What Skills Do Product Managers Need?

A non-comprehensive list of skills that product managers should develop to be successful in their career.

Written by Den Delimarsky

In several conversations with individuals that I help mentor, the same question seems to be coming up more often than others - what are the skills necessary to be a good product manager? This seemed like a great opportunity to provide a more persistent outline that can be referenced by others in the future, hence this post. I should mention that this list is, of course, not comprehensive - depending on the company, responsibilities and the product one is working on, additional skills might be necessary (or even the same skills, but in a different context).

Listening

Both in meetings and written communication, you will need to ensure that you are actually listening to understand. That is, your focus should be on hearing out all the feedback and then transforming that into a product vision. There is a big difference between taking notes of what people said and getting to the root of what they meant. This will take a lot of practice, as people are different and there is no single way to “read” everyone’s intent. And by the way, this applies to both customers and internal partners. As a rule of thumb, customers are not the experts in the solution, but are most knowledgeable about the problems and pain points they are experiencing. Only through listening will you be able to understand how to get to the root of the problem and make your product indispensable.

How to become better at listening?

  • Always ask yourself “Why?” to get to the root of the problem. “Why is person X suggesting we change the color?”, “Why is person Y thinking that this layout doesn’t work well on mobile?” are good starting points. The “Five Whys” method is well documented - use it.
  • Ask follow-up questions. Not only will you build a better understanding of the topic at hand, you will also communicate to the people you’re discussing the topic with that you care to dive deeper into the problem space. Very rarely will you get clarity after just one conversation or hearing one set of opinions. Be curious and strive to build a deeper understanding.

Verbal communication

As a product manager, you will be talking to a lot of people - partners, peers, customers, engineers, designers and many others. It’s key that you develop a verbal communication style that can help you convey your ideas clearly and in a way that ensures that you are not causing any unnecessary friction, and instead act as a catalyst in bringing clarity to the product. This takes practice (just like listening), and unfortunately there is no blog post or book that can give you the necessary abilities in this domain. The only way to get better at speaking is to actually speak. A lot.

How to become better at verbal communication?

  • Sign up for public speaking opportunities. There are plenty available worldwide. Conferences, meetups, presentations to your local college or high school - whatever you feel is more accessible, take advantage of it. It might not be as comfortable at first, but once you get started, it will become much more straightforward. I would recommend you check out “The Ultimate Guide To Memorable Tech Talks” by Nina Zakharenko as a starting point.
  • Volunteer to present. When you have opportunities to showcase any kind of work, take the initiative in presenting the project. This can be a school or a club project - the size doesn’t actually matter. Ultimately, when you need to talk about a topic to an audience, you will have to learn the ins and outs of what you’re pitching, along with how to make sure that your audience understands the topic without having the background in it. Ask your audience for feedback after the presentation and use that to improve your next one.
  • Build proposals and pitch those. One of the most challenging and rewarding parts of the product manager job is the ability to pitch your ideas to the team, even if they are not necessarily part of the core project that you’re working on. If you are already working as a product manager, take this as an opportunity to learn how to assess and frame an idea, communicate its benefits, collect the feedback and set it into motion. This will likely imply that you need to present it to your manager and your manager’s manager - take this as a learning opportunity.

Writing

A very important skill necessary for product managers to be efficient in their craft, regardless of what company or team one will be working for, is the ability to write prose. Being able to concisely describe a vision and make it easily understandable by partners will be the defining characteristic of one’s impact. Amazon famously has defined the idea of the 6-pager - a specification document that, in six pages, is able to communicate what the product manager is trying to deliver. It forces an artificial constraint that makes sure that no words are wasted, and the focus is on the important features of a product. I personally like to have as much written communication as possible, because it forces me to bring clarity and ensure that I outline the idea in a way that anyone reading the document has an instant understanding of what I am trying to achieve. This is massively more important if you are working in a distributed team.

How to become better at writing?

  • Start a blog. Nowadays, this is literally the easiest way to write for an audience and be able to get feedback within seconds. I personally would recommend that you self-host, but there are also plenty of services such as dev.to that can guest-post your writing. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but the more you write, the more experience you will gain (in addition to visibility) in defining your writing style.
  • Write detailed proposals and share with your team. This is a follow-up on the verbal communication skill, but whether you work as a product manager in your role or not - you can always go the extra mile and write proposals for a million things that can be done on your team. Maybe you can do some analysis on a recently launched feature or write a proposal for cost savings by implementing specific processes. The goal is to gain writing skills while also getting direct feedback on your work from your leadership and peers.
  • Learn business writing. This is quite different from writing a blog, and luckily there are plenty of resources online that can show you how to get good in this area without you having to invest a dime.

Product-focused thinking

The work of a product manager is all about addressing customer problems. Whether it’s through an app, a service or a website - it doesn’t matter. Your deliverable is a product. When thinking through the product management work, the focus should be first and foremost on how the product can be used as the solution that addresses specific customer scenarios, and all conversations around planning, iteration, release and delivery should be grounded in a shared understanding of this principle. This means that a product manager should be able to think in a very high-level context, accounting for financial aspects, design, engineering considerations, customer experience and others. Another way to put this is that the product manager should be able to think end-to-end about a product, and not just in isolation (even if you work on a single feature).

How to become better at product-focused thinking?

  • Always assess customer value. Whether you are working on a feature or a larger set of experiences, always ask the question “How is this making my customer better?” You don’t want to be a part of a “feature factory” where you are shelling out new things for the sake of new things.
  • Stop focusing on just the details. This is a common mistake, especially for freshly-minted product managers that get bogged down in the details of their specific feature or role. Instead, you need to think about the work you’re doing as a component of a larger whole. What is your product solving for the customer? How is your work tying into that? Where can you do more to make the customer even more delighted?

Detachment from the ego

No matter what product is being worked on, the measured outcome is usually not tied to the people making it. That means that you will never see someone measure the success of a product by the number of promotions it yielded on a team. The success is measured in customer success and market adoption. That is not to say that you should ignore building bridges with your peers and internal partners; however, the process, feedback and all ideas stemming from it should be detached from your ego - if someone is providing constructive criticism about a specific product aspect, it’s not because they are trying to put you down or undermine your efforts. Look at this through the value prism - it’s about delivering customer value in the shape of your product. If you get input, that’s great - know when to take it, and know when to ignore it. But never take it personally. Your idea is not any more special than the one from your peers.

How to become better at detaching from your ego?

  • Proactively solicit feedback. One of the things that I am very transparent with my team on is feedback - if I am doing something wrong or in a suboptimal way, I want the people I work with and customers to tell me that. The more feedback you get and the more you are able to identify your blind spots, the easier it will be in the long run.
  • Always focus on value. It’s about the product. If someone came up with a better idea than you, be happy - take that into consideration and make a better product. I always tell my peers and mentees - it doesn’t matter who came up with an idea (it’s still key to give credit). I am not here to take credit for being the “tactical genius” - I am here to work with some of the smartest people on the globe to build impactful tools for our customers.
  • Avoid attacks on people and focus on the product. Never call other people names or put them down. Instead, productively discuss ideas, bring data and expertise to the table, and iterate.
  • Understand that the team is after the same goal. You can have a star quarterback, but if your team is not empowered, you will still not win. You can’t try to be the “superstar” and be the one that comes up with all the calls without your team assisting you. Building a good product is an effort that takes many people to deliver on. They all have their sights on the same target. Don’t forget this.

Customer focus

Whether it’s a new product or a small feature, it’s all about ensuring that the customers using it can accomplish their tasks. Your product or service is a tool in their life, and great product managers never lose sight of this. Focus on solving a problem and be able to quickly iterate on the solution. Remember - don’t get too attached to an idea. Talk to your customers, understand their needs, communicate those to your team and come up with a battle plan to deliver a great product.

How to become better at customer focus?

  • Find ways to engage with customers. Whether it’s talking at meetups, soliciting feedback on Twitter or frequently visiting specialized online forums, you want to get a sense of what problems your customers are experiencing. This skill builds up on your ability to be good at verbal communication and product-focused thinking.
  • Build your ability to understand the true problem. When someone tells you that they don’t like the menu bar in your app, your first hunch should not be to go and change the menu bar, but rather understand what customers are trying to accomplish. There is a fantastic starting guide from Salesforce that shows you what that is about.

Understanding of metrics and product data

Any product has a set of core metrics that define its success. Usually it will be up to the product managers to define what those are. It’s important to be able to discern what is a vanity metric and what is not. In addition to being able to define the metric, a PM should be able to also articulate the why - how tracking specific performance markers helps define the product traction. There is an easy way to gauge those, and that is through the help of the three As (actionable, auditable, accessible).

My recommendation is to also build an understanding of how telemetry data is collected for the product. Learn how to query the data yourself without relying on the data science team to provide all the answers. This is both a load-balancing exercise (the data science team can focus on more critical research), as well as a way to grow your own skill set and build an understanding of how metrics are calculated. And don’t forget - data can be wrong. Your telemetry system might be collecting the information in a way that drops certain markers, or maybe the query was malformed, so approach the numbers with a healthy dose of skepticism. Ask the question - “If the data is wrong, how would I check for that?

How to become better at understanding metrics and product data?

  • Take a course on statistics. I’d personally say that this is a must. You don’t need to be an expert in the field, but you should have a basic understanding of statistical significance, sampling and correlation. This is yet another skill that you can learn for no cost at all. I find this knowledge to be extremely helpful when defining and analyzing product metrics on a continuous basis.
  • Understand what product success is for you. What are the primary factors that drive your revenue? Is it about one-time use or repeated use of the tool you are building? Once you have a clear idea of what the finish line is, you will be able to better define metrics and work with engineering and data science teams to instrument the affordances in your product that can help you measure them.
  • Talk to engineers and data scientists. If you are already working in a team where engineers are instrumenting telemetry events and the data science team is buys computing product metrics and creating dashboards, have a conversation with them. Tell them that you want to learn more about the product metrics and see how the process works under the hood. How are events instrumented in code? Where is the data stored? How can you access the data?

Basics of psychology

Because you are working with people, it’s most useful to be able to understand everyone’s motivations and intentions. This is where fundamental understanding of psychology can come in handy. And to be clear - you don’t need to become a certified psychologist to be well-prepared. Learn to read the body language of your audience when you are presenting. Try to understand why a certain individual is asking you certain questions. Build an understanding of your customers’ behavior.

How to become better at the basics of psychology?

  • Take a psychology and behavior economics course. This will shine a light on how people think, why they make certain decisions, and how you can build influence with various groups. There are free courses available, but nothing can substitute practice (which is the next point).
  • Practice noticing verbal and non-verbal cues, as well as ways to nudge people in certain decision directions. This is especially critical in scenarios where you need to exercise “influence without authority” when you need to convince individuals of the value of an idea without them reporting to you or having any direct obligation to listen. And before you think “Hey, isn’t this manipulation?” - no, it’s not. You want to understand underlying motivations that drive people, rather than force them to adopt a decision they don’t want.

Accelerated skill growth

I like to think of product managers as almost always being jack-of-all-trades. One day you might be focusing on site UX, another day you might work on developer tooling. To make these kinds of product transitions successfully, especially in larger teams, it’s important to be able to learn new things quickly and pick up knowledge on the go. This might seem very abstract, but it’s a learnable skill. Effectively, you need to be able to absorb knowledge from peers, books and practice in a way that allows you to maximize your efficiency and value add to the team. A product is rarely a silo composed of one thing. I found that I am most productive when I can contribute to more than one aspect of the tool or service I am part of, and to be able to do that I need to be a lifelong learner and not rest on my “knowledge” laurels too much.

How to become better at accelerating skill growth?

  • Learn things. Sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it? To be able to learn things quickly you need to start learning things and find the approach that works for you. Are you someone who is working on Python developer tools? You better start learning the inner workings of Python code. Are you part of the team that delivers an e-mail client? Start learning how the e-mail infrastructure works. There are always areas where you can increase your expertise in. That’s not to say that without this you will not be a successful product manager; however, your impact will be limited until you’re able to quickly pick up new things and apply them.
  • Apply your knowledge. The best way to make sure that you are really understanding a space is by applying your knowledge and assessing the outcomes. If you learned Python, can you start putting together Jupyter notebooks for your team where you are analyzing the telemetry data for the service you ship? If you learned how to build great presentations in PowerPoint, can you start making more presentations to your team? No theory can ever replace hours and hours of continuous practice.

Partnership growth

Throughout my career, I have never had a situation where I would work exclusively by myself, ship things, come back with feedback and then build something again just on my own. Delivering a product is a partnership between engineers and designers, product teams in other divisions and customers who interact with them, as well as many other folks in marketing, developer relations, research, data analysis and more. You need to be able to build bridges to maximize the value and impact of your product.

How to become better at partnership growth?

  • Build trust. Nothing helps you build a network more than building trust with other teams and stakeholders of a product. Treat them as key partners that are important to the delivery of your product. Consider and integrate their feedback and be transparent when things go wrong. Do not engage in “tribal games” (us vs. them) and instead focus on how you can collaborate better.
  • Ask for feedback. Reach out to your partners, peers and customers and solicit feedback on your approaches. Make those that surround you stakeholders in the success of the product.
  • Follow-up. When you deliver a product or a solution, never abandon the relationships that you built. Follow-up with data and insights. Assess the impact your product has on customers and partners and work together to figure out how you can maximize it.

Prioritization

Just a couple of months into any product manager job, one is likely to feel like there is a million things that need to be done and there is not enough time. That is normal. The key is to learn to assess the list of tasks and decide on their priority. Not every assignment or project has the same importance and impact, and it will be crucial that a product manager is able to distinguish between those projects that need immediate attention versus those that can be placed in the backlog.

Prioritization is not necessarily a solo exercise. I personally find it the most useful when I am able to solicit team and customer input into the process, asking the question “What is the most important problem that is not solved today with our product?” The caveat here is that you should not listen to your customers as the priority drivers. To your customers, everything is an urgent issue - they want that feature implemented yesterday. Instead, go back to the idea that your customers are not experts in the solution, but they are absolutely the experts in the problem, therefore assess what problems need to be solved first.

How to become better at prioritization?

  • Learn to say no. The biggest drain on your productivity is when everything is a priority, and everything needs to be done. It was a key step in my career when I learned that saying “no” is not something that will be perceived as a negative, but rather that it’s something that is not a priority at this time. My inbox is saner, and I get to focus on some of the most important pieces of the product roadmap without randomization.
  • Start small. Don’t set out to have 100 priorities. That list will be unmanageable. Start with three priorities, execute on those, and then adjust the priority list.
  • Use data and insights. Eliminate the guess work in establishing the list of things that need to be done. What is the customer data at hand that can help you make the decision? What is the single component that drives the most dissatisfaction and negatively affects user retention? That’s your priority. What is the single feature that, if implemented, will give you a market advantage? That is your priority. In both cases you need to have a deep understanding of your customers and market to make the call. If you don’t have the data, find ways to get it through experimentation and research.

Strategic and tactical priority assessment

This point trails the one about prioritization, and it’s about identifying strategic opportunities versus tactical ones. Here is the difference - strategic opportunities allow you to build long-term value and impact. A new initiative around product growth, a better way to iterate and experiment that allows you to learn quicker - these efforts will put you and your team in a better position if you invest in them, hence why we consider them strategic. Tactical items are much more immediate. For example, setting up an experiment for a feature, setting up customer interviews to understand a problem - these are still important, but likely are super-tailored to a very specific problem at a very specific point in time.

Product managers need to find ways in which they balance out tactical and strategic priorities, with a bias for strategic. If one finds themselves focusing too much on tactical changes and improvements, that is likely to minimize the impact. PM growth involves an ever-expanding scope of problem resolution, therefore being able to look at the set of problems ahead and identifying which provide the most bang for the buck is very important.

How to become better at strategic and tactical priority assessment?

  • Think end-to-end. Don’t focus just on your feature or set of experience. How is what you’re doing helping the entire product? What can you do to make the product better in more than one way? It’s very easy to think “I am working on delivering this feature only” - it’s harder to think in the “I am working on delivering value through this feature in this way” frame.
  • Organize your day around strategic investments. Spend less time in e-mail and more in researching the market. Do less feedback triage and more experiments that help you gauge the market reaction to specific features. And just like it was mentioned with other points, this is not to say that you should never read e-mail - just remember that nobody ever built a successful product by saying that they spent 1,000 hours replying to e-mail messages.

Opinionated point of view

Back when I first starting off, an important piece of wisdom was given to me by my manager - “You are paid to have an opinion.” As a product manager, one should have a point of view as to what the product should be like. That does not mean that the product manager is the one that comes up with all the ideas and has to be the one telling others what to do. Quite the opposite, actually. The product manager aggregates inputs from others, and then uses quantitative and qualitative data to communicate the plan forward.

The position you don’t want to be in is where there are multiple meetings happening to decide on the same thing, followed by multiple emails and then more meetings. If you are encountering a roadblock, it’s worth looking at how you can apply the “disagree and commit” strategy within your team - the problem of too many cooks usually can be addressed by having a commitment to learning, experimentation and iteration as new data emerges.

How to develop an opinionated point of view?

  • Always have data at hand. Investigate your product telemetry and understand how your customers are relying on the product and what areas of improvement there are. Data trumps opinions most of the time. And if it doesn’t, it can be a powerful tool in getting the point across.
  • Do not seek confrontation, but rather a productive conversation. Stop arguing in meetings with people who confront other people. Focus on the product, come up with a way forward around an experiment or a small launch, and use that as the gateway to getting things done. When you meet, it should be about ideation and partnership building, not dissecting a single idea over and over. Bikeshedding can kill your product before it’s even out.
  • Determine a point where “disagree and commit” needs to happen. When you see that the feedback is going in circles, or there are meetings for the sake of determining when the next meeting is going to be, you should feel empowered to clearly state that the agenda and outcome of the current conversation is to come up with a plan forward. Make it clear that by the end of the conversation there will be a direction - not another request for feedback.
  • Be able to have your mind changed. It might happen that midway through the project you need to change direction based on new data - that is OK. Be transparent about it, communicate the changes, take feedback, and once again - know the point where you can say “This is good enough to move forward.

Innovation

This is probably the hardest skill to develop - the ability to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions to customer problems. There is no single recipe that can help you come up with better ideas - it will be developed over time, the more you are immersed in the space.

How to become better at innovation?

  • Use other products. Don’t stay silo-ed in your own product. See what your competitors are doing. See what your customers are doing with other products. This will help you build a set of ideas that can improve your own experiences. This is not about copying your competitors, but rather about building an understanding of needs and how those are addressed with available solutions.
  • Read & observe. Seriously, just spend time reading. Books, articles, blog post. Observe events and natural phenomena. Inspiration is all around you - if you just stay locked in your office or house, without learning about the environment around you, you won’t be able to innovate.

Focus

Last but not least, great product managers cannot be distracted from the main goal. There is a plethora of things that ask for your attention - e-mail, social media, notifications, games, new blog posts, instant messengers and many others. You need to learn how you can zoom out and ignore the distractions to get things done. Especially in the product management space, where you need to tackle product issues from a variety of angles, being highly focused is extremely hard.

How to become better at focus?

  • Remove distractions. Turn off push notifications, close your e-mail client, set “Do Not Disturb” mode in your instant messenger. Physically removing distracting factors will help you be less focused on them and more on the product you’re working on. I wrote about this on my blog.
  • Work in productive bursts. I personally set a flow timer that I use to have cycles of 1 hour of work, followed by 10 minute breaks. I try not to do anything but the task at hand during the time when I should be working.

Conclusion

There are a lot more skills that you can develop that will help you be a better product manager, but that would take an entire book. What worked for you? What do you think is harder to achieve? Let me know on Twitter!