What Makes a Great Product Manager?

NOTE: This is a Product Management Question post, a regular series of blogs we’re writing to offer our take on major themes in product management — and to start conversations that we hope you’ll continue with your fellow product managers in the comments section below.

The easy answer to this question — “What makes a great product manager?” — would be a list of skills. A long list that would include: subject matter expertise, outstanding communication skills, market knowledge, leadership ability, innovativeness, strong researching skills, the ability to think strategically, etc.

Indeed, a comprehensive list of the skills needed to be a great product manager might be so long that it would intimidate a newbie into thinking that neither she nor any mere mortal was cut out for this profession.

But if we had to distill what it takes to be a great product manager into a single concept, a single theme, it would be balanced. Product management is the organizational equivalent of walking a tight rope every day — and if your skills or focus are overdeveloped in one area and underdeveloped in another, you risk setbacks for both your product and your career.

The balance will play an essential role across all of your areas of responsibility as a product manager. Here are a few of the most important examples.

1. Balance between the tactical and the strategic.

Some product managers prefer to spend most if not all of their time thinking, brainstorming, and pontificating on the big-picture aspects of their products. Others feel more comfortable diving straight and deep into the weeds of the backlog, budget and resource details, etc.

But as we heard in a recent ProductPlan interview with a Dell software product manager, a PM can become great only after she’s learned to work comfortably and proficiently in both the tactical and the strategic aspects of driving her product. That’s because when you spend all of your time up at the 30,000-foot strategic level, you risk missing many of the details that need to be taken care of for a successful product.

Likewise, when you jump straight into the ground-level details like features and to-do lists, you can lose that all-important big-picture understanding of why you’re developing the product the way you are — which can lead to an unfocused, unremarkable product.

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“Great product managers balance the tactical and the strategic.”

To be great, you need to develop your tactical project-management side and your big-thinker strategic side. Find the balance.
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2. Balance between being a likable team player and holding firm when necessary.

Here, again, we see that even a slight lean to one side of the skills equation can lead to problems for a PM.

Product managers are ultimately accountable for the success or failure of their products — the “one throat to choke” at the company for a botched release or a product that falls short of revenue expectations. That often means PMs have no choice but to push their teams to work harder or faster and to say no when their colleagues make requests relating to the product’s development — even reasonable requests.

Handling this component of his role effectively can make a product manager unpopular with his colleagues. This is why a great product manager learns how to temper this part of the job — demanding more, saying no, etc. — with being a well-liked and respected part of the team.

Remember, as a product manager, you’re placed in the tricky position of having to lead teams across many departments but without any organizational authority over those people. The only way to do this successfully, repeatedly, is to earn the respect, trust, and affection of your team.

Be firm and say no when it’s necessary to protect your product and your company — even if doing so will make your team unhappy. But take every opportunity to build and strengthen the bonds with your team — to say yes to them. Find the balance.

3. Balance between trusting your own knowledge (and your gut) and following where the evidence leads you.

Should a product manager be more focused on developing an unparalleled level of data-driven knowledge about her company’s products, market, and customers — or developing a killer gut instinct that guides her strategic thinking and leads to innovative and industry-leading breakthroughs?

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“Great product managers both trust their gut and follow the evidence.”

The answer, of course, is yes. A great PM will develop both a highly intuitive sense of what her product and her market needs and an ability to gather, analyze and apply real-world data and evidence to support (or even contradict) her ideas and intuitions.

This might be the most important skill set balancing act for a product manager.

It will be the intuition she develops from a deep understanding of her market and her user persona, after all, that will help this product manager produce those inspirational ideas that can create a game-changing product.

But it will be her ability to compile and make sense of real evidence — user feedback, industry data, etc. — that will help shape the PM’s ideas and help her earn the stakeholder buy-in she will need to bring those ideas to fruition.

Sharpen your intuition? Hone your research and analytical skills? Trust your gut? Trust the data? Yes. Find the balance.

Do you have other questions you would like to see us answer? Submit them in the comments below.