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5 Critical Skills for Product Leaders


Without data, you're just another person with an opinion. —W Edwards Deming, quality expert.

Roles and responsibilities for product managers and product marketing managers vary from industry to industry and even from company to company within an industry. In general, we see product managers in mobile products more focused on technology skills while product managers for enterprise products tend to be more focused on sales and marketing. Hardware and semiconductor industries rely heavily on operational skills for product managers. When considering a product leadership role in any company, get specifics on the types of activities that are expected in the job.

But regardless of company and industry, there are a few key skills that every product leader needs to be effective.

Curiosity. Great product leaders are curious—about the product, how it works, how it’s designed, how it’s used. They’re curious about how the product is sold—which sales reps are most successful and why; which marketing campaigns and tools are most effective and why. They’re curious about the customers, their workflow, the types of interruptions they encounter throughout the day, their frustrations. It’s amazing to see the change in a product manager or product owner after they’ve spent a day working alongside a customer and really understanding the customer’s daily activities. A curious product leader looks at every step along the product journey, from idea to market, to understand what works and what can be improved.

Fact-based decision-making. Good product leaders make decisions based on facts. Sure, a lot of ideas come from colleagues who’ve talked to one person—or talked to no one—and just know the idea is a good one. And they may be. But a successful product leader verifies new ideas with market data. The issue isn’t if one customer wants the feature; the issue is whether a market full of customers needs it. And will pay for it. When it comes to the opinion game, every opinion is valuable. But when it comes to decision-making, we need to use facts. After all, you have to say “no” to dozens of ideas so you can say “yes” to the critical few.

Persuasion. With facts at the ready, a strong product leader can persuade others. You’ll want to have stories from both customers and prospects but you’ll want to have data too. The art of persuasion isn’t about mandate; you can’t just say, “This is my decision! Deal with it.” You’ll want to use market facts and customer stories to help others understand your decision.

Mindful of politics. Sometimes, despite market facts and customer stories, an executive gets fired up about a feature. One of the fields in my template for product stories is “Executive Override.” This shows that, despite the calculated priority, some executive has decided to make this a showstopper. And that’s fine. That’s reality. It goes awry when everything on the list has an executive override.

Humility. Perhaps the greatest skill for product leaders is humility; an understanding that perhaps you’re not the smartest person in the room; perhaps you can learn from the experiences of others; perhaps your worldview isn’t the only view. Be open to new ideas that aren’t your own. The best product leaders lead the team; they don’t mandate to the team.

And one more…

Passion. An aspect of product leadership that few talk about is passion. In my experience, the really great products come from teams that are passionate about their customers and passionate about solving their customers’ problems. When the team gets together, they talk about new ideas for the product or new problems they’ve learned about from their customers. The product is a passion, not just a job; it’s a mission.

It must be difficult to manage a product when you don’t care about the product or the customers. Yet we’ve all encountered people who seem to just be “in it for the money.” But their products never seem to do as well, do they?

These skills can be found in product leaders of all titles—product manager, product marketing manager, product owner, business analyst—regardless of their areas of expertise. Some product leaders have domain expertise; others have market or technology expertise. But all have a passion for their products.

Don’t you?

For more on product management skills and expertise, get my free ebook "Expertise in Product Management."

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