What Makes a Good Product Manager: 5 Essential Capabilities

Successful business colleagues standing together at a meeting. Multiracial creative team discussing work while standing at a table in office.

A juggler, a psychologist, a firefighter, and a CEO: these are just some of the roles that good product managers channel each day. As the connective tissue between a company’s various stakeholders, product managers need razor-sharp interpersonal instincts and the ability to align conflicting personalities, perspectives and goals. But they also need logistical acumen, since they’re responsible for putting ideas into action—and cleaning up messes. In short, their duties can be dizzying.

So what makes a good product manager, anyway? While pretty much any skill can be useful to a product manager—that Robert De Niro impression? It will help you win friends in sales—these 5 core capabilities form a solid foundation.

commenting_icons-02Their #1 priority is prioritizing.

Not only do product managers have their own (way-too-long) to-do lists, they also set tasks for other teams. This means they need to understand each team’s nitty-gritty responsibilities and the company’s big-picture goals—then establish priorities that accommodate both factors. They must be able to prioritize according to their company’s short-term concerns (“There’s a bug!! We need to fix it now!!!”), medium-term objectives (getting that feature launch out the door), and long-term vision (total world domination?). Good product managers prioritize discretely, setting targets one-by-one. Great product managers set day-to-day priorities with the big-picture plan mind.

commenting_icons-03Their EQ matches their IQ.

Great products connect with their users emotionally; product managers with a high EQ are better able to empathize with their users. — Latif Nanji, Roadmunk CEO

Effective product managers don’t just read data—they read people. Great product managers are world-class communicators with extremely high emotional intelligence. (That’s EQ for short.) It’s not easy being the go-between to so many stakeholders. People want things. People disagree with lots of things. People have deadlines and roadblocks and personal beefs. And it’s the product manager who must listen, assess and decide how to act on each consideration. Doing this well isn’t just about delegating tasks. It’s about reading the room, smoothing rough waters, and communicating with clarity, authority and understanding. To establish a savvy roadmap, product managers need an analytical mind. But without strong emotional intelligence, it’s impossible to get everyone en route.

commenting_icons-06They’re not just leaders—they’re shapers.

Product managers work horizontally, not vertically. They travel across an organization, aligning various teams towards a common vision. Because their work crosses so many departments, they aren’t so much top-down authorities as in-the-trenches warriors. Great product managers aren’t just team leaders. (In fact, in a lot of cases product managers aren’t team leaders.) They focus on shaping the vision for a product, rather than simply directing the individuals who will bring that vision to market. It’s a subtle distinction. But it’s by focusing on a product’s big picture—rather than being the boss—that product managers make the most dramatic impact.

commenting_icons-07bThey “get” sales.

If you’re really wondering what makes a good product manager, start wondering about your customer. Selling isn’t generally part of a product manager’s day-to-day—but to make a product that customers will want to buy, they need to know how to sell. Stellar product managers dig deep into data to learn everything from user psychology to pricing. They know their industry inside out, and can tell you everything you’d ever want to know about their typical user—what they need, how they think, and what they sang in the shower this morning. As Ben Horowitz put it: “Good product managers know the market, the product, the product line, and the competition extremely well and operate from a strong basis of knowledge and confidence.”

commenting_icons-05They’re (at least somewhat) technical.

Product managers don’t need to be able to write code. But they should be able to speak the technical language of their industry—and translate that language to the less technically inclined. This is where their world-class communication skills come in. At the end of any technical conversation—whether it’s about app development, SEO marketing, or budgets—a product manager should be able to craft an easy-to-understand analogy that can relay key technical concepts to any member of any team. The best product managers might never do any hands-on technical tasks—that’s often not part of their job. But top-of-their-game product managers understand what those tasks are, how much time they take, and how they contribute to their company’s wider goals.

What other qualities do all-star product managers have? Share your thoughts below—or tell us on Twitter!

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