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8 skills you need to be a successful product manager

Malte
Malte
August 01 2019
7 mins read
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Product management is a highly challenging role. Not only do you need to become an expert on your product, you also need to scope out the market, understand your target customer and figure out the roadmap for the product to bring it to life. 

There’s no way you can go about completing all of these tasks without a very specific skill set to help you succeed.

So, what exactly does it take to be an exceptional product manager?

In this article, we’ll take a look at the top 8 skills that every product manager needs to stay ahead of the curve, especially in this increasingly competitive marketplace. 

How many of them can you list on your resume?

1. Being able to navigate technical discussions

While you don’t need to be a developer to be a good product manager, you do need to have a good enough understanding of how systems work in order to be able to lead your development team. 

This is super important as you’ll be the person the team looks to for solutions when issues emerge. If you don’t have any technical knowledge, you won’t be able to effectively lead your developers and come up with workable solutions. You may also find yourself setting unrealistic tasks within a sprint if you don’t have a basic understanding of how long various development tasks may take.

If you’re not currently a technical person, don’t worry. A great place to start is by arranging a series of intro sessions with your development team. Ask them to give you a high level overview of the programming languages and tools you’re using, and then allocated time to dive deeper into them when you have some down time. 

Again, remember, you don’t need to be an expert - you just need to be able to communicate clearly with the developers on your team to deliver a product that’s both technically sound and a pleasure to use.

2. Having killer communication and interpersonal skills 

Communication is key in any role, but when it comes to being a product manager, it might be one of the most important skills you can have. 

This is particularly so as product managers need to communicate effectively with so many different types of stakeholders. From your sales teams, to your devs, right through to your C-Suite; understanding how and what you need to say to get each of those stakeholders on board and keep a product moving forward is critical.

Brevity and clarity are your two most important rules to follow when it comes to communicating as a product manager. Don’t use jargon, but instead make sure you’re speaking the language of whoever it is you’re communicating too. For example, don’t use overly technical spiel when talking with senior decision-makers - you’ll only confuse them.

Perhaps most importantly, your target audience — that is, the people you are designing for - should always be at the forefront of all discussions. This will help route all conversations on the end goal.

3. Plan ahead to make the best use of everyone’s time

Product managers can often fall into a sneaky trap: death by meetings. 

It can creep up on you out of nowhere - what seems like a series of essential working sessions can quickly spiral into sinkholes on your team’s productivity.

But worry not, it’s relatively easy to avoid this trap with a bit of planning. 

Plan and circulate a clear meeting objective with each and every attendee as soon as you book them in for a meeting. Make your everybody understands why they are there, and what needs to be decided before the meeting ends. You may find it helpful to send out a simple agenda, or just a ‘purpose of the meeting’ email. 

Above all, only ever invite those who absolutely have to be there. And then keep the meeting short. Like, really short. 

Studies show that attention drops rapidly after meetings that are longer than 15mins, so keep it snappy.

4. Have an analytical mindset

Data is king in product teams, and — where data is available — you need to be able to make confident decisions about your product based on what that data tells you. 

Even if you have data analysts on your team, you’ll also need to be able to navigate your reporting platforms. Be that easy-to-learn platforms like Google Analytics, or more advanced tools that your team has implemented - make sure that you spend time getting comfortable with not just what the numbers say, but how to interpret them. 

Ultimately your analytical skills will be the guiding light for your product decisions, so it’s worth investing time in them.

5. Solid negotiation skills

Just as communication is vital to your success as a product manager, so does negotiation play a vital role with this position. 

Cross-functional roles like product managers are the glue that holds a product together. You’re the person who needs to balance the needs and wants of potentially dozens of competing stakeholders. You’ll need to be able to have an effective means of negotiating with each of them if you are to do this well.

Product managers negotiate all day with everyone to create strategies, craft roadmaps, and prioritize backlogs. Helping your team come to any decision will likely involve an element of negotiation, especially if you’re starting from a position where nobody is in agreement (as can often be the case!). 

Keep in mind that there are two types of negotiations: the Soft kind where your focus is on preserving relationships and not offending anyone party too much, and the Hard kind that prioritizes getting the outcome you’re looking for, feelings be damned. 

Figure out what camp your negotiations fall into before you go into a meeting. Sometimes it’s okay to lose out in order to keep everyone happy, but sometimes you need to dig your heels in for the good of the product. 

6. Ninja style time management

There’s no two ways about it, product management requires a high (...read “astronomical”) level of time management. 

We’ve already touched upon the idea that product managers can easily fall into the trap of death by meetings, so it’s your responsibility to make sure that you guard your calendar wisely. The priorities of product teams can change daily, and you need to be able to respond to these changes in demands without letting the whole ship sink.

This boils down to safeguarding your time and being strategic with every hour. Block out sections of your day to manage unexpected tasks (or catch up on your workload), and make sure that no meetings are booked during these times. 

It’s also super important to keep some spaces in your calendar visibly free so that your team knows when to come and have an informal 1:1 with you for urgent tasks. 

7. Become a master delegator

There are simply too many competing tasks for any single product manager to do alone. That’s why it’s so important that you learn to feel comfortable with delegating responsibility to others.

Not only is this essential in helping you to free up your time, but also for empowering your team. Give clear briefs and responsibilities to your team members and then let them run with it. Check in daily for updates on progress, but then trust your product team to deliver the tasks that have been handed to them.

This can be a really tricky skill to master - especially when you’re in a role that requires you to be in control of everything. So start by devolving responsibility for a small thing, and then build up from there. 

8. Think like a strategist

And finally, with many of the above skills each leading to this — it is vital for a product manager to take a strategic and holistic approach to bringing a product to the market. 

Being strategic is about setting yourself — and importantly, your team — achievable goals. It is about understanding how to move from one stage to the next, and being prepared for all that is ahead.

Product management is a responsibility filled with many obstacles. But with a strategic approach, the roadblocks that will inevitably come your way are surmountable. With the right strategy, a problem can even become an opportunity — and that’s what good product management is all about. 

To be strategic, it is important to prioritize your tasks and delegate accordingly. In doing so, this will allow you to keep an eye on the bigger picture, and prevent those unavoidable obstacles from harming the productivity of you and your team. 

To put it simply, being a strategic product manager is about defining a clear and realistic vision – and setting a calculated pathway towards achieving it. 

To sum up...

Each and every product manager is different, and there is no one size fits all for what makes a great one. We all have different strengths (and different weaknesses), and that’s part of what makes this such a great role - it’s so variable. 

That said, there are a number of hard and soft skills that every product manager should make sure to have in their toolkit if they are to be effective. Don’t panic if there are certain elements you feel you’re lacking in now - remember that everything in here can be learned with a bit of practice. 

For help on some of the more technical aspects in this list, check out: 

Extra Tip:

A successful product manager will need the right set of tools to help master the above skills. And in today’s product world, there are many out there that will make your job that little bit easier.

But, to be the best product manager you can, you’re going to need a specific management tool that can help you with your core tasks — a tool that can prioritize work in an organised, clear and collaborative way.

At airfocus, we offer you exactly that: a powerful tool that revolutionizes how you and your team remain focused and unified on what really matters.

With intelligent algorithms that not only calculate your priorities, but also enable you to build more effective roadmaps and present them to your team with a click of a button — airfocus is a tool that will elevate your product management to the next level. 

To learn more about our powerful product management solution, click here.

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