We write a lot about the skills that product managers need to be effective. The skills are wide-ranging, from ruthless prioritization, the ability to build consensus with stakeholders, metrics-based decision making, and a host of other business and technical skills.
Those tend to be the skills that we and others talk a lot about. But what are the most under-appreciated product management skills?
To answer that question, we asked several product managers for their thoughts. Here is what we heard.
My Favorite Under-Appreciated Product Management Skill is…
I’ll start with one skill I think is under-appreciated: silence.
By silence I don’t mean not speaking, but rather, knowing when to listen intently and then speaking wisely. Too often, we believe we’re expected to have all the answers.
Silence and listening command respect.
Silence works wonders in so many scenarios. When interviewing customers to make sure you truly understand what they think. While working with engineering counterparts or UX colleagues to understand their perspective. When discussing priorities with stakeholders. In these situations, silence (followed by thoughtful responses) shows you’re valuing the opinions and insights of others.
I solicited input from other product managers on which underrated product management skills they value. I’m sharing their top picks with you.
For Dieter, a product manager, the innate ability to know the right thing to do doesn’t get enough credit. We’ve preached so much about how we should ditch our gut instincts and hunches. We prize data-driven decision making. But we’re sometimes ignoring the value of our own wisdom.
“We have hundreds of methods and tools, but sometimes the solutions come from within…”
Product managers must consider the things that might go wrong. We have to set reasonable expectations then mitigate challenges with delivering solutions on time.
This caution and prudence are rightly part of the job. But Stef thinks there’s still plenty of room for a rosy outlook. Her top pick for underappreciated skill:
“Optimism! This can be better. We can do it. These setbacks aren’t the end of the world.”
Product managers have so much on their plates. The role requires attention to disparate details.
Keeping tabs on KPIs, dealing with a demanding customer, attending standups, updating financial forecasts, and scheduling customer calls might sound like a crazy week for most people. To a product manager, it looks like a Tuesday morning.
That’s why product manager Shreya believes multitasking is the most valuable under-appreciated skill for product managers. Product managers exist in an environment full of entirely unrelated demands and deadlines. There’s a lot to do, and sometimes it all seems to need to happen today.
Shreya says “The most under-appreciated skill is multitasking. I couldn’t agree more on adaptability and humility. Product Managers need to wear several hats and adapt based on the ‘n’ number of factors and see what the changing user needs are demanding. Then humility helps to understand various possibilities and perspectives.”
Products we build solve problems for users. So hopefully, product managers are already in a problem-solving mindset. But sometimes identifying what the problem is in the first place can be tricky. What is the value of solving the wrong problem?
That’s why problem-solving ranks at the top of the list for Praseen, a product manager:
“For me, I would say the most under-appreciated skill is to ‘figure out and define the problems’ I should be working on. Most of the cases, what you do daily as a PM is undefined, and to add value, one must first learn ‘how to add value.’”
Internal stakeholder empathy
Empathizing with customers is nothing new in the list of product management skills. Customer-centric organizations put this goal above all others. It (theoretically) drives every decision they make.
But for Aniket, there’s a less-discussed form of empathy not getting its due: Empathy with internal stakeholders: “We hear about empathy towards customers, but empathy towards internal stakeholders is equally important, which goes under-appreciated.”
Having empathy with the sales team, engineering, and executives is essential. Are product managers as empathetic in these stakeholder engagements as they would be when hearing a customer’s frustrations and wishes?
Product managers are subject matter experts. They’ve spent countless hours researching, interviewing, and testing. They know the ins and outs of their products. They’ve crafted compelling value propositions and perfected product positioning.
But for Paul, the expertise and confidence generated by that hard work can make you an expert, yet product can always learn more from customers, prospects, and stakeholders. Instead of settling for their current level of knowledge, they should always yearn for more.
Paul says “Humility is a critical skill for product managers. Recognizing that what you ‘know’ is only an assumption. Acknowledging that everyone you interact with has something to teach you means you’ll never stop getting better.”
Product management is not a career for people who want to do the same thing every day. It’s about the furthest you can get from working an assembly line because the demands of the job require the mental nimbleness to switch from one task to the next. These duties span a wide assortment of domains and deliverables.
For product manager Carey, rolling with these changes but thriving in that environment is a top unrecognized trait. “The most under-appreciated skill is adaptability: The ability to change, to see change, to re-frame, to re-assess.”
Reading the room
In a similar vein, product manager Jay also believes a product manager’s ability to change is critical. He particularly values the mental and emotional awareness and dexterity to modify one’s approach based on the specific team you’re working with.
“Assess your development team’s maturity and adjust your approach accordingly. With an experienced team: don’t get in their way, ask questions, focus externally. With an inexperienced team: be more assertive and guide the team with best practices you’ve seen work before (assuming you know what you’re doing, of course), check-in frequently, use conservative timelines.”
Jay also prizes the capacity for gauging your capabilities for the challenge at hand.
“On the flip side, you also need to assess your subject matter expertise and act accordingly. Sometimes you know the customers, market, competitors, etc. Other times, you take over a product where you have far less expertise, and you need to eat some extra slices of humble pie.”
In reviewing these responses, I found some patterns. There’s a universal emphasis on product managers knowing themselves, being better coworkers, and optimizing their workdays. Most of these were soft skills.
I think that’s because product managers depend on others to deliver great products. It’s a collaborative process. Developing and improving the skills that emphasize those aspects of the role is always appreciated. Even if it never shows up on a job description.