What Qualities and Skills do Product Managers Need to be Successful?
Andreea Mandeal, Applause’s Senior Customer Marketing Manager, had a conversation with 7 successful product leaders about the key qualities and skills product managers need in order to be successful.
Before diving into the main topic of this article, I’d like to briefly mention an important finding about the academic background of product managers. In December 2019, I ran a survey among product managers, asking them to provide insights on several aspects such as their daily operations, the position of the product team in their company and their view on the future of product management.
In the past two years, through the DigitalXChange events I’ve been organizing all around Europe, I had the opportunity to talk to many product professionals. And here is what I found out: nobody actually studied to become a product manager, or grew up thinking they would become one. Everyone somehow “ended up” in the role.
Having that in mind, you may wonder where product managers come from, and what they were doing before. In the survey mentioned above, 24% of respondents said they have an engineering background, 19% previously worked in project management, 18% come from marketing, 8% previously worked in a sales or business development role, 4% worked in customer service, and 27% have other backgrounds.
Despite their different backgrounds, product managers have a lot of goals, challenges and characteristics in common. One important thing they have in common is the following: they find it challenging to hire good product managers.
Given that product managers generally stand between tech, business, customer service and UX — and tend to be involved with all levels of the organization — I believe it is indeed difficult to thrive as a product manager. To be able to do this really well (emphasis on “well”), product managers must develop a wide range of skills and capabilities. Think of a jack of all trades, a sort of business MacGyver.
In the words of Georgina Smallwood (CPO at N26), “the incredible thing about product management is that it doesn't matter what background or hard skills you have, you can thrive as a product manager. The challenge with this is that it can be very hard to find people who have the core elements that make great product managers.”
So I went and asked seven product leaders from Germany, UK, Spain and Sweden about the skills they look for when hiring product managers.
What specific skills do product leaders look for when hiring product managers?
1. Curiosity and willingness to learn and improve
Denise Jones (Product Director, ManoMano) rated intelligence highly (especially emotional IQ) as well as creativity, curiosity, enthusiasm, positivity and critical thinking. Confident candidates who can engage in a conversation will be more likely to get an offer. Additionally, it goes without saying that those who don’t prepare for the interview or don’t have an understanding of what the company does and who their customers are stand no chance.
2. Be clear, concise and focus on the outcome
Similarly to Denise, Georgina Smallwood (CPO, N26) emphasized curiosity, as it is a good indicator that the product manager will be eager to learn and improve. When failing, a good product manager does not waste time on finding excuses, but rather focuses on finding out what they could do differently next time.
Additionally, Georgina also mentioned that she looks for people who are concise, confident and can communicate effectively. Last but not least, she values the ability to focus on the outcome, articulate a goal and drive the team toward it.
3. Customer centricity, proactivity and resilience
Gadi Lahav (Product, Transferwise) on the other hand, put an emphasis on skills such as data analysis, customer centricity, a problem-solving mindset and the ability to prioritize. According to him, skills are more important than industry knowledge, as the latter is something one can learn quickly. He preferred individuals who showed empathy and decisiveness, as well as a skill that is slightly more difficult to spot in an interview: proactive behavior.
A good product manager is able to overcome any challenge thrown at them and turn this into an opportunity (even when they fail) and show perseverance.
According to Pooja Naidu (Director of Product, Financial Times), one of the top skills to have is resilience. In our increasingly complex world and given ever-changing technologies, product managers must juggle different priorities at the same time. “A good product manager is able to overcome any challenge thrown at them and turn this into an opportunity (even when you fail) and show perseverance.”
When talking to Pooja, I really liked a specific comment she made about how product managers should not get too attached to their product. They should, indeed, “be able to kill as many features as they release. If something isn't working, try again, or kill it and continue to work on trade-offs.”
4. A strong focus on business and tech
For Itamar Gilad (Product management coach, speaker and author, Ex-Google), it’s crucial for product managers to understand both tech matters and business topics. They also need to work independently while being great team players. Similarly to what Gadi Lahav said, Itamar also thinks that empathy and customer centricity are key.
Itamar also mentioned the ability to cope with unstructured problems, processes and organizational constraints. But he is also realistic: “No one has all of these skills in full. It's OK to compromise on some skills if you believe that a candidate has the potential to grow.”
5. Communication before all
When asked about the top skills she considers important in product management, Maria Polo Guardia (Director of Product Strategy, Payoneer) started by making a clear difference between junior and senior product managers.
One of the primary skills a junior product manager should have is communication. Good communication skills are crucial to bring transparency and clarity to stakeholders, but also to the squads. A product manager constantly deals with uncertainty, and the best way to manage this is with clear communication.
For senior product managers, Polo emphasizes the need for flexibility and a good “zooming” ability — meaning, the ability to look at the bigger picture while paying attention to details. As it's a generalist role, the successful PMs show a good breadth of knowledge and tools that allow them to tackle whatever problem they face.
In Maria’s own words, "a good product manager is able to tackle a tactical problem (something that worries the business today) but without losing focus of the strategic problems (something that may matter later). Therefore, they are able to zoom in, and zoom out when necessary.”
The last product leader I talked to was David Andreasson (Director, Product & Technology, Telia). According to him, having a technical background is important. Even though it is not a prerequisite, working with a product manager who has an engineering background can be very helpful and speed up processes.
According to David, product managers are not only visionaries — they are also able to “get things done” and orchestrate everything. They can prioritize, are influential and adaptable. Having prior industry knowledge helps, but similarly to Gadi, David doesn’t think it’s essential.
Let’s summarize, shall we? After these conversations, I believe that being a good product manager is definitely not easy, and finding the perfect product manager may feel like mission impossible.
Of course, nobody can have all the skills and qualities mentioned in this article, but you will do well to focus on the key skills mentioned: curiosity, empathy, good communication skills, a strong business and tech focus, and the ability to prioritize.