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What skills do I need to be an effective product manager?What skills do I need to be an effective product manager?What skills do I need to be an effective product manager?

What skills do I need to be an effective product manager?

Traditionally, there has been no single route into product management – people don't just do degree in product management and just walk into a product manager job role. There are courses out there that teach the essential skills for product management but even with a basic understanding of product management techniques, there's a lot of learning on the job to do. And other than acquiring the skills to solve the challenge that's in front of you today, it's difficult to know where to focus your development efforts if you want to grow your capabilities as a product manager. So, what skills do you need to be an effective product manager?

It depends on the company

The mix of skills required to be an effective product manager is different depending on whether you're working in a startup or a mature company, and on the culture and processes within that company. For example, startups tend to require a broader hands-on technical skillset even at a relatively junior level and mature companies need more awareness of how to make things happen in a complex organisation.

And the levels of product management

In addition to the organisation they are working in, the level of product management role at which a person is working also determines the skills they need to be successful. Generally speaking, product management roles can be grouped into two categories:

Product managers: These are the individual contributors doing hands-on product management. Depending on their level of experience, they will have varying degrees of responsibility, but their focus is on their own product management work. Some example job titles are: Associate product manager, Product manager, Senior product manager.

Product leaders: These are people who manage other product managers. Their role is focused on high-level product strategy and providing the right conditions for the product managers they lead to be able to do their best work. Some examples of job titles are: Head of Product, VP of Product, Chief Product Officer.

But there is a set of core skills

Despite the wide range of activities a product manager needs to do in their day-to-day work, there is a set of core competencies that underpin the way successful product managers and product leaders work, which is what we are going to explore in this article.

So if you're a product manager who wants to know what skills it takes to go from the fundamentals of product management to the next level, read on.

The Product Refinery Product Manager Skills Matrix (it's not as boring as it sounds)

Typically the preserve of HR folks, a skills matrix is a simple checklist of the things you need to be able to do for the company to consider you competent at your job. At The Product Refinery, our coaching clients who come to us with broad development goals, rather than a specific challenge they want to address, find this framework a useful way to identify areas they need to improve on to progress their careers. The framework uses elements of some of the great thinking done on this topic already by Marty Cagan and Ravi Mehta.

If you're a product manager or product leader (or aspiring to be either), you can assess your own skills by reading the descriptions taken from each area of the framework below and checking off whether you can do what's described or whether there's something more you need to learn to meet the criteria for that area.

Knowledge

Effective product managers need to know their customers, product, industry and organisation. They must be fast learners, good at working with data, and familiar with the research frameworks that underpin product management. The following areas relate to the kind of knowledge product managers need and how they acquire it.

Product & Customer Knowledge

Good product managers know who their users are and are able to gather customer feedback and data on customer behaviour. They have a clear understanding of the job their product does for the user and the relative pros and cons of other solutions for that job.

As they move towards a leadership role, product people need to maintain this deep understanding of the needs of target customers, and the problems specific features solve for them, ultimately using this information to inform product strategy. They must also be able to communicate  critical customer insights across the organisation and articulate how those insights relate to strategic decisions.

Domain Knowledge

Curiosity and the ability to quickly understand the industry they work in are core skills for product managers. They need to be active in identifying the gaps in their knowledge and working with experts or seeking out information to fill those gaps. They have a thorough technical knowledge of how their product works and are able to understand technical conversations with engineers about the product features they are working on.

By the time they reach a leadership position, product managers should be highly competent in the industry and domain of their product or have a clear plan for acquiring that knowledge quickly.. They understand and regularly monitor the competitive landscape and relevant industry trends to inform new product opportunities and fine-tune existing product offerings. Because of their knowledge in this space, they are a looked to by other departments such as sales and marketing as a critical partner in positioning and go-to-market strategies.

Business Acumen

Having enough general knowledge on how businesses work to understand how their work fits with the rest of the business is essential for product managers even at associate level. It's this understanding, combined with seeking out information about their business' goals and strategy that means product managers can make decisions that move their business forward.

Their understanding of the various dimensions of their company’s business – marketing, sales, finance, customer service, legal, etc - develops as they get ready for a leadership role and by that point they are taking those dimensions into account when developing their product strategy. They work to make sure that their team is well-informed about key business factors that impact their work. Product leaders also use this knowledge to proactively address any constraints or misalignments that may block the product team from delivering.

Data Fluency

Product managers are expected to be fluent at working with data. This includes gathering appropriate user data and product performance data, cleaning and organising the data to make it useable, using analytical skills to make decisions and presenting those decisions, along with the supporting information in a format which is clear and easy to understand.

As product managers take on people leadership responsibilities, data fluency becomes more about quickly understanding and interrogating what is presented to them by their team, then using data effectively to inform and drive strategic decisions and as a tool to keep the company informed about the product team's progress. They are constantly monitoring key performance indicators of their product and making changes to strategic initiatives when necessary based on that data.

Process

Because product management is such a complex and varied role, process is vital for working effectively. The following areas of the framework describe the processes product managers need to work with and the skills they need to support those processes.

Vision & Strategy

Strategic thinking is a key skill for product managers even from the early stages of their career. They are aware of and understand the product vision and strategy, contribute where required and ensure their own work, such as the areas of the roadmap and feature backlog they are responsible for, aligns with it.

Vision becomes a more important element of product work in more senior roles. By clearly articulating for their team what they should be focused on, the narrative of why it is important, and setting clear expectations for successful outcomes, a product leader can set their team up to work more strategically.

Product leaders need to understand how to arrive at the product vision, strategy, and roadmap so that it is in support of overall business objectives, while also taking into account all the knowledge they accumulate about customers, the market, the product, and relevant data. They work to ensure the rest of the organization is well-aligned to the product vision and strategy.

Outcome Accountability

Product execution is one of the core responsibilities of the product manager. Ultimately, they are there to bring the product to life so self-leadership and accountability are core skills for product managers. Product managers are accountable for their work, prioritisation and time management, using their red-hot organizational skills to deliver on time and communicate their progress clearly.

This accountability is enabled and role-modelled by product leaders, who are accountable for the outcomes driven by their team. They actively monitor the teams' progress and can effectively identify upcoming team needs based on the future roadmap to ensure the team has what it needs to successfully execute on deliverables.

Ways of Working

Product managers must be comfortable with the technical skills of product management, such as:

  • facilitating the product development process, including agile development rituals when required
  • conducting product discovery processes, interviewing customers and analysing data to understand user behavior and possibly some basic design skills to create wireframes to test.
  • managing a product backlog, writing user stories and using prioritization skills to decide what to work on and collaborating with internal teams such as the design team and engineering team to define product requirements as needed.
  • managing product roadmaps, using strategic thinking skills to ensure their work is aligned with the business strategy of the company

Product leaders provide a working environment with structure & processes that provide the product team with the support, guidance, and empowerment they need to do their jobs effectively. They monitor the environment and ways of working, adapting and optimising them to ensure the team is able to build successful products.

People

Soft skills are the other core area in which product managers need to be strong. High levels of emotional intelligence and  interpersonal skills underpin the 'people' areas of the framework.

Stakeholder management and cross-functional collaboration

At a basic level, product managers have to be conmfortable with conducting a stakeholder analysis to understand how best to communicate with internal stakeholders, gathering the information they need from them and establishing processes to ensure they are informed of, and involved in product design and development in the right points in the process.

Product managers working in a business-to-business context will often need to use their interpersonal skills to manage external stakeholders, involving them in the product development process appropriately as needed. They forge collaborative relationships, working as part of cross-functional teams to deliver product.

At a product leadership level, relationships with likely be with more senior stakeholders and you'll need to factor in their goals and needs into the product strategy. These strong relationships will help you step in to resolve conflicts between departments where needed. Effective product leaders lead conversations and influence decision making across other groups to maximize the overall value of what the product team is building, while also delivering on business goals.

People Management

For product managers, much of their people management responsibility is to people that are not their direct reports. They need to be experts in 'influencing without authority', listening, collaborating and helping get cross-functional teams aligned to achieve a shared goal.

Line managing product managers takes up a large portion of a product leader's time. In addition to building the skills of their direct reports, and helping them to visualize and walk a meaningful career path, they are proactively identifying skills gaps on their team, filling those gaps and building an overall stronger product team.

Leadership Skills

Talking about leadership skills for someone who doesn't have line reports might seem a little strange. However, from early in their careers, good product managers need to be evangelists for effective product management, sharing their knowledge and information about their work wherever it is appropriate and helpful to others. As they develop their skills, they should be setting a great example for more junior members of the team and other people in the organisation interested to learn more about product management.

By the time they are in a leadership role, product people need to be effective communicators, motivators, and collaborators. Their team and stakeholders should be seeking them out for leadership, especially in challenging situations. They successfully gain buy-in for the product vision and strategy, inspire others to contribute to a collective goal, and collaborate meaningfully such that the team feels fully engaged in the journey ahead.

Where do you need to build your skills?

So, as you read through the framework, were there any areas that stood out where you need to build your skills? If so, make the most of one of our free coaching consultations to get some ideas on how you might fill that gap.

Other product management skill frameworks

If you're looking for some more inspiration on what skills you need to be an effective product manager, there are plenty of resources you can explore.

Detailed product management skill frameworks

Marty Cagan's Product Manager Assessment is a similar tool to the framework above but focused on just the product manager role and unpacks each of the areas into more detailed subsections. You can see it on his website here.

Ravi Metha's Product Competency Toolkit is a detailed framework that breaks down what competencies product managers need to develop at each stage of their career in order to be most effective. You can download the toolkit from his website here.

Roman Pilcher's Product Management Framework focuses on the hard skills of product management and is presented as an easy-to-navigate diagram here.

Articles

This article on the Harvard Business Review describes the broader meta-skills associated with product management, such as empathy, self-awareness and relationship management.

Neal Cabbage gives some handy ideas on how to apply a product competency framework to understand the capabilities of your team in this short article.

The 'T-shaped' skills framework concept, first popularised by Google is a handy way to think about the core skills and abilities you need to do a job, then which area you need to go deeper on (the stem of the 'T') to be really effective. It's described well for product management in this article.

In summary

In this article, we've explored the core skills a product manager needs to be effective in their job, and by following along, hopefully you've found some of your own areas for improvement. The tool in this article is the one we find works for us at The Product Refinery but we're keen to find out if it's useful for other people out there so if you give it a try, or adapt it for your own needs, let us know in the comments below OR if you have another framework you prefer to use that isn't mentioned here, leave a link to it, we're always excited to explore new opinions on what it takes to be a great product manager.

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Robin Zaragoza

Founder and CEO at The Product Refinery, Robin has been working in tech for 20 years and delivering product for the last 15 of those at companies of various sizes, from early stage start-ups where she was the first product manager, to large publicly traded companies where she led teams of product managers.

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