Expert Notes on 10 Skills Every Product Manager Should Excel at

Expert Notes on 10 Skills Every Product Manager Should Excel at | Product Management | Emeritus

In his wonderful book, “Range”, David Epstein goes on to explain why generalists stand to thrive in the world. He believes that hyper-specialization works well in situations when we know the rules and answers, and they don’t change over time. He refers to this as a “kind world”. However, he argues that the world we live in is predominantly “wicked”—rife with ill-defined challenges and few rigid rules. In such scenarios, what matters is to learn from one problem or domain and apply the knowledge to solve a problem in an entirely different one. This perfectly captures the essence of product management. Product managers often face new challenges and must adapt quickly and effectively to move ahead. To do that successfully, they need to be equipped with a host of very necessary product management skills. 

Product Management Skill Sets—A Microcosm of Human Capabilities

Product management has become one of the most valued career choices in recent years. Be it a SaaS (Software as a Service) or a consumer product, a product manager is critical in shaping the present and the future of the product. The Internet is full of content about this field. Personally, however, I feel that there is a lot of emphasis on frameworks and strategy. At the heart of it, to experience true success in product management, we must tap into the core product management skills that are almost uniquely human. 

1. Be Flexible and Learn to Adapt 

Some of the finest cricket teams over the years have tasted success because of the presence of quality all-rounders. Indeed, they have the unique ability to deploy the skill that matters most based on the situation. This allows the team to retain an element of flexibility and ensure that the structure and strategy are not compromised. That holds true for product teams, too, whether Business-to-Business (B2B) or Business-to-Consumer (B2C). A crucial success metric is the product manager’s ability to slide seamlessly into various roles (read engineer, architect, designer, sales, presales etc.) when necessary.

2. Plan, But Embrace Unpredictability 

Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander during the Second World War, and later the US president, once said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Nothing could be truer when it comes to this field and the required product management skills. It is extremely important to plan sprints and long-term roadmaps through workshops and detailed team engagements. Having said that, it is equally vital to recognize that much (or most) of this may need altering if there is a more urgent business need. Sometimes, it may be a pure sales call. In the case of some products (such as B2B SaaS for banks etc.), it could be regulatory requirements. Those take precedence over almost everything else.

The product management journey is highly fluid. It is essential to build a sense of structure and develop plans. In this field, though, one of the more essential product management skills is a readiness to embrace unpredictability. Technical resources may have to be repurposed and deployed in different projects (depending on criticality); some tasks may have to be deprioritized, and product managers might have to make unpopular decisions. One is more likely to excel in product management if one develops an affinity for chaos, accepts unstructured days, and doesn’t get bogged down when something (or nothing) goes according to plan.  

3. Learn Enough About Almost Everything 

Product managers might know more about some aspects of the product journey but can never quite replace the specialists. However, the key to succeeding in a product role is to know a little bit of everything that matters (and more). How does this help? When a product manager learns (and knows) enough about engineering, design, business, and other key functions, all teams (and associated individuals) develop confidence that the product is heading in the right direction. Business leaders will go out in the market knowing fully well that they have product backing. Engineering teams will focus more on the tasks that matter since they believe in the product manager’s ability to understand their point of view and challenges.

ALSO READ: 7 Best Product Management Tools of 2023 Along With Its Features, Benefits, and Limitations 

4. Gain Insights Into Products and Teams

When product managers start in a new organization, they are faced with numerous challenges. Even as they (often) grapple with issues posed by legacy products and tech, they need to develop a strong understanding of the industry, justify the need for the product and its features, the business urgency, the pricing strategy, and much more. As product management skills go, therefore, this one is crucial. The best (and perhaps most underrated) way a product manager can grow on all these fronts is by interacting regularly with relevant teams and individuals. In my initial days in the payments space, I benefited greatly by setting up one-on-one discussions with heads of various functions. This helped me develop a comprehensive understanding of the product, the customer base, and the key metrics and prepared me well for the expected and unexpected challenges.

In unstructured, complex environments, of the key product management skills is to quickly assess the problem at hand. Then, they need to identify the best approach to solve the challenge presented. Curiosity, the urge to constantly learn, the willingness to accept and incorporate feedback, and the ability to integrate learning from other fields are the hallmarks of a successful generalist. Juggling it all is one of the more important product management skills.  

5. Develop Your Interpersonal Skills  

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the ability to plan and improvise. It may also not hurt you if you do have enough cross-functional knowledge. The one skill that perhaps carries the most weight in the product management skill set is to connect with people. Nearly 90% of daily tasks typically involve some form of human interaction. This can range from basic to advanced—complex negotiations, conflict resolution, expectation handling, and stakeholder management. Some individuals have exceptional people skills honed over the years. Others need to work quite hard to develop them. 

A crucial sub-element is the willingness to accept various personalities, build a strong sense of empathy, and understand that one may have to flex significantly to get the best out of those stakeholders. For example, while dealing with a highly confident engineer, acknowledge the skill level and provide them opportunities to test themselves more, both on the product and mentoring fronts. In sharp contrast, while interacting with a hardworking but under-confident individual, praise the contribution. Nudge them toward a working style that focuses more on positive feedback and less on being self-critical.

ALSO READ: Interpersonal Communication—Definition, Types, and Elements

6. Ensure Effective Interdepartmental Communication 

Alignment within the product team (designers and engineers) can be challenging. However, this seems a lot more manageable when compared to the difficulty in arriving at a consensus with business/sales teams. This is equally vital as far as product development skills go. I was fortunate to have worked in a business role early in my career, which helped me understand this viewpoint. Business teams often focus exclusively on revenue. They may sometimes lack visibility into the challenges associated with product feature development and delivery. 

Product managers, therefore, need to build a great relationship with business teams and foster a culture of mutual learning. This enables product teams to develop a strong understanding of customer and market expectations. It also ensures that business teams are able to factor in product concerns during the sales process.   

7. Know Thy Customer 

One of the major advantages of working on a B2B product is the fact that product managers have numerous opportunities to interact directly with customers. Customer interaction opens up the possibility of improving product performance and adding new features. It also enables product managers to develop a much better understanding of the market and the business function. Especially in the context of products targeted at customers across multiple regions/countries, it is critical to build a strategy that enables product managers to interface regularly with client teams. Getting involved in customer discussions right from the initial phase ensures that they spot latent needs. Customers are often quite unsure about what they want themselves. They may struggle to articulate the problem when faced with business teams who may not have a firm grasp of the product.  

During my first role in the payments space, product knowledge enabled me to have much better and more focused business discussions with customers. Designing effective solutions for unique problems gave customers the confidence to work with the product. It also helped business teams secure deals that would otherwise have been difficult to close. Engagement with customers pays off handsomely throughout the product lifecycle. As products enter the growth phase, and later mature, working closely with customers helps with prioritization and establishes a clear sense of direction. 


8. Don’t Get Too Attached

Emotion is a beautiful aspect of being human. Some of the most beautiful pieces of music, art, and other creative outputs owe their genesis to well-channelized emotion. For a product manager, though, being emotional about their product(s) is often a weakness. It is perfectly okay to connect with your product, evangelize its growth, care deeply about the industry, and think about the product’s future outside of work. However, it is not prudent to get emotionally attached to the product and allow any uncertainties to drag you down. 

Product success is a function of multiple factors—market requirements, customer type, competition, pricing, business urgency, resource availability, and more. In such a complex scenario, it is impractical to develop a sense of attachment to one’s product. It does not take too long for a successful product to be swept aside if market dynamics shift. Also, subpar products might do phenomenally well in certain markets simply because the buyer/user is ultimately human, and humans are (to quote Dan Ariely) predictably irrational. 

9. Master Time Management

Some people are just exceptional at managing time. Some just about get by while the majority struggle to build structure in the day. In product management, perhaps more than most other roles, time management is among the many useful product management skills. Most days are unstructured, with meetings and discussions piling up one on top of the other. In this setting, define a structure and plan for the day ahead. Consider opting out of the “not so important” meetings and prioritize the key ones. 

I find it beneficial to spend about 30 to 45 minutes early on to prepare an outline of tasks for the day ahead. While not all of this may fructify, this approach vastly improves one’s chances of having a structured and fulfilling workday. This way, one is prepared for ad-hoc (mostly never urgent but so classified) meetings that inevitably happen on the busiest days. 

10. And the Timing of Your Product Launch

One of the key product management skills to master is timing. It could be for a single feature, a larger set of features, or the overall product itself; timing is the single biggest factor that determines success. Often, the market has perceptible shifts and provides clear signals that a particular product/feature would solve a key problem. In most cases, however, be proactive. Work closely with clients and business teams to identify useful features and product applications ahead of time. This becomes a significant business advantage and allows for product fine-tuning and improved positioning for later clients. 

Product managers are able to study different markets, understand the specific requirements, evaluate the product, and estimate the efforts necessary to launch it at the right time. With almost every field becoming extraordinarily competitive and many markets becoming increasingly price-sensitive, the phrase “timing it right” assumes more importance than ever.

Piece It All Together

There is a lot of literature available on the field of product management.  The multitude of courses on the subject, events, books, and YouTube videos have dissected and discussed nearly every aspect of the topic. However, I tend to look at the role as an amalgamation of key human qualities that have allowed us to build “general intelligence”. We have learned to empathize and network with others while also knowing when we need to act alone. Humans have understood the value of time and continue to push themselves to optimize efforts and maximize output. A small proportion understand the true value of emotions. They know to channel them and work on being rational and logical almost always. All of these come together as desirable product management skills to enable one to achieve success in this space. 

The quest for knowledge across disciplines is perhaps the most impressive human trait. When I look at the role of a product manager, I visualize it as a wonderful opportunity to engage the many facets of being human and strive toward being better versions of ourselves.

NOTE: The views expressed in this article are that of the author and not of Emeritus. 

About the Author

AVP Product, M2P Fintech
In his career spanning 14+ years, Madhusudhan has spent nearly half of his professional life building and selling financial products. In a sense, he has seen the Fintech sector evolve in India and APAC right from its early days, through a phase of exponential growth to a certain measure of maturity. Madhusudhan has significant experience in business development, product management, and strategic thinking. While he is not striving to make digital payment experiences better, he is probably living his alternate life reading some random books on sports, history, and psychology.
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