The Real Secret Behind Every Great Product Manager

Our team values transparency, hard work, and strong collaboration. | Photo by Aha!

October 12, 2021

The Real Secret Behind Every Great Product Manager

by Brian de Haaff

Precious few of us are polymaths. We know our market, our customer, and our product. But most product managers are not experts in all the things. Many other functions are needed for a product to succeed — from software development to marketing, from finance to customer support. Product management is responsible for the Complete Product Experience. But you cannot do it alone.

People often ask me what I think it takes to be a great product manager. And when they do, my mind often goes to leading courageously.

While there is an exhaustive list of hard and soft skills that exceptional product managers typically have, the best product managers are propelled forward by their product team. Now I am not solely referring to the structure of the product management function. I am referring to representatives from the different teams across your company that impact the success of your product — marketing, sales, support, engineering.

When I look back on my early career as a product manager, most of the highlights are centered around a brilliant product team. Today I have the honor of nurturing several product teams at Aha! — we have one for each of our software products and our training programs. Seeing what they can achieve together is inspiring. But it is not an accident. A great product team needs to be constructed.

Formal product teams do not exist in many organizations — great product managers make the case for them and bring the right people together.

We set a charter for our product teams, with defined roles and expectations for how people would contribute. In a way, it is a microcosm of our larger organization, rooted in the same company values. It took some time to get the details just right though. And of course, we have refined over time.

Most product builders are intentional by nature. When you have big aspirations there is no other way. So before you jump right into recruiting people from other teams (although I am sure you already have a few people in mind) — pause. Bring the same rigor that you give to product planning to building the right team and guiding its success. Here is what I think is most important:

Vision

The purpose might seem obvious. You want to ensure that every touchpoint that your customers have with the product and company is truly exceptional. But there will be specifics that are unique to your company, market, and product. Write down a vision statement for why you need a product team and what you want to achieve.

Culture

Capture a few of the attributes that are critical for success. It is likely that these will overlap with broader company values, but narrow in on the ones you feel are most important. For our own product team, this includes transparency, hard work, and strong collaboration.

Communication

Transparency is something you model. Be open about what is motivating the roadmap and how the product is actually doing in market. Too many product managers only want to report on what is going really well. But it is equally important to report on what is not working. And your candor will encourage others to share the reality of what they see and hear too.

Accountability

Another deceptively simple one. But once you have selected the functions, you want to capture exactly what they will be responsible for — broadly and then at the functional level. Some of the areas could include driving financial success of the product, go-to-market readiness, and prioritizing new functionality.

Process

You already have product management processes in place. There are processes for submitting new ideas or reporting bugs. Now you need to lay out what you want for the product team. This will be centered around your main touchpoint: the product team meeting. Draft a list of what you expect, from evaluating performance against goals to reviewing the backlog.

Building, leading, and listening to your product team is one of the most important things a product manager can do.

Before you present your concepts to leadership, bring everything you have outlined for discussion to trusted colleagues from the various groups you want to include. There may be areas that you overlooked or insights that others have on how to make it better. Review, revise, recommit. This will be the first of many open conversations geared towards product excellence.

Does your company have formal product teams — why or why not?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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