During this pandemic, I’m reading a lot about the tough situations people are in in terms of losing their job. Many have decide to move into PM from other functions like dev, UX, customer support, and business analyst roles and are asking for advice on what they can do to make themselves and their resumes more marketable in the PM space.
I felt compelled to offer up some thoughts on what it takes to be a successful product manager. These aren’t just for those transitioning to PM…they’re skills and behaviors that are critical whether you are new to the function or polishing up your skills during the downtime this pandemic has forced upon us.
Much of the advice I see in the communities I’m engaged in center around the ability to gather requirements, ability to understand technology, domain expertise, strategic thinking, analytics, communication skills, and time management. All good skills to have in most functions within a company, don’t you think? I mean, I should be strategic, analytical, manage my time, know my business space, etc. as a development leader or an ops leader.
The point is, I see a lot of very high level, generic skills being thrown out there for product managers. And yes, they are all good skills to have. But I like to focus on the skills that a lot of PM training and books don’t cover.
Below are 4 behaviors/traits that you probably don’t hear as much about that are just as critical, if not more, to your success, long term. I’ve also added tips on what you can do today to begin building muscle in each one of these.
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as:
“the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”
You probably have heard of this one. If you’re a seasoned PM, this should be a NO DUH and practiced in all forms; listening to your developers; your leaders; your customers; your team mates. The best product managers I know demonstrate the ability to listen and understand what is being said in a way that focused action can be taken. It’s not just about listening, it’s listening for understanding vs. listening until you can respond.
Empathy doesn’t come naturally for everyone.
Ask yourself. Do you often have a rebuttal to what someone is saying before they are finished saying it? Are you working to form a solution to what you think is their problem before they finish explaining it so you can look intelligent? Do you ever need to be the first to speak? If you answered yes to any of these, you might want to step back and reflect.
There are a ton of books on this topic that can help. We have a quick way to begin practicing this now and building some muscle if it doesn’t come naturally to you.
Tip: Pressure test for your own understanding
Next time you have a conversation with someone and they are communicating an experience or challenge they are having…Listen to what they are saying, then ask…
- “Let me see if I translated what you said correctly……is that what you meant?”
- “Correct me if I misunderstood, but this is what I heard…Is that right?”
- “You feel X, because of Y? Is that right?”
….Find whatever words that feel natural and that politely validate you understand.
This does 2 things:
- It forces you to listen with the goal of understanding vs. the goal of responding.
- It helps the person feel heard
I will never hire a product manager unless they have demonstrated an ability to listen and empathize. If you’re breaking into PM, your resume better have a project or two that demonstrates your ability to listen to others, understand what they have communicated, and translate what you understood into some sort of action. This can be internal projects, team process improvement, a community project, etc.
I look for the same in the interview. Are they listening to me and do they understand the question/case I’m communicating instead of being poised to respond before I finish?
This one can be considered a follow on to empathy, but I call it out here because I’ve seen product managers give lip service to empathy and immediately assume they have the solution to what they heard…without truly understanding the problem. Curiosity is what inspires us to ask “why.” It’s what helps us to discover the root-cause of a problem. It’s where innovation “rubber hits the road.” Building a solution to solve for a symptom is okay, but solving the root cause of a problem is where transformation occurs.
TIP: Practice the “5-Why’s”
Next time you are in a customer interview or in a meeting with a leader or a cross-functional partner, try practicing the “5-Why’s” technique. Much content is written about the 5-Whys, but essentially it’s asking “why” 5 times in response to the first answer someone gives you to a question. It’s a technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese inventor who’s son went on to establish Toyota Motor Corp. The technique was used within Toyota as a way to get to root cause of production issues within manufacturing.
For the best product managers, curiosity comes naturally. It’s part of their passion for solving problems and much of why they entered into the field of product management in the first place. They are naturally inquisitive when they hear a pain point or challenge from a customer, a leader, or a team mate.
Does that mean you can’t learn this behavior? Absolutely not. But it takes practice and refraining from assumptions before taking action. So take the time to ask why before jumping to an answer or solution.
This is hugely valuable in smaller firms. Larger enterprises usually have very clearly scoped roles and rarely reward going outside the lines. But because 99% of companies in this country have 50 or less employees, I’m going to talk about athleticism here.
I define athleticism :
The courage to step up and go beyond the traditional product management lines and support the team and business anywhere that’s necessary. Learning quickly along the way and being resourceful where resources may not be available.
As a product leader in multiple start-ups, after my career in big corp, I realized, really quickly, that there is a huge hurdle product managers face if they grew up in big corporate and are transitioning to a much smaller firm. They find themselves paralyzed when asked to do something outside their comfort zone because they don’t have data, cross-functional “coverage,” or a known process for getting from point A to point B. In smaller companies, especially startups, we have no choice but to wear multiple hats. This is where athleticism kicks in. You identify what needs to be done, volunteer to get it done, then learn how or be creative on how to get it done…in spite of a lack in skill, process, or resources. It could mean covering things like financial modeling, writing a moderator script, designing part of the product, developing a product demo, researching and recommending a particular technology, creating a marketing plan, etc.
Every product organization is different. Some of those things may already be included in your role. Others may not. The point is not being afraid to step up and learn outside your comfort zone and demonstrate resourcefulness. The smaller the company, the more I look for indications of athleticism in potential PM hires’ resumes. And I grill hard for indication of paralysis in certain situations where they might asked to do a task they’ve never done before.
For those of you wanting to try your hand at a startup or forced to make a career move, be ready and open to discovering your new talents and getting creative on solving problems without big data, big teams or big process.
TIP: Take on at least 1 “Stretch project” per year.
When was the last time you branched out? Talk to your leader and ask to take on an impactful challenge you see in the org. Identify a project that will stretch your skills and make an impact on the customer, your team mates, or the organization as a whole. The point is to get our of your comfort zone where you are forced to learning something quickly and improvise with minimal resources.
I saved the best for last.
A product person’s job is to lead AND execute. It’s a unique skill mix that only a few functions within a business are required to master. As a product person you must influence and gain commitment across multiple functions and leaders; and usually, none of them report directly to you. It’s partly what makes our job so fun! (and exhausting at times.) So I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the practice of gaining commitment as one of the most critical skills. Whether you are a CPO or new product manager, this practice is critical to your success.
Getting commitment is what’s required as the first step in implementing any strategy or product decision; big or small. Without commitment, agreement is moot. Commitment is something that many people in life, and in business, don’t understand and are caught off guard when they realize they never had it. How many of you have recently had a decision overturned or delayed significantly? Did you diagnose what happened?
Most of the time we find one of two things happened:
- A stakeholder had different data and believed the decision should have been something different than the one you proposed.
- A stakeholder didn’t have the necessary resources (time, money, people, etc.) to execute against the decision and decided to push back after the decision was made.
As product managers we need to build a skill in getting commitment…not just facilitating decision making.
Our definition of getting commitment:
A state in which the decision maker(s) and critical stakeholders intend on and follow through on making the necessary accommodations to implement the decision made while holding themselves accountable for their part in the success of the project regardless if they agree with the decision or not.
What do I mean by critical stakeholders? These are the folks that will be significantly impacted by the decision. These could be operational partners, your development team, your manufacturing partners, your support team, etc.
What do I mean by necessary accommodations? This could be anything required to execute; be it funding, human resourcing, operational or technical trade-offs, etc.
That last part is important. We want to be in a situation where people may not agree with the decision, but they are committed to it as they understand how the decision was made and why.
Tip 1: Make sure everyone has the same data
Don’t cherry pick the data people! I realize it’s easy to do. There are 2-3 key data points that support your decision and that’s all you present. Commitment doesn’t work that way. Everyone has a different perspective and many are working with different sets of data. It’s up to you to level the playing field. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when people are presented with the same set of data, they usually come to the same conclusion. They may not like the decision, but because they see the data and the logic behind the decision…AND can’t provide different data that would lead to different conclusions…they will commit.
So democratize the data. Show ALL RELEVANT data to the decision and the logic that led you to your proposed decision. It may take a couple extra slide, but it’s worth it.
Tip 2: Always know what your key stakeholders need and how they will react to a particular decision BEFORE you present it.
Always ask these questions:
- “How are you feeling about this proposed decision?” –> I ask my most influential potential naysayers and my biggest stakeholders because I want to make sure I’m not missing anything. I also want to identify things that I might be able to address early so that they are already committed before THE decision meeting.
- “What would inhibit you from executing against this decision?” –> Most successful PM’s learn the impact of a decision by asking this early in the process.
- “What do you need to be successful?” –> Like the last question, I ask this as early as possible.
- “How can I help?” –> I ask this any chance I get. If I’m asking a lot of a particular stakeholder, I want them to know that I’m not throwing crap over the fence in the hopes they can suck it up. (oh yeah, that’s where the empathy skill comes in!)
- “When can your team have this done?” –> This is where we put stakes in the ground to drive accountability. Let’s face it. Stuff happens. So dates are still a bit soft and you aren’t nailing someone’s feet to the floor here, but you are setting the stage for accountability discussions going forward. Date’s will move, but holding folks accountable ensures progress.
These feel like common sense, I realize. But many product managers I see, present a decision without understanding the impact a decision has or who the decision impacts. They end up leaving THE decision meeting with a bunch of frustrated people rolling their eyes, delaying the decision, and backtracking with multiple people to do the homework they should have done in the first place. The secondary effect of all this could be career altering; looking tone deaf and lacking the business or organizational savvy necessary to be an effective product management leader.
So if you’re faced with the unfortunate situation of looking for a new job or just wanting to polish your product management skills during this quarantine period, be aware of the lesser talked about, but also critical skills of successful product managers.
Product Rebels is a product management training and coaching firm run by long term product executives for companies like Intuit and Mitchell International. We have trained over 200 companies small and enterprise level in the skills and frameworks that help product management leaders and product managers deliver kick-ass customer experiences. We have a passion for finding efficient ways of infusing customer insight into everything product teams do in pursuit of experiences that customers love …that drive growth. Join us in the Product Rebels Community on Facebook or the Product Rebels Community on LinkedIn.
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