What skills are required to be a product manager?
This is an important question, considering the role of product manager is fairly new, the responsibilities shift from company to company, and the discipline of product management in general is often misunderstood.
To help people better understand the type of work product managers do and the skills and qualities required to do that work well, we broke the responsibilities out into the following nine archetypes. You will find that while not all product managers are experts in each realm, the best product managers are able to cross multiple skill categories.
The real value of a product manager comes from being the:
The product manager sees customers, markets, and teams for what they are. The best ones can spot opportunities where others may see nothing more than a wasteland. This requires a keen ability to observe without judgment and listen deeply without speaking — no easy thing. Product managers do this so they can use their observations to assemble a holistic picture of where the product is currently, what customers think of it, and where it needs to go in the future.
The product manager sets the vision for where the product is headed based on seeing the truth through deep observation, as described above. Meaningful products that solve real customer problems require profound insight and unabashed confidence to see, then build. And while customers often know that they have pain, it is rare to find a customer that knows exactly how to solve it. The prophetic product manager knows how the team should enhance the product next, even though everyone is uncertain as to what to do next.
The product manager sets the product’s goals and key initiatives to realize the higher-level vision. They start with a strategy that is market and customer driven and thoughtfully consider the capability and potential of the organization. Then they establish what they want to achieve and how they will get there so the product team can work on what matters. The strategic product manager tracks the goals and makes changes to the plan accordingly.
The product manager has a responsibility to own the performance of their product and that strategy. Sure, the product manager carefully sets quantifiable goals and establishes clear metrics to determine success. But it is not enough just to set goals and initiatives. Strategic product managers know that they cannot improve what they do not measure. So they keep a dashboard of performance metrics that matter to the health of the product and the business. Product managers live by those metrics and take account on an ongoing basis.
The most respected product managers work at two levels simultaneously — driving strategic alignment within the product and product team, while making sure everyone is in sync. They also commit to making sure the strategy is deeply linked to the day-to-day work. This high-level and task-oriented work must be aligned — by the product manager. At the most tactical level, product managers ensure feature prioritization is aligned to the strategy, build detailed cross-functional plans, and lead (maybe even cajole) the team to deliver results.
The product manager drives action. No one pushes the team harder to get meaningful work done. They know the importance of urgency across the team and respond to requests for information and problems quickly because they cannot afford to have the team slow down. Time is not something a product manager can get more of, so every day they work to ensure the product is more loved by customers than it was the day before. The work of a driven product manager is never done, and that is why they are eager to make an impact every day.
The product manager fights to make the truth about customers and the product known and refuses to get distracted from their strategy. They are the first to get excited (really, really excited) when a new idea shows the potential to truly improve the product for customers. But they are also the first to say no when the shiny new idea is not aligned with the goals and initiatives. They will fight for the customer and for the team — because they know the two are inexorably intertwined.
The successful product manager is also the greatest marketer of the product — both internally and externally. No matter the size of the company, an internal product champion is key. But it is even more critical in larger companies where many product managers are often competing for shared resources. Externally, the product manager is the product's biggest fan because they are inherently tied to its success and know the value it can deliver more so than anyone else. The product manager is a natural evangelist who cannot help but share their enthusiasm for the today and the tomorrow of their product.
The product manager fixes everything. They tune the product strategy based on meaningful analysis of what is happening. They are also the first person called upon to solve complex problems — the on-boarding experience is not driving the expected customer engagement, sales has misrepresented when a new feature will be delivered, or a partner is demanding changes to the API. Knowing which problems to pay attention to matters because it determines when to fix an issue, when to leave it alone, or when to allow the organization to self-correct. The best product managers know when they need to dig in and when not to meddle. And the fixer product manager relies on all the other skillsets (observer, prophet, strategist, accountant, aligner, driver, fighter, and evangelist) to prioritize when to do what.
This list touches on the major roles that a product manager fills and the value that a product manager brings to an organization. Of course, there are other archetypes — psychologist, coach, gatekeeper — but we wanted to focus on the ones that show how product managers contribute most to the team and company.
However, the cruel reality is that no one person is a master of each skill category, and most of the skills cannot be learned in school. Every company and product also demands unique focus and expertise. What a product needs from its product management leader and the product team is often based on where the product is in its lifecycle, from creation to sunset.
Ultimately, product managers are responsible for the success of their product and that is why they need to be masters of so many domains.