What Makes a Good Product Manager?

Joanna Swatowska-Rybak

Jul 16, 2021 • 15 min read
What makes a successful product manager

According to McKinsey & Company, product managers spend around 18% of their time defining a product strategy. Alongside that, they have a host of other responsibilities.

These range from collaborating with design and tech teams to reviewing metrics – there are many facets to the role. To fulfill the varied responsibilities, what is it that makes a good product manager (PM)? What are the most important product manager qualities? How can you become a great product manager? Read on to find out.

Product management

Product management is an organizational function within a business that deals with product development and justification. It focuses on bringing a new and effective product to market or developing an existing product. Product management examples include:

  • Planning
  • Verification
  • Forecasting
  • Pricing

As a whole, product management is overseen by a PM who heads up product strategy. The strategy should reflect the value the product brings to its users. To identify the value, the PM is responsible for finding answers to fundamental product questions: What user problem does our product solve? How does it achieve that better than the competition?

Product management unites several areas, including product marketing and sales. At the head, there are product managers or product leaders. These are the connective tissue between various teams and stakeholders. As such, product management capabilities are far-reaching.

In a nutshell, quality product management requires balance. As a PM, if your skills or focus become overdeveloped in one area and underdeveloped in another, there’s the risk of setbacks for both the product and your career.

For example, you need to balance being a likable team player with holding firm when required. You must trust your knowledge and your intuition, but also follow where evidence leads you.

Leading a product is different from leading people – PMs need to do both. They should inspire and energize their team and stakeholders, but also show passion for the product and demonstrate a clear vision and strategy.

Types of product manager

While every product manager needs to have the strong ‘core’ briefly mentioned above, there are different types of PM role depending on the organization or the product life cycle:

Business product manager

Business product managers are adept at combining business stakeholder requests (external or internal) into a product roadmap. Business PMs work well with sales and also present well to customers. They master issues like business models and business cases, making sure business goals are well reflected in the product roadmap. They also have keen insights into pricing and customer needs.

Technical product manager

As the name suggests, technical PMs are deeply technical individuals who are focused on the more technical than business aspects of the product. They may work with engineering across areas like machine learning and infrastructure.

Having often been engineers before, they usually have hands-on experience in coding. They’re supposed to know various tech stacks, including which one works best for the particular product or purpose.

Focusing on the technical part of the product strategy, Technical PMs tend to work less with business or consumer issues.

Design product manager

Design-centric PMs focus more on user experience (UX) and visual design. Design product managers tend to spend a lot of time with product researchers and designers to make sure the product reflects real user needs in the best possible way. They’re also ready to jump into in-depth interviews or analyze user feedback if needed.

At Netguru, we organize product design workshops where we use various techniques such as Design Thinking or Product Design Sprint. We also use case studies to convey skills to potential clients.

Growth product manager

These PMs are usually analytical, quantitative, and driven by numbers. Growth PMs focus on determining product adoption levels, conversion, and retention. They work closely with engineering, marketing, and UX.

Growth PMs are also experts in validation of hypotheses, experimentation, and A/B testing. Using a data-driven approach, they drive products to the next level of reach, impact, or profitability.

A quick note to all types of product managers: Don’t confuse a product manager with a project manager. Where a product manager is both strategic and tactical, a project manager focuses mainly on the execution side.

What makes a good product manager then?

A product manager has a broad remit. To be the best product manager you can, you need a wide variety of skills. Let’s dig into the qualities of a good product manager individually.

1. Communication skills

Don’t underestimate effective communication – it’s one of the top soft skills for product managers to possess. Successful product managers need to communicate well on all levels: Product end-users as well as internal and external stakeholders. At Netguru, PMs also need to understand the client’s vision, communicate on their level, and present ideas clearly.

To excel in this area, ask questions, be empathetic to the client’s needs, and remain patient. At the same time, you must be decisive. Sometimes, the absence of a decision is worse than making the wrong one.

An effective product manager is a top-class communicator with high emotional intelligence. They act as a go-between, juggling many people. Disagreements and blockers are frequent, so an effective PM must communicate well to overcome obstacles. A first-rate PM navigates all of these areas and potential issues smoothly.

As a PM, your value stems from your expertise – use it, but don’t be afraid to ask for time, especially if you’re making a big and impactful decision. Don’t jump to a decision on the spot – take a breath.

Effective product communication must be visual and data-driven. To convince anyone about your next idea, back it up with data or results of user interviews. Also, try to show concepts on diagrams, timelines and charts. Did you know that roadmaps are also an excellent communication tool?

“Humans love stories! If you want to influence others, work on your narrative but don’t forget it’s not only about words. Make things visual with diagrams and graphics. Have you ever found yourself stuck in a long meeting where someone presents tons of boring charts and you were fighting to stay awake and get through to the end? Don’t be that person: Learn storytelling with data!”

Mateusz Krawczyński

Product Management Practice Lead at Netguru

It’s also important to remember the following:

  • Respect the client’s knowledge.
  • Present soft challenges instead of saying no.
  • Stay positive.
  • Engage the customer.
  • Delegate where appropriate.
  • Ask the right questions.
  • Offer solutions to problems.
  • Build strong relationships.
  • Keep emotions in check.
  • Avoid meaningless buzz phrases.
  • Be respectful.

It’s important to have both top-notch external and internal product management. That includes between teams and coworkers, as well as external parties. A lot of what a PM does involves understanding and communicating trade-offs.

2. Strategic thinking

PMs need to be aware of the industry landscape and how to position a product to be competitive. They think and brainstorm from a high level, and understand why a product is being developed in a certain way.

PMs have a holistic, strategic view of what the product is, building a product, and how to make it successful. They spot opportunities, potential partnerships, and product differentiators. Furthermore, they also think from a user perspective and can identify potential user problems, needs, and expectations.

Alongside strategic thinking, product managers should also have the ability to:

  • Plan. PMs are in charge of developing a strategic plan using a product roadmap. They present that plan to key stakeholders and there’s ongoing communication regarding the plan throughout the product lifecycle.
    • Prioritize. This involves recognizing the value of one task over another, or the value of a potential feature versus the work to create it. It’s about weighing up factors and making decisions.
  • Execute. A massive part of being a successful product manager is encouraging and persuading teams to get things done the way they’re advocating. PMs partner with many teams to get a product to market. Their role is to ensure product roadmap execution, by working and communicating effectively with these teams.
  • Measure. Metrics and KPIs track a product as it goes through all the stages – from introduction to obsolescence. PMs work with engineering and data science to define metrics the product team should track.
    • “Get” sales. Selling isn’t part of a PM’s day-to-day activities, but to make a stellar product, they must know the market for their product, how to position it, and how to price. As part of that, PMs dig into data to learn user psychology and pricing. Through research, they’re also uber aware of the competition and how they fare.
  • Set up the right framework. The product development process is complex; there are many methodologies and tools available to a PM. They need to know what to apply and when, and how to use results to make product decisions. Tools include innovation workshops and real agile engineering. PMs need to understand each framework to know when or if to use it.

3. Entrepreneurial thinking & visionary mindset

When considering how to be a good product manager, entrepreneurial thinking is an essential part of the role. PMs must be enthusiastic, driven by innovation, but at the same time stay connected with reality. By reality, we mean things like sticking to objectives and measuring performance. They need to think big but are also aware of constraints and priorities.

Product managers are not just forward-thinking and enterprising, they also possess commercial acumen. PMs must identify the right validation techniques to make sure a product idea makes sense, and develop monetization strategies to ensure a product is viable.

They must be innovative, not just at the core product level but also from a commercial standpoint. That acumen drives sales, profit, and growth.

It is crucial to understand this and help entrepreneurs to validate their product ideas. Some teams organize Product Validation Sprints for that purpose, to conduct the idea’s desirability, feasibility, viability, and reality check.

A PM works horizontally not vertically, aligning many teams towards a single vision. Quality product managers are more than team leaders. They also focus on shaping product vision, not just managing people who will bring that vision to life.

PMs concentrate on the big picture, overviewing the entire product development process. They should offer useful insights, and use intuition to understand client needs.

As a result, they need to think about product management innovation. At the same time, PMs should also encourage a culture of innovation via sharing ideas, collaborating, and experimenting. To achieve that, design thinking and sprints may be a good idea.

4. Technical background

Having a strong technical background is one of the characteristics of a good product manager. Defining a quality product depends on understanding the capabilities and constraints of technology.

Yes, you can delegate some technical tasks and decisions, but it’s advantageous to have a solid technical skills yourself. That way, you have a deep understanding of the product and the competition, as technological innovation is one part of a product’s success.

Product managers interact with people from a host of teams ranging from designers and data scientists to software engineers. Possessing a degree of knowledge across these areas is a big help, as it’s necessary for PMs to communicate well with an engineering team.

They need to understand their language and speak the way they understand. However, product managers don’t necessarily need to know how to write code. Surveys show only 5% of PMs know how to code. Having said that, an awareness of technical languages is beneficial.

A product manager doesn’t do any hands-on technical tasks, but because they have an understanding of the technical side of things, they’re able to ask the right questions which help them make the best product decisions, from a technical point of view.

For instance, let’s say you’re a PM leading the development of a mobile app. A good product manager understands user experience, product design, AI, and has some knowledge of coding languages and mobile application frameworks.

That knowledge allows the PM to make informed decisions and spot opportunities for improvement.

5. Customer-centric & data-driven

Understanding user problem, value, and validation are key. At Netguru, being customer-centric, data-driven, and interacting with real users are vital to creating a successful product. By leveraging data, we make informed decisions, creating a better product for our clients and customers.

We also believe in the approach evangelised by Leah Farmer, Tourlane's Chief Product and Technology Officer during during Netguru's learning initiative "Burning Talks": literally everybody in the company should be able answer this simple question: How did my work help our customers today?

Data-informed Product Managers:

  • Don’t just use their gut or instinct to make product decisions.
  • Don’t plan new feature because their boss or important stakeholder told them to do so.
  • Don’t create roadmap based their own belief or on stakeholders’ personal interest.
  • Use various data sources to make product decisions: from official statistical data to internal support teams and feedback of real users.
  • Are not afraid to interact with real users of their product or solve support tickets themselves as first-hand information.
  • Listen to may points of view.
  • Include their product teams in product testing (observing reactions of real users while interacting with the product are invaluable!).

Becoming a successful product manager

Fully optimized product managers could increase profits by 34.2%, according to Bluespace. Successful product managers need a “jack-of-all-trades” mentality. They’re passionate leaders who communicate and strategize well.

At the same time, product manager strengths also include being visionary, entrepreneurial, and possessing technical skills. Is your head spinning? If it isn’t, a job as a product manager is potentially the position for you.

The best product managers balance all the mentioned skills and align departments through problem-solving and tactical thinking. If you think the role suits you, check out our product management opportunities.

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