and get help on. Then we look through the reality of the situation and talk through ways to work on it. We look at options on how to solve problems and move forward.
Most of the time, people already have the tools. They have the tactical skills and the hard skills to solve their own problems, but sometimes they just get stuck.
What do you think is the next big thing in product management?
What I’ve seen is more of a focus on soft skills, or, as I like to call them, strategic skills.
Strategic skills are the ones that bring you to a long-term goal.
I’ve also seen a trend towards having product managers who are more and more technical.
What are your favorite product analytics, product development, or productivity tools?
I’m happy to do issue tracking wherever it’s easiest, but I’m not a fan of JIRA. I think it’s become too complex and complicated. My favorite tool of all time is probably MURAL for any type of visual collaboration. It’s amazing. I love using whiteboards and sticky notes in person, so I love using them online as well.
What are the qualities of a great product manager?
I think being curious and passionate are really important traits, as is having empathy for your users and team members. I also think being humble is important. I sometimes struggle if I meet people who are not humble and have a big ego. It’s important to leave your ego at the door when you work with people, be humble, and give credit to your team.
Communication is extremely important. Being good at that, being clear, being candid, transparent, but also being really good at listening are key.
How important are emotional intelligence and empathy when developing a product?
I think emotional intelligence is the foundation that you need as a product manager. You need to leave your ego at the door and have empathy with everybody that you work with. Those things are hard to teach, but they’re super important.
I personally would always hire someone who shows a rather high EQ and a lot of empathy in their work, then someone who has worked at one of the big, fancy companies.
This discussion is part of our Disruption Talks recordings, where we invite experts to share their insights on winning innovation strategies, the next generation of disruptors, and scaling digital products. To get unlimited access to this interview and many more, sign up here: www.netguru.com/disruption/talks