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8 Soft Skills You Need to Succeed as a Product Manager

This article was originally published on Pragmatic Marketing’s blog by VP of Product Paul Young in November 2017.

The hard skills of product management that are related to data gathering are challenging enough to master, but you also need to develop soft skills to climb to the next level. The good news is that there is a pattern to this leadership trajectory that everyone can emulate and use to change the course of their career.

In a previous issue of Pragmatic Marketer (Spring 2013), I wrote about the seven traits of rock-star product professionals, what I call the X factors. This article focuses on eight soft skills that you need to master to advance your career. The good news is that these skills can be learned. But like any skill, they take time and effort to develop. However, once you develop them, you’ll evolve from a data guru into a people guru. Because after all, what’s product without people?

Questions Authority

To create an effective product, you must be willing to ask tough questions of those in authority, and be tactful when you do it. The intent isn’t to be obstinate or difficult, but to genuinely express curiosity about things you don’t understand. And although business and professional cultures vary by geography and business model, there are right and wrong ways to question people in authority.

Wrong: If you use words like “This is all wrong” or “This is dumb,” be prepared to do damage control and cleanup afterwards. These words personalize disagreement, make the receiver defensive and lower the possibility of moving forward in a productive way.

Also, avoid revisiting the same disagreement over and over. It’s healthy to have the conversation once, and it may be useful to have again for clarification. However, by the third time it becomes tedious. Make your point, but accept that while you have a voice, you may not have a vote. Remember, most businesses are not democracies. Eventually, you have to move forward.

Right: Express interest in a non-threatening, curious way using words like “Can you help me understand why …?” and “How does this relate to …?” Listen. Maybe they have access to information you weren’t privy to, or perhaps your point of view was wrong. Remain open to new possibilities whenever you question someone.

It’s also important to understand group dynamics. For example, some managers may prefer that you pose questions in a one-on-one setting, rather than in a group. If you need help phrasing your disagreements and questions in a respectful, neutral manner, enlist a peer to role-play the authority figure.

Delegator

As a Pragmatic Marketing instructor, I’ve met thousands of students. Regardless of their background, they fit a profile: They are type A personalities—often perfectionists—who like to get things done. They are also generalists who can easily work with marketing, sales, engineering, finance, support and executives.

Because of these characteristics, people on the product team can’t seem to avoid taking everything on. As a result, they often find themselves in firefighting mode, jumping from one crisis to the next. But when you’re always fighting fires, the business learns that you’re a good firefighter, and guess where the next fire will go? Straight to you!

To be effective, you must learn to delegate. However, delegation is hard, especially as an individual contributor. So how do you do it?

The first step is to clarify roles and responsibilities. Once roles are defined, who owns which activities will become clearer and make delegation easier. You can then pull out the Pragmatic Marketing Framework, point to the activity in question and say, “It looks like competitive landscape was flagged as your responsibility. What do you need to make that happen?”

Asking what they need to make it happen will help reduce their stress. If they’re worried about their workload and fulfilling a commitment, talk with an executive. Perhaps the executive can take something off their plate, redefine roles and responsibilities or add net-new resources. But if you try to delegate without having roles and responsibilities in place, everyone will feel overloaded and the process could easily devolve into a fight.

“It’s important to understand your business; know how the sausage is made at your company.”

Business Savvy

Should we adjust pricing? Should we focus on profitability or gaining market share? These are questions you face each day. If you’re good at your job, you might spend cycles trying to figure out the answer. If you are stellar at your job, you know the answer and where to get the data to drive the decision through the organization. You understand your business and how the product fits into the overall context of the business strategy.

Strong business acumen can come from many sources. For some, it comes from education, such as an MBA. For others, it comes from mentorship or experience in other roles, such as operations or finance. There is no single source for business savvy; it is a thread that weaves its way throughout your career and informs decisions along the way.

To develop this skill, it’s important to understand your business; know how the sausage is made at your company. Also, be sure to read and build your financial muscles so that you can understand revenues, costs and profitability and know the cost to acquire a new customer.

Inspires Others

The title “product manager” or “product marketing manager” can be misleading, because while you manage products, you rarely manage people. And because these roles rarely manage engineering, user experience, operations or support teams, you cannot simply issue management edicts to members of those other teams. However, you must work with these same groups to undertake the changes that the company needs to roll out new and updated products.

This requires a light touch. After all, the title is product manager, not product dictator. To inspire others to action, stellar product pros will engage them in a discussion of the why. Help the team understand how their work product impacts the bigger picture. Motivate them by framing the work as something that truly matters. People don’t want to just collect a paycheck, they want to make an impact, and it is imperative for you to provide that inspiration to the team.

To successfully describe the why to others in the organization, you must first understand it yourself. One way to access the whycomes from the market. As you hear the problems from your market contacts, drill down on why they care. Why this problem and not that problem? Why are they asking for this enhancement; what problem are they trying to solve? When you have the answers to these types of questions, you are ready to inspire others.

The roadmap can be a good artifact for sharing the why. Share it in your engineering or sales meeting, but instead of talking about the next set of features to develop, facilitate a conversation around why you are building these capabilities, and why are you doing it in this order.

Call out specific team members and use your market knowledge to help validate what they are working on. For example: “Don, the UX work you are doing on this next release is critical, because 70 percent of our users are abandoning after three clicks.”

Multi-vert

Some people believe that product is a role best performed by extroverts, those who are great at talking with others and draw their energy from a crowd. This argument has some merit, since you must talk to a lot of people both inside and outside the company.

On the other hand, some people believe that introverts have a leg up, as they take time to process and think alone. This argument also has some merit, as you must often work alone analyzing the competition, writing requirements or preparing for a big presentation.

The truth is that stellar product pros will channel each quality, depending on the situation, and can transition between each mode quickly and easily.

Multi-verts will exercise their extrovert skills in internal meetings with executives and engineering, and then in conversations with user or focus groups. Later, they can pound out a fresh set of requirements for engineering’s next sprint, or create an updated version of the business plan for an upcoming presentation. The best multi-verts understand that their time is precious and will maximize their efficiency by working smart, either in a team or alone.

Before you can become an effective multi-vert, you first must understand which side of the extrovert-introvert spectrum you fall on. Everyone has a comfort level that leans more to one side than the other. Recognize that your preferred mode may not always be the ideal mode.

If you shade toward introversion, force yourself to speak up in group settings. Many business cultures interpret silence as acceptance of the group consensus. If you never speak up, the team may think you don’t have anything to offer. Verbalize your thought process and you will find others in the group who step in and often help you complete the thought or take you in a new direction.

If you prefer extroversion, recognize that there are times where it is more appropriate to come to the conversation prepared with data in hand. Practice closing the door and doing detailed analysis before consulting with peers and you will find that people respect your forethought and diligence.

Networker

The positive aspects of networking in furthering your career should be obvious: It is a small world, and you never know when you could be talking to your next manager or team member. Some experts say that 70 percent of people ended up in their current position thanks to networking. Others say it’s more like 80 percent or even 85 percent.

One reason I helped launch dozens of ProductCamps around the world was to give product professionals a place to achieve this goal. Some of the best people I have hired came from interactions that started with networking: You talk to someone who knows someone who knows someone, and all of a sudden you meet a person who is the perfect fit.

Even if you aren’t yet managing a team, networking matters. When you do an onsite visit with someone, networking can make the difference between getting a second visit and uncovering a new market problem, or not. Always look for new people to meet, make introductions and follow up.

Once I was on an airplane and struck up a conversation with the person next to me. It turned out that he was part of our target market segment; he had the problem we were solving, and he was stuck next to me for three hours! Talk about an opportunity.

There are two questions that you should add to the end of every meeting with someone new: “Is there anyone else I should talk to about [insert relevant topic area]?” and “Is there anything I can do for you, or anyone I can introduce you to?”

This give-and-take signals that you are a networker and are interested in helping them, and in turn, this inspires them to help you.

Time Selfish

Product people are the ultimate generalists. You can be tasked with everything from being the voice of the market and answering RFPs, to doing demos and helping on support inquiries. But there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all those things, so to be effective you must ruthlessly prioritize your most precious commodity: time.

Recognize that what you are good at is not necessarily what you should be doing. Look dispassionately at your requests and prioritize effectively based on importance. Many times, you will have to say “no” to requests, or use your delegation skills to find others to do work that is not a high priority. By setting boundaries around your work and time, you will get the most important work done with higher quality.

Strategic Thinker

A strategic thinker sees many moves in advance and knows the implications of going down one path or another. It’s a lot like chess, and it is a critical skill for dealing with the competition and for creating and shaping a product vision. It all boils down to practicing patience: You have to be patient enough to consider the multitude of possibilities.

The market is constantly shifting. As the lifecycle of technology trends shortens, and the ease of copying intellectual property and business models decreases, you must become better at anticipating these changes. You must plan, not simply react.

Considering the possibilities in advance will help you do your job more successfully. One helpful exercise is to diagram a decision tree, either on a whiteboard as a group exercise, or on a piece of paper at your desk. This will help to identify the possible paths you could take.

The time to think about the future is now. Major disruptions or changes to your business model should result from developing a plan in the calm confines of your office, not in the fog of the event itself.

Soft skills aren’t just touchy-feely things that consultants drone on about. They’re essential to success in your current role and career. Using soft skills also doesn’t mean you’ll get everyone to like you. In fact, many skills reviewed here can produce the opposite effect. Being liked and being effective aren’t the same thing, although they often intersect.

Do a gap analysis on yourself, and understand where you’re lacking today. Commit yourself to improvement over the next quarter using what we’ve outlined here. Then drop me an email, and let me know how it’s going on your journey from data guru to people guru.

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