What is a Product Manager’s Job?
What is a Product Manager’s Job? Ask 10 product managers to describe their jobs, and you’re likely to hear 10 different answers. Unlike schoolteacher or police officer, the phrase product manager does not immediately suggest an obvious job description — because the responsibilities of product managers can vary significantly across industries and businesses.
But whatever their specific responsibilities, all product managers share a core function, which we can use as a working definition of their job: Product managers drive the development of products, and they are ultimately responsible for the success of those products.
Note: Before we discuss the job of a product manager in more detail, it’s important to distinguish between product management and project management, because they are often confused or used interchangeably. Whereas a product manager’s job is strategic and focused on the big-picture planning of a product’s development, a project manager is tactical, focused on executing the product’s plans. Product manager and project manager, in other words, are not interchangeable — they are complementary.
What Does a Product Manager Actually Do?
We’ve defined a product manager’s job from the highest-level — they drive the development of products — but what exactly does that mean? What do product managers do?
Let’s delve one level deeper: Product managers are information gatherers, defining the strategic direction of their products through the lens of knowledge they acquire about 1) their business’s strategic goals; 2) the market’s demands and opportunities; and 3) the technological and financial resources available to them to make the product a reality.
Once they have analyzed all of this data, and determined a strategic direction, the product manager’s job is then to communicate this strategy to multiple stakeholders, earn buy-in from decision makers, and ensure the appropriate teams understand their roles and have the tools they need to execute the strategy.
Which means the second part of a product manager’s job, after information gathering and analysis, is communication and coordination (and even persuasion).
Five Traits a Successful Product Manager Needs
This wide-ranging set of responsibilities is one reason that a product manager’s job is often defined as the CEO of a product line. Like a CEO, a product manager must coordinate with, delegate to, and persuade a broad set of constituencies. Also like a CEO, the product manager owns ultimate responsibility for the product’s success or failure, as well as for any issue that comes up during development — from technological setbacks, to negative market feedback, to personnel issues, to financial problems.
And just as a CEO must possess a broad range of skills to run a business, a product manager’s skillset must go far beyond simply understanding the product and the market. Successful product managers also need skills such as:
1. The ability to say no — and to explain why
Product managers always work in the context of limited time, limited money and other real-world constraints. A successful product manager needs to be able to keep any extraneous items out of the product roadmap, to ensure that the product stays on plan and meets its high-level strategic objectives.
Just as important, though, the product manager also needs to be able to communicate these tough decisions — often to powerful stakeholders, such as executives or investors — in a way that persuades these constituents the decision is necessary for the success of the product.
2. Being a great delegator
Product managers cannot manage all aspects of a product’s development themselves. But with ultimate responsibility for the product’s success or failure, many product managers are tempted to micromanage every area of development, down to the smallest tasks.
Skilled product managers, however, know to avoid this trap — and instead to communicate their strategic objectives to each constituent team, delegate assignments appropriately, and then trust the expertise of their colleagues.
3. A tight focus on strategy — and not on putting out fires
Because product managers are often the single point of contact for everything that happens in a product’s development, they can often find themselves pulled into putting out fires — issues that are not important enough to affect the product’s success but that demand immediate attention.
Successful product managers are able to stay focused on the strategic and to place these little fires in their proper perspective — delegating them to the appropriate teams, or simply setting them aside as the low-priority events they are.
4. The ability to speak multiple constituents’ languages
A large component of a product manager’s job is to coordinate among many disparate groups of constituents — executives, sales reps, customers, development or manufacturing teams, marketing personnel, etc. — and to ensure all of these groups understand their roles and are working toward a common strategic goal.
But these groups often speak their own dialects. Oftentimes, executives think and talk in terms of quarterly projections, investor returns, and satisfying industry analysts or Wall Street. Engineers speak in terms of software code and other technical details. And so on. Successful product managers must be able to speak fluently in all of these business dialects, to ensure they can clearly articulate what to expect from each team.
Which leads to our final key trait…
5. Being a great listener (in all constituent languages)
Just as important as speaking the dialects of each constituent group involved in their product’s development, product managers must also be able to understand those dialects. This, of course, requires great listening skills.
Because information gathering and analysis are such important parts of their jobs, product managers must be excellent listeners, and be able to understand the subtleties of each dialect — both to be sure their teams truly understand their respective roles, and so that the product managers themselves can quickly identify a potential issue before it becomes a real problem.
Any objective look at the role of a product manager reveals that it certainly isn’t easy. But we hope we’ve convinced you that a product manager’s job is among the most important to their organization’s ultimate success, and that it can be extremely rewarding.