Want to become a great product manager? Well, that's a problem. Because the volatile nature of the product manager role makes it challenging to understand what it takes to become a successful professional in the field.
Great product managers connect the technical and the commercial worlds to create the most value to customers through unique products.
There is an extensive list of capabilities necessary to become a world-class product manager, but if we had to refine the full list into a single concept it would be: balanced.
When I refer to balance, I mean balance between visionary strategy and actionable development plan; balance between trusting your gut and following data; and balance between hard skills and soft skills.
Let’s explore this further:
What Makes a Great Product Manager in 2020
After several years of partnering with companies to streamline their products, I noticed that the best product managers I worked with have three things in common:
1. They master the core capabilities.
The core product management skills include both technical know-how and business acumen. Most PMs learn the basis of these product management core capabilities in the classroom, but the real development comes with hands-on experience and good mentors.
Some of these core capabilities include:
- Ability to prioritize product updates and organize the product roadmap
- Market research skills that lead to action plans
- Capacity to translate business requirements into technical requirements
- Understanding of pricing and revenue modeling
- Ability to interact with customers and read their needs and requirements
2. They have powerful relationship management competencies.
The best product managers partner with customers to help them reach their full potential.
Having the ability to wear customers’ shoes is the best way to find out what needs to be improved and with what level of urgency.
Furthermore, developing a good relationship with customers makes it easier to ask for feedback or even to ask them to beta test a new product for early evaluation.
3. They found the right company fit.
An excellent background doesn’t guarantee success in any position you end up filling. Finding the right company-employee fit is also a key step to thriving as a product manager.
Because the job description of product management roles depends on the company’s industry, size, products, and stage, the organization you choose to work with matters a lot.
Take into consideration how technical you are and in what industry you have experience. This will help you to find the right position for you.
If you want to achieve these three components and become a distinguished product manager, there are a few actions you should take.
8 Steps to Become Great Product Manager
Based on my own experience as a product manager and on what I learned from fellow professionals, I will outline a few steps that will set you in the right direction to delight customers with exceptional products. Let’s dive in:
1. Master the product life-cycle
The product life-cycle starts with the product vision and development of an MVP and ends when the product becomes obsolete. It involves idea generation, development, launch, growth, maturity, and decline. Understanding what set of strategies goes into each phase on the product life-cycle is essential to every product manager.
The stage in which a product is found serves as a base to make decisions revolving product advertising, prices, expansion to new markets, and even packaging redesign.
The best way to gain deep and holistic expertise in the product life-cycle is by working as a product manager in an early-stage company. Small companies tend to have product managers with more comprehensive product responsibilities as opposed to larger companies.
If you get a chance to be a product manager in a startup environment, you will have the opportunity to own products on every stage of the product ecosystem.
Make sure to seek this responsibility and walk through the entire life-cycle. Even small projects make a difference in developing this expertise.
2. Pursue Project Management Knowledge
Product management is often confused with project management. These are two different areas, however, project management methodologies can be extremely helpful for product managers.
Project management techniques, such as Agile, Kaban, and Waterfall, are crucial to streamlining product development. These methodologies provide the strategic context to ensure developers are working on the most important aspects of the problem.
Agile Scrum, for example, adopts an iterative approach with continual adjustments to the changing demands of both technology and customers.
If you have experience with Agile, you will be able to deliver higher-quality results to the organization you work with. Product teams who operate with Agile methodology not only have faster development periods and delivery schedules but also achieve better alignment between customers and business needs.
These project management techniques were developed originally to streamline software development. So, if you desire to work in a SaaS company, pursuing this knowledge is even more important.
3. Develop Empathy
Given that one of the biggest drives of success in product management is being able to understand customers’ needs and read their pain points, we can agree that you must develop empathy.
Empathetic product managers have the drive to learn what a customer wants and unpack that understanding into what they actually need. Based on that, they develop products with an aspiration to delight customers.
As a component of emotional intelligence, empathy can be developed through practice -- even though some people are naturally inclined to be empathetic.
One of the most effective ways to develop your empathy is by practicing active listening. While talking to customers, make sure that you are listening more than you’re talking. Work on hearing what is not being explicitly said and catching clues of what will make them successful with your products.
Spend time getting to know your customers and deeply understanding your personas. If possible set time to watch how they use your product. That will help you to experience the challenges and connect with their purpose.
4. Learn Winning Product Marketing Strategies
Mastering product marketing strategies is a key part of thriving as a product manager. After all, product marketing is what creates the forces that encourage your customers to buy the products.
Product marketing strategies serve to guide positioning, promotion, and price -- also know as 3 Ps of your products.
It involves understanding the product’s target audience and using messaging to boost revenue and demand for the product.
If you have a business background, you are likely familiar with most product marketing best practices. However, if you come from a technical background, you can take a few product marketing online courses to obtain this knowledge.
Another option is to study about customer’s psychology as product marketing is largely about understanding what factors influence human decisions.
Also, make sure to have conversations with talented product marketing managers, as learning from experienced people is always beneficial.
5. Learn About QA Processes
Most companies don’t have quality assurance managers because of the high operational overhead. In these cases, every person involved in product development must adopt a quality assurance mindset.
As a product manager, there will be no one who knows more about the product than you. This means that it is a good idea to take ownership of quality assurance and run the necessary tests yourself.
The idea of implementing QA processes is to check the product during every stage of its development. This reduces product development costs since you will waste less time re-working on faulty products.
If you have no experience testing for QA, I recommend looking into courses for beginners. These will give you a good headstart to start putting some tests into practice.
Obtaining this knowledge will help you in any PM job, even if your team has QA-dedicated people. In this case, you will not be actively running tests, but the quality assurance knowledge will allow you to proactively avoid failures. Furthermore, it will facilitate your relationship with the QA team.
6. Keep Questioning the Standards
One of the things that separate average product managers from the best product managers is constant questioning.
What problems are we solving? How can we make our customers’ lives easier? Why someone should use our product? How can adapt this product to a different audience? What are our competitors doing that we are not?
These are all questions you should be asking yourself all the time.
Even the best products in the world, such as an iPhone, go obsolete if there are no iterative adjustments. For a great product manager, a product is never perfect and the standard can always be improved.
An innovative mindset combined with the enthusiasm for building original products is what keeps customers satisfied.
Even though this ability seems to be easy to develop, it requires a great deal of practice.
7. Choose the Industry Wisely
As I discussed in the beginning, finding the right company-employee fit is extremely important for your progress as a product manager. And understanding in which industry you would like to be is the first step in doing so.
Choose an industry that you are passionate about. Enjoying the industry where your company operates will make it easier for you to connect with the product’s purpose. Developing a product for a waste management company, for example, will be super challenging if you are not into the environmental industry.
Having previous experience in the industry is also a big plus since you would already have a grasp of trends, competitors, and drivers of change.
Even though it is not easy for most people to find the right industry fit, there is no secret here. It takes a lot of research and some experimenting.
Think about an area that lights up a burning desire for you to create better solutions. That’s where you will be most prone to succeed in your product management job.
8. Never Stop Learning
Once you complete all the steps to become a renewed product manager, you’re not done yet.
You must keep yourself up to date with industry trends, customers’ needs, and of course, product management knowledge.
Even the most experienced product managers must attend conferences, workshops, and discuss practices with fellow professionals. The product management field is very fluid -- it is in constant change.
It is also crucial that you keep studying the company’s industry. Most industries are an ever-changing ecosystem. The best product managers read changes in an early stage and act proactively to adapt products.
Besides constantly learn about the field and the industry, you must inexhaustibly study your customers. I found that the best way to do it is by being a customer yourself. If you can be a product user, you will make it 100% easier to find out better solutions.
In every aspect of your product role, never cease learning. Just like your products, you can always be improved.
Start Making it a Reality
After going through this step-by-step list, you might be thinking that you have a long way ahead. But all you need to do is to take the first step.
Knowledge is incremental. The more you learn today, the easier it will be to learn tomorrow. This means that each step you take, make the other steps easier to achieve.
Identify your strengths in the product management field, and work on making them your own competitive advantage. About your weaker points, just make sure to bring them to an average level.
Keep in mind that the product management field has many job variations, so if you have a special skill, such as engineering or computer science expertise, you might be better of in a specialized position, such as a technical product manager.
Remember that becoming a notable product manager is a process that involves time, effort, and resources. But the journey is worth it.
Follow these steps and you will be set in the right direction to build world-class products and grow as a product manager.