I am often asked what makes a good product manager, and the first thing I point to is what makes a good leader. A good product leader empowers their team to think critically and creatively while operating independently and collaboratively.
How exactly do good product managers do this? For one, they don’t micromanage or dictate. Instead, they communicate their vision clearly and effectively, then encourage the team to pursue that vision through their own independent means.
That is, they focus on leadership over management.
After all, a product manager leads more than just the product team. They need to guide marketing, sales, and any other internal stakeholders of a company throughout the product lifecycle, as well.
Now I don’t mean to imply a product manager’s role doesn’t involve management. I’m simply saying the best product managers possess the skills necessary to lead the team and company—not just prioritize or keep track of tasks and schedules.
Having experienced both good and bad managers, I’ve developed strong opinions on what makes—and does not make—an effective product leader.
Good Communication Makes a Good Product Leader
Let’s start with the most important factor of strong leadership: communication. The best leaders I’ve encountered were adept communicators who could rally the whole company under the same banner through speaking, listening, and earning buy-in from team members.
Influential leaders and product managers understand that successful communication is threefold. They must:
- Clearly communicate a compelling vision
- Listen to understand ideas from team members and customers
- Drive team alignment on decisions
A good product manager provides context to their team and stakeholders. They concisely explain their vision but, more importantly, convey why that vision is vital to the company, the customer, and the team members themselves.
The overarching “why” moves a conversation toward constructive problem solving and saves it from being lost in the “what.”
Let’s examine what this might sound like coming from a product manager that embraces these communication techniques:
“If we invest in making our tool 10x faster than any other, there is a high-end segment that will pay a premium for that. How could we make that happen?”
A good product manager listens to ideas, questions, and doubts from customers, team members, and other stakeholders. They do this—not to ready their counterarguments—but to understand and validate everyone’s point of view. No product manager is smart enough to have thought of everything on their own. For this very reason, listening and being willing to adjust course based on feedback usually results in a better plan. It also sets up buy-in.
Here’s what that might look like in our example:
“I hear you saying that we could be 3x faster with much less effort and suggesting maybe that’s good enough. You might be right. How could we test this assumption?”
A good product manager uses every opportunity to drive alignment on what’s important and why with their customers, team, and stakeholders. Having listened, debated, tested, and negotiated, they can confidently own most product decisions:
“We interviewed 8 high-end customers and most said 3x wasn’t enough to get them to switch. What can we do to hit that 10x target?”
Being an influential leader also requires a certain level of humility, and the same is true for being a great product manager. If conversations like these don’t go well the first time, ask your colleagues for help and feedback. They’ll be flattered and maybe a little impressed that you asked.
A Good Product Manager Combines Experience with Learned Skills
Renowned American businessman and former ITT Corporation president, Harold Geneen, was right:
“Leadership cannot really be taught. It can only be learned.“
Practice is paramount when it comes to leadership skills. And like any new skill, you’ll sometimes get it wrong before you get it right. But keep practicing and collecting feedback. You can learn by doing.
Let’s walk through two key leadership skill practices together:
Any longtime leader knows that you learn more from listening than from talking. Listening starts with asking the right questions. These questions should be as open-ended as possible and, as we discussed above, focused on the why behind changes and decision-making:
“You mentioned that the xyz feature is really important to you. Can you tell me why that is? What might that do for you?”
Another component of listening is watching. Body language can tell you as much as, if not more than, what someone is verbally communicating. When new ideas are suggested, watch to see how your team responds both verbally and nonverbally.
Take note if people grow quiet or cross their arms, look puzzled, or look away. This will clue you into topics that need deeper discussion, which can begin with another open-ended question:
“You seem concerned about this. Can you tell me what’s on your mind?”
There’s nothing worse than coming out of a meeting with everyone nodding, only to discover they are speaking or acting differently the next day. This means that, despite what they said, the group was not all aligned with the plan.
The buy-in that keeps people aligned is an ongoing process, not a transcendent moment. Product leaders work to set alignment in motion by involving team members and other stakeholders early on in any new effort. A strong leader will season every decision and conversation with opportunities for their team to weigh in and contribute so that everyone can invest in the problems and the solutions that come out of them.
Collaboration sparks buy-in and a sense of ownership. We can see this connection through our relationship with a product many of us may have right in our own homes: IKEA furniture. We love our IKEA furniture not because it is handsomer than other furniture but because we had a hand in building it. We buy a box of IKEA furniture pieces, we work through the assembly process, and then we own our IKEA furniture—in more ways than one.
What someone contributes to and feels part of becomes important to them, and the same goes for any team. Astute leaders will always find a way to turn “me” into “we.”
I wrote about my own experience learning leadership skills in a recent One Thing on Product Culture (my weekly nano-letter) and how fortunate I was to have been mentored by a leader like John. John made it easy to learn from him with his direct and transparent leadership style.
But I wasn’t always so lucky.
I’ve had my share of poor managers. The type who neglected to provide the necessary context for good decision-making… then immediately criticized my decisions with little guidance on how to improve.
It can be disheartening to find yourself under the type of leader who lacks good communication, listening, and alignment skills. But if you know what makes a good leader, you can still learn from those less-than-stellar managers—you can learn what not to do when you are in that position.
Knowledge Alone Won’t Make a Good Product Manager
It may seem illogical, but the best candidates for product management aren’t always those with pre-existing knowledge of your industry or product.
This isn’t to say that a good product manager shouldn’t develop a strong understanding of the product, but rather when it comes to identifying the best candidate, consider leadership qualities first.
Successful product management also requires a wealth of technical knowledge about the product itself. But the right product manager can always learn those specific ideas and concepts with time, developing the necessary expertise on the job.
Learning to be a competent leader, however, is more difficult—and can’t be rushed or gotten from a book.
A Good Leader Makes a Good Product Manager
I believe leadership is the most indispensable part of product management because, by nature, that’s what a product manager does.
As I mentioned before, a product manager doesn’t just lead the product team; in a way, they’re leading the entire company. They work with every single faction within the company, aligning each group and their competing interests behind the common goal of delivering value to the customer through the product.
Juggling competing interests from across the company is a never-ending job. But this complicated process can be solution-driven and streamlined when you have a product manager who leads by listening, communicating, and driving alignment on decisions.
Having a great leader as your product manager will also propagate more leaders from right inside your company. The strong leadership skills of good product managers will rub off, leaving you with a whole team of leaders-in-the-making who are prepared to tackle any new challenge.
And leadership will set your company on the path to success.