Skills for a new Product Manager
Recently I was asked for advice by a freshly minted MBA graduate turned product manager.
What skills should I focus on developing as a PM?
A little background first.
I have run product management teams in consumer internet companies for more than a decade now. But I am the self-taught type. Like the way people teach themselves a language or how to drive.
When I first started at CaratLane in 2007, I didn’t even know for the longest time that what I did was called Product Management.
My education and learning as a product person has been shaped by the demands of the business I have been in. I am not an engineer. Have never worked in software and I often have to ask people to convert the technicalese into english so that I can follow them.
I gave her my own worldly advice and she claims she found it useful. After double checking that she wasn’t just being nice, I decided to write it down for the benefit of a few others.
If you don’t find it useful, then you know who’s to blame :-)
One of Indra Nooyi’s great mantras is to get a hip-pocket skill. These will give you enough ideas to acquire one.
So here goes. In no particular order.
Start with the Basics
First get to know all the analytics, funnels, metrics, journeys, all the known problems. This is basic hygiene. Like a newborn baby learning to eat, poop and cry for attention. This way you can at least follow all the conversations And not irritate people all the time by asking “ but who’s Sita” type of questions. Talk to people and attend lots of review meetings. You will quickly catch on.
Become a Problem Seeker
Jonah Berger says people share when they think the content will make them look smart. I say, product and business people listen when you tell them about an interesting new problem or insight. Gives them a chance to look good.
While everyone talks about customer centricity and obsession, the reality is that it’s hard to consistently keep doing it and people often slacken off. It’s like dieting and exercising. There is also the bias that I have already seen everything. So figure out sources of new problems or insights. Spend time with customers or customer facing teams. Read feedback mails. And finally, make sure you know some real regular customers who will give you unvarnished feedback.
Know the Business really well
Most likely you are an MBA. So put those skills to use. Don’t be marooned on product tech island. Understand all aspects of business. What are the business goals? How does the product help in delivering those goals? Who’s the competition? ( Not just similar competition. Like Netflix competing with everything that helps you relax). What are they doing? What are the external factors which tend to impact your business?
Your boss should be able to tell you all of this. If he or she is not, then either they are dumb or they don’t like you. So try and find a new boss first.
This will make you more T-shaped. Increase your chances of being part of the cool cross-functional projects. Will help you connect and relate to other business teams and eventually improve your effectiveness ( more on that later)
Master of Communication
Your job will involve a lot of communication. Of all types. Practise and become better at writing good documents. For different audiences. 1) Scope documents for tech. 2) Amazon like memos and PR notes to get buy-in for your projects and ideas from stakeholders. 3) Sharing Success stories and impact with the larger organisation. 4) All the little bits of micro copy on the website. Sometime you will have to do it.
Practise talking. From a ten minute monologue about your great idea to a 20 second pitch when the CEO asks you a question.
All of this is important because product management requires getting the whole organization excited about your new product and pulling together to make it successful. This is where “knowing the business” also comes in handy.
Become a better Decision Maker
You have done the hard work on getting the data and metrics, the consumer problems and the business understanding. All of this will make you super successful, provided you don’t undermine yourself by making bad decisions.
To avoid this, read up on biases and get some decision making heuristics in place. Reading psychology also has an ancillary benefit. It also improves your understanding of consumer psychology and human behaviour.
Your company’s leadership must surely be operating with some decision making thumb rules. Make sure you are well versed with them. You will have to make a lot of small decisions everyday. No self respecting product leader likes a team member who seeks their advice on every small thing.
Get in bed with Tech
Product and Tech can often end up like India Pakistan. Always at loggerheads. Avoiding it is super important. You need to have great rapport with the Technology and QE teams. Learn how they work. Their lingo. Their structure. Their ambitions. What motivates them. Empathise with them. Share successes with them. Get them involved in thinking about problems.
It’s ok if you don’t believe this. Just wait for a few releases.
Now for the ultimate Hip-Pocket Skill
This is my favourite. And for good reason. Became good at connecting the dots. Anyone can analyse data and insights. Only a handful can synthesize them. Synthesizing involves combining ideas and insights from different sources and weaving it into an actionable narrative. Combining diverse ideas effectively allows for quantum leaps in innovation.
This skill gives you a better chance of solving complex problems, which are increasingly becoming the norm for businesses and product managers.
It’s difficult to acquire and they surely wouldn’t have taught you a course on this back in B-school. But you can become good at this through deliberate practise.
I am supposed to tell you how. But I will need to write another post about it. In the meantime try reading these books.
Change by Design by Tim Brown
Range by David Epstein
Where Ideas come from by Steven Johnson
This isn’t a comprehensive list. Just a list of what I feel are most important.
It’s a lot of work right. It is indeed. But product management isn’t easy. You are privileged to get a chance in the most sought after job role today. It requires dedication and obsession. If you aren’t up for all of this, then you are probably not cut out to be a product manager. Alternately, you could work on being a sycophant and find a dumb boss who likes to be praised all the time.
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