What are the most essential skills for a product manager?

This is a list of some of the soft skills you need in order to succeed as a product manager. You can read more on each topic by clicking the link below each heading.

Leadership

Product managers are usually leaders in their organizations, as they are responsible for leading the team towards the goal of creating successful products. Despite this responsibility, the people on their team rarely report to them, meaning that the product manager needs to lead through their leadership abilities as they have no authority. They can do this through setting an inspiring vision and strategy for the team and clearly communicating it. Good leadership also requires interpersonal skills, like transparency and authenticity.

You find all the resources for improving your leadership skills here.

Decision-making

Product managers have to make many decisions every day about everything between backlog prioritization, product design and bug triaging. A product manager who get things done, is a product manager who prioritize ruthlessly and make effective decisions. What and how decisions are made can result in either a well functioning team, or the complete opposite.

You can read more about how to make effective decisions here.

Communication

As a product manager needs to educate the team and stakeholders on his or her product and evangelize it, communicate decisions, data and results, interpret and forward information from as well engineers as designers and more, excellent communication skills is essential. You need to know how to be clear, concise and direct, in both written and verbal communication.

You can learn more about communication here.

Influencing

The product manager role requires leadership without authority. This means that you will have to lead through influence – to get others to adopt your priorities and help you succeed. Through building strong relationships, you will have to earn respect and persuade with data, logic, enthusiasm and credibility.

Learn how to gain influence here.

Collaboration

In order to be successful, a product manager has to collaborate with both members on the team and across other departments. It can be a challenge as the people you will need to bring together are of diverse backgrounds, skill-sets and professions. In order to push your product forward, you will not only work with a development team, but you also need to collaborate well with stakeholders, other product managers and the leadership team by listening and channeling their point of view.

You can read more about collaboration here. You can also find more information on how to manage stakeholders here.

Strategic Thinking

The set of skills that the product managers need to bring to the team is strategic thinking, to complement the skills of engineers, designers, marketers and others. Strategic thinking is all about understanding the current market, how it is developing and competition – it is about asking the right questions in order to define the right problems to solve and a roadmap.

You can read more about product strategy here, and also read about how to create a roadmap here.

Analytical Skills

If a product manager needs to make and communicate decisions – what should drive these decisions? The answer is data. A good product manager doesn’t make decisions based on gut or instinct, but instead makes informed decisions by seeking out the right data and analyzing it. They are armed with insights and knowledge of the right methods for finding the answers.

You can read more about product analytics here.


Is this it?

This is just a few of the skills that the role as a product manager demands. A friend working as a product manager once told me, “Working with product is mostly about applying the right processes at the right time“. You can learn more about product development, and the processes it entails, here.

How to Get a Job in Product Management

Being a product manager is a challenging, but rewarding. If you are considering pursuing a career in product management, read this first.

1. Understand the role

Before you start looking at job descriptions, it is good to spend some time to understand what the role is about and ask yourself these questions.

  • Is it really a job you would like to have? You are not the CEO of the product – you are more like a janitor. You will be responsible for delivering, without any authority of the people who you need to deliver for you. Even though the title might sound glamorous, it demands a lot of hard work on many levels.
  • What kind of product manager do I want to be? What are your strengths and passion? Do you want to be a technical or more design-oriented product manager? What problem do you want to solve for users? In the end, being passionate about the problem you are working on and drawing upon your strengths is what will make you love your job.

You can read more about the role here.

2. Assess and improve your skills

What roles you can apply for and your eventual success rate for actually getting offers will depend on your previous experience. While some companies prefer MBA’s from the top business schools with undergraduate degrees in a relevant domains – like a computer science degree for digital product management – neither an MBA or a technical background is required to get into product management. A product person should love solving a problem for customers, have strong work ethics, integrity, good communication skills, leadership qualities and more. These personal traits are more critical for succeeding as a product manager than your educational background. Also remember that the best experience you can have on your resume is to have shipped a product from concept to launch.

With that said, you might want to start working on perfecting the skills that make you a good candidate for a product management role.

  • Work on your technical skills
    So, even if we just said that you don’t need to be technical to land a product management role, developing technical skill sets is helpful. When hoping to land the job, what you need is a resume that doesn’t make you look like a generic business person. It is also very helpful when actually working as a product manager – both for earning the respect of your engineers and for making communication with them easier. With all resources available online, make sure you get a basic understanding of technical concepts. A good place to start could be learning SQL, which comes in handy when analyzing data.
  • Run product critiques
    Start something similar to a book club with other aspiring product managers or just friends and run a product critique, where you gather to review products instead of books. It will help you explore why some products and experiences are successful, why others aren’t. It’s also a good way to prepare for the interview, as you most likely will be asked to describe and evaluate a product you have used recently. Julie Zhao lines out step-by-step how to run a product critique in this article.
  • Start working like a product manager in your current role
    Use your current role as an opportunity to take steps towards thinking and acting like a product manager. Try to take initiatives or the lead role for a project with different workstreams where your team needs to deliver on a deadline. If possible, try to get to work with engineers to gain experience from working in a cross-functional team. The next best thing to having actual experience of working with product and/or previously having shipped one, is to have displayed transferable skills that are relevant for the product manager role.
  • Work with designers and developers 
    If you don’t have any designers or developers in your current company, you can try looking for them in other places. As a product manager, your success depends on how well you can collaborate with designers and developers, why it’s helpful to practice doing it. There are several ways to do this. You can either reach out to a startup and get involved by offering your skills for free – they are usually short on both money and man power, why you could be of help while working close to the making of a product – or attend local hackathons where you get to roll up your sleeves and work with collaboratively with people having relevant skills. By doing any of these, you will not only gain experience, but also get connections that can help you land a job within product management.
  • Do a side project
    If you want to ship a product – just do it. You don’t need to be a full-fledged coder or a talented designer to identify a problem and target user, validate an idea and create something valuable. Even if you won’t build the next big thing, it sets you apart from the competition while you gain important experience of shipping a product. For this too, it could be relevant to attend a local hackathon to get a side project running if you don’t want to do it by yourself. The important thing is to be able to show skills relevant for the role as a product manager with your project (and if you are into product management, it will probably be something you are passionate about).

4. Find product management openings

Here are three ways to find product management jobs that could be yours.

  • Search for product management roles
    Head to Indeed or Linkedin and search for “product manager” to find roles to apply to. ProductHired is another interesting site, posting only product roles. Depending on your experience, you might want to look for not only product manager roles, but also product owner roles or project manager roles in product companies. If you are too inexperienced for landing a product manager role, getting in on one of these roles could be good for later making an internal move – see below for more on that.
  • Find an Associate Product Manager Program
    Some companies run Associate Product Manager programs for people who are new to product management but has potential to become great product managers. The competition for getting one of these positions is usually fierce, but that never stopped you – right?
  • Make an internal move
    Lots of companies look for candidates internally before posting a role for external applicants. Good product managers can be found anywhere in a company – in engineering, customer support, sales, QA, business or UX design. The first thing you need to do if you want to make an internal move, is to let your manager know that you want to move towards product management. Together you can work out what skills you need to work on and what projects you should start doing to get more involved in product and closer to your goal.
    Personally, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t started out in another role before transitioning into their first product role. Starting out as something else – designer, engineer or business analyst – in a company with a product you are passionate about can be a great strategy for getting into product management.

4. Prepare your resume

Time to get your resume together! Here are three things to think of when writing your resume.

  • Stay relevant
    Make sure the resume is tailored to the job you’re applying for. Stick to a one page resume where you leave out experience that is irrelevant to the job you’re applying for, but include experiences that are relevant, no matter how small. You don’t need to list everything position you have held – include that side project you are working on instead! Also, avoid buzzwords – be as specific as possible to come off as credible.
  • Demonstrate your value
    Don’t make your resume a list of responsibilities when it should be a list of accomplishments. A way to do this is by using action verbs. By doing this, you focus on what you did, rather than what you were responsible for. You can find a list of action verbs here. Also, make sure to describe your accomplishments by using data to quantify them. As an example, “Responsible for company website” is not as powerful and effective as “Designed and shipped new company website, increasing monthly traffic by 12% and estimated monthly revenue by $1.5M”.
  • Communicate your value
    Keep the resume short and clean. Make sure you don’t have any spelling mistakes or bad grammar – have other people proofread your resume before submitting it to any potential employer.

5. Practice for the interview

The interview could be where you make it or break it. Spend as much time as you can practicing interview questions so that you can feel comfortable and perform well during the interview. These are a few of the questions you can expect from a product management interview.

  • Why you want to work in product management
    Don’t get into product because it’s trendy – do it because you truly care about building something and are passionate about great products. And show the interviewer that this is the case.
  • Why you want to join this company 
    Read up on the company to have a relevant answer, but stay genuine – if this question is hard to answer, you probably shouldn’t work there.
  • Past experiences
    You will definitely get questions about your past experiences and jobs. They might ask for specific examples (e.g. “Tell me about a situation when you worked well in a cross-functional team?” instead of the more generic “How do you work in cross-functional teams?”). Answer questions about your past with the STAR model – Situation, Task, Action and Result – using real situations. They could be good to sneak in, even if the recruiter is not asking for them. In this case, the answer could be “In my first job, I worked together with one designer and two developers (Situation). We were handed the project of releasing a completely new website in just two weeks (Task). To be able to make the deadline, we had a planning meeting, to prioritize the things we needed to do. I ran the daily check-ins and made sure that everything stayed on track (Action). We ended up making the deadline, the website improved metrics more than anyone had estimated and we became so close friends from that intense experience that we still hang out (Result).” Great examples speak stronger than generic responses.
  • Business case questions
    Expect to answer questions that test your analytical skills. Practice making guesstimates (“How many baseballs can fit into an airplane?), and don’t forget to read up on the strategy and business model of the company you are applying for as they might ask you questions about it.

You can find more tips and questions asked in product management interviews here.

6. Land the job

You did it! 🙌
And this is when the real work starts. Next step: read through the rest of productmanagementstack.com.


Thank you for reading!

Are you trying to break into product management and liked this article? 
Do you know anyone who is trying to get a product management role? 

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3 Things You Should Do for Your Cross-Functional Team This Week

Improvement is not about your goals, it is about what you do everyday to reach them. We’ve listed three things you can do to improve your product management skills this week. All of them take less than 15 minutes. Pick your favorite and do it!

1. Foster psychological safety.

In 2012 Google set out to discover how to build the perfect team and found that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work. Psychological safety means that it within a group is safe for interpersonal risk taking, meaning that team members are less worried about the potential negative consequences of expressing a new or different idea. Google has put together an excellent sheet of actions to take that will help foster psychological safety which is the foundation of an effective team: Manager Actions for Psychological Safety.

2. Change perspective.

You have probably read several articles by now on how to be a better product manager written from the perspective of another product manager. What could be even more important is to learn what your fellow engineers and designers expect from you, as your job is to help them to deliver. These two articles are written from the perspective of an engineer and a designer.

How Engineers Want to Work with Product Managers by Zach Schneider

An Open Letter to Product Managers: From a UX Designer by Raymond Galang

3. Learn about expectations.

When you are done reading this: walk over to a team member and ask “What do you expect from me this week?”. That will help you set clear goals for this week while your team member will (most likely) appreciate your openness to feedback and also get the help he or she really needs. It’s a simple way to start fostering psychological safety and to become a more effective product manager.

You will find more articles, tools and books on how to work better with your team in Building an Effective Team.