Josh Fruhlinger
Contributing writer

Skills and traits of elite product managers

Oct 07, 202211 mins
CareersHiringProject Management

Product management is an increasingly lucrative career path. Do you have what it takes to fill the bill?

team / teamwork / collaboration / discussion / planning board / strategy
Credit: Goodboy Picture Company / Getty Images

The days when IT was left to its own (literal) devices, content to work on the tech side of various projects, are on their way out. IT organizations are shifting to product-based methodologies, in which cross-functional teams made up of both tech and business pros focus on a single product or service offering. This organizational shift has given new importance to the product manager, who serves as the leader for such a team and acts as the point person throughout the product’s lifecycle.

A product manager must blend soft and hard skills, and balance input, concerns, and feedback from multiple departments, key stakeholders, business leaders, customers, and clients. As business organizational cultures shift to emphasize product managers, IT leaders have to know more about what makes a good one — and others filling a variety of roles, including those in tech-centered jobs, might be curious about what it takes to make the leap into product management.

We spoke to a wide variety of professionals, including current and former project managers and those who hire and mentor them, about what skills and traits they see as marking out the best of the best in this role. They talked about what you need to succeed, how you can upskill yourself if you’re interested in this career path, and how the skills you already have may give you a leg up.

1. Great communication skills

Much of a product manager’s job involves ensuring the various functions of a cross-functional team work well together. That means you need to be a great communicator, says Dan Ciruli, VP of product management at software services provider D2iQ.

“Communication is an enormous part of every product manager’s job, from working closely with engineering and ensuring that requirements are understood to dealing with sometimes difficult customers,” he says. “You have to be able to present your products well, whether that be in front of a CEO, the board, or at conferences. Being able to write product requirement documents and create exceptional decks are essential skills as well.”

Tailoring information for specific and divergent audiences is particularly important. Tal Laufer, VP of products at cybersecurity firm Perimeter 81, says that the job “includes explaining things both ‘up’ and ‘down’ — up to engineering in terms of requirements definition, and down to explain complex concepts to less trained personnel, in simple, easy-to-understand words.”

In fact, much of your job will be learning how to get all of these audiences to communicate with one another, with you often serving as a mediator.

“Products are a result of multiple components and know-how; they require the involvement of many people across an organization and its business partners — in engineering, supply chain, manufacturing, security, marketing, sales, customer support, finance, etc.,” says Charles Paumelle, chief product officer and co-founder of Microshare, a smart building data solutions company. “Product managers must juggle all these competing agendas and secure alignment from all these parties to get a successful product out.”

Communication skills are so in demand that good communicators from a wide variety of backgrounds can use them to enter this field, says Cait Porte, who is chief marketing officer at software development company Digibee and has a background in product management. “Given that this role can emerge from various backgrounds, including customer success, sales, marketing, or development, a real opportunity presents itself because effective communicators can empathize with the users and translate priorities back to the business,” she says.

2. Empathy

You may not be used to hearing someone say that an ability to empathize is a business skill. But in fact, almost all the experts we spoke to cited it as a key quality an elite product manager should have.

“Empathy is essential because product managers need to always keep in mind the raison d’être of their products — who will use them, and why will customers change habits to adopt a new product?” says Microshare’s Paumelle. “Too many products fail, despite being technically brilliant or aesthetically beautiful, because they serve no unmet need and therefore find no customer adoption.”

Shane Quinlan, director of product management at software development firm Kion, says that empathy with potential customers is just one part of the picture. “You also need to understand, balance, and mold the perspectives from multiple functional areas — dev, stakeholders, design, etc. — and personalities,” he explains. “Whether you call that EQ or something less buzzy, it’s the soft skills that make great product managers.”

And empathy too isn’t necessarily an inborn quality — it’s a skill that you can develop if you want to find success in this field. “A great product manager feels the urge to make things simpler and easier for their users,” explains Vincent Paquet, CPO of Dialpad, which makes AI-powered communications software for contact centers and other businesses. “A great way to get there is picturing yourself explaining to a good friend or family member how to use that feature. It puts you in the right mindset and somehow makes it obvious what needs more polish.”

3. Data and analytical savvy

But a great product manager needs hard skills as well as soft ones. Casey McGuigan, product manager at software maker Infragistics, says that in particular, “Data should always be top of mind and at the center of all decisions. The background that I have in mathematics has helped me tremendously in truly being able to understand my customers’ journeys and points in which they need improvements. The ability to analyze and understand the metrics that you are looking at is essential to growth hacking improvements as a product manager.”

Data savvy is another potential skillset that you can leverage if you want to jump into the product management career track, and that was definitely the case for McGuigan. Those data skills were “what drove my progression from reception to product analyst,” she explains. “With the combination of an analytical mindset and a collegiate athlete’s determination and drive, the growth into a product manager role was clear.”

Still, a product manager needs to be able to put creative flair into their application of analytics, says Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of product management coaching and consulting firm H2R Product Science. She says that a product manager’s analytic abilities should “allow them to look at a problem critically and figure out how to measure even things that are hard to measure.”

4. Decisiveness — and flexibility

Armed with emotional and analytic insights, good product managers shouldn’t be afraid to lead their teams to quick results. “You need to be willing to make decisions quickly with imperfect information and build a culture that is amenable to the impact of that,” says Kion’s Quinlan. “No analysis paralysis. No death by committee. Observe, orient, decide, act.”

Because you need to be able to make quick decisions, you also need to be able to change plans on the fly in response to new information, changes in the business landscape, and any problems that the market throws your way. “Being flexible is critical as a product manager,” says Luke Gannon, product manager at graph database company Neo4j. “You have to learn to be flexible in order to get over any hurdles, like late delivery or bad enablement content. It’s important to focus on the overall goal while still recognizing that the plan you built initially may need to be shifted over time in order to achieve the vision.”

5. Business smarts

All the skills we’ve talked about so far need to be marshalled in support of your company’s business goals — and that means you need to understand those goals, and where your product and your company sit in the marketplace, very well.

“I see elite product teams succeeding when product managers are strategically connecting their product goals with the overall goals of the company,” says Trisha Price, CPO at software development company Pendo. “There are so many product teams that just talk about features — whether it’s a feature their customer asked them to build or it’s something they’ve outlined that they want to build. Product managers need to address the ‘so what’ of those features. What’s the outcome you’re going to get by building that feature? What problem will your customers solve by using this? What business outcome are your customers going to get because of your investment? Product managers need to think ahead and tie the business strategy and product strategy together to really address the company’s business goals and metrics, instead of focusing on just mechanically building new features.”

D2iQ’s Ciruli says that this higher-level analysis of your product’s role in the business should help you understand “the exchange of value.” What does he mean by that? “As a product manager, my job is to ensure that what we are building is something of value to our customers,” he says. “That means knowing their needs and looking beyond that to see what can improve their lives.”

But the customer isn’t the only player here, he explains. “My job is also to ensure that we are building a business and see the value in our return — whether that value means data, money, or something else entirely, it is my job as the product manager to understand that value. It is vital to understand that product management isn’t just about making a great product, but also understanding how the exchange of value is instrumental to enacting progress.”

“As product development progresses, choices and compromises have to be made,” adds Microshare’s Paumelle. “Product managers must drive these decisions by striking the right balance between empathy (voice of the customer), business acumen (commercial viability for the organization), and technical acumen (technical feasibility of the product).”

6. The ability to drive your organization with enthusiasm

It should be clear by now that the product manager’s job is to mediate among customers and various stakeholders within the company. Mona Ghadiri, director of product management at cybersecurity firm BlueVoyant, puts it this way: “Being good at product management is about managing both the culture surrounding your portfolio and the hearts and minds of other decision makers. I like to quote my Big Fat Greek Wedding — in the movie, they say the man is the head and the woman is the neck, and the neck turns the head. I think product management is the same. We are the neck of the organization. We turn the head.”

To serve that mediating role, Kion’s Quinlan says you need to maintain enthusiasm about your product and your business. “You care about product management, software development, technology trends, market trends, business strategy, marketing, sales, design … everything,” he says. “If you lose interest — or never find it — you’re going to deliver subpar solutions.”

That’s why H2R Product Science’s Hester-Reilly says that great product managers need to maintain boundless curiosity about their job and their business. “Curiosity leads them to always be asking great questions and seeking to better understand how people interact with technology and the world around them,” she says.

Start your product management journey

This all may seem somewhat overwhelming. But different potential candidates on this career track may balance these skills differently — and if you know you’re lacking in one, you can pick it up along the way.

“I certainly think these skills can be learned,” says Pendo’s Price. “The field also changes, so it requires continuous learning — being the best at your craft one day requires investment to stay there. There are a lot of places where you can learn best-in-class product management approaches and skills. Mind the Product is a great place to start — they have great content, conferences, and lots of workshops and training opportunities. The key here is being able to translate the concepts into your day-to-day work, to drive specific outcomes that align with company or product strategy.”

“I think the main traits that have helped me be successful are my constant desire to learn, research, and read, my empathy for users, and my technical background — but most of all it’s my desire to solve problems using technology,” she adds. “It is a real thrill for me to see my product being used, to hear stories from customers on how these products drive value.”