Product Manager Skills: Balancing Act

A lot of digital ink has been spilled about the ingredients of a successful product manager. Some product leaders have pointed to business, technical, or design expertise. Others have highlighted soft skills like communication and collaboration, or personal traits like curiosity and empathy. Some thought leaders, like Marty Cagan for example, discuss a broad combination of proficiencies.

Product Managing Requires A Diverse Set of Skills

Whichever set of qualities is emphasized, it’s important to remember that the career of a product manager is not static. In fact, the context in which a product manager operates will also change (gradually or abruptly). Therefore, this may require a different configuration of skills. Common changes include: 

  • Organizational growth 
  • Geographic expansion 
  • Business model pivot 
  • Role change   

Some product managers are fortunate to join an early stage company and witness it grow (and contribute to that growth). This early stage role may involve hands-on, non-product management tasks that are necessary for shipping the product. This can include writing marketing copy, designing, coding, or handling customer service. This is in addition to product work like writing user stories and doing UAT. 

As functional teams grow and their processes mature, a product manager will need to shift more exclusively to product activities. For example, Reid Hoffman notes that as teams develop, they become staffed with experienced specialists (designers, engineers, content managers, and so forth). Therefore, they won’t need to rely on a product manager who did one of these roles in a previous life. Moreover, doing such tasks may be counterproductive as it can peel away bandwidth from pressing product priorities. 

Challenges A Product Manager Faces

Related to organizational scaling is geographic expansion. Companies expand to new locales for a variety of reasons: as a result of an acquisition, to source a labor pool, or to pursue a business goal. When a team encompasses multiple time zones as well as different languages and cultures, the practices around communication and collaboration become paramount. 

For example, written communication is crucial for distributed teams. So, product requirements may need to be more detailed for a remote engineering team. On the other hand, the engineering team that is steps away from your desk may not need as much detail. Likewise, if live stand-ups are not feasible, you may need to resort to written updates. In fact, some product leaders like Walter Chen have declared that writing is an overlooked but vital product management skill. Chen describes the importance of written documentation for Amazon and other companies. 

Especially for early stage ventures, business model pivots are a fact of life. These developments can materially change the focus of a product manager. An example is pivoting the product away from a consumer audience to a B2B offering. A B2B orientation may necessitate a different process for prioritizing features, or a different bar for an MVP.

The Importance Of A Growth Mindset And Ability To Adapt

Beyond organization and business changes, the context may change on an individual level. Getting promoted to a manager role is the best known case. This involves using a new set of practices (layered on top of existing skills). The same applies to other role changes. As you gain more responsibility, you may begin to participate in business and strategic planning. This may entail working with a finance team on developing business cases or managing a P&L. 

From the career perspective, it’s helpful to keep in mind that this evolution is not unidirectional. Over the course of a career, a product manager may join companies at different growth stages or own different types of products. Being flexible and willing to adapt will ensure that you make a valuable contribution to any organization and is the path to success.

About the speaker
David Grayson Facebook, Product Manager Member

David Grayson is VP of Product at LiveCareer - leading the company's international product team to develop new solutions for career development (resumes, cover letters, interview best practices & more). Prior to joining LiveCareer, David worked for more than 10 years at before its acquisition by Monster - helping veterans secure career opportunities after serving in the military. David holds a Masters degree from The University of Chicago and currently lives in Alameda.

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