A Key Skill for Product Managers

Product Managers are constantly engaging and interacting with several functions and diverse stakeholder personas to design, develop, deliver and support a product. They are gathering information, weighing options, trying to make the best decisions and carrying messages across these functions. Often, the sheer number of dimensions to be dealt with, whether in a large enterprise or a startup, can be both daunting and overwhelming for a PM. There is also an underlying fear of “what if I drop this ball?”, and as one PM recently said, “my job feels like I need to keep all the balls in the air at all times.” The situation gets more complex for PM’s as their jobs are rarely well-defined and they are pretty much expected to know and do everything it takes to make the product happen!

In conversations with several product managers, I have often heard these kinds of statements

  • There are so many stakeholders across the world for our product in sales, marketing, partners and support functions as well as customers. It’s hard to keep up with these connects yet they are crucial to my product success. (from a relatively new Product Manager)
  • Balancing long term strategy and short-term needs is one of the hardest things to figure out. (from an experienced PM, recently joined a fast-growing digital company)
  • Working across teams to address technical complexities, dependencies particularly with UI & UX and deployment teams is challenging. Find myself either solving their internal issues, few time commits from them or endlessly waiting on a response. (from a PM in a new organization and facing a short and committed customer deadline, critical to the product success)

This led me to reflect on my own experience of having worked with several product managers through my career. I found something that might be helpful for PM’s to address the situations mentioned. I recollected one key trait that several successful Product Manager’s learn and use over the course of their career. It’s that of an Influencer.

As influencers, these product managers were able to collaborate, experiment and build some great product visions and products over the span of their careers and several continue to do so.

I have shared a few traits and key actions that Influencers use all the time and that I noticed PM’s demonstrate while managing their work.

• Being Trustworthy. To deal with several stakeholders effectively, this characteristic becomes an anchor for a Product Manager. The actions demonstrating this trait are –

1. Consistency: Using the same language that reflects the product vison, communicates customer needs and business goals, in an environment where technology and customer behaviour are constantly changing, is something PM’s should do. This helps build trust and confidence with all stakeholders with regards to a PM’s decisions and messages.
2. Connections: An effective PM is connected to several people via the role. Effectively managing a product requires the constant connect between stakeholders to ensure the right product is built and delivered on time. Being a connection enabler also encourages different stakeholders to know each other thereby creating a pool of common understanding around the product and problem.
3. Continuous Communication: PM’s can focus on transparency and be open to receive feedback, while offering help and assistance to anyone in the circle of product influence. This is particularly useful when negotiating on feature priorities and customer commitments. Through this action, a PM becomes a trusted source on how information flows and who needs to be engaged.

• Being Sociable & Likeable. PM’s with these traits engage better with multiple stakeholders. The key actions demonstrating this trait are –

1. Respect: Towards all stakeholders and their opinions. With diverse personas, opinions come in many shapes, forms and colours. It’s important for PM’s to listen carefully and be acutely aware of biases towards any one input. Initially, it may feel that someone else is always having their point. Staying patient while continuing to listen and invite views and opinions always pays back many fold for a PM.
2. Authenticity: Product Managers are at best experts in one or two areas related to a product and new PM’s are perhaps learning from scratch. Sometimes they are generalists surrounded by specialists. An effective PM is one who is open to probing the problem from different angles, breaking it down and challenging the status quo to bring out the best from all engaged with building the product. This actions enables PM’s to bring their authentic self to every situation. It fosters learning by PM’s and the understanding that one cannot be a master of many areas and….
3. Putting people at ease: When engaging with customers especially, the act of putting them at east opens them up to narrating their challenges and experiences with the product. PM’s get to observe people in their natural environment and understand what matters most to customers and how best to solve their problem. PM’s can easily facilitate discussions across teams by putting stakeholders at ease during interactions to help resolve dependencies, disambiguate and convey messages.

Keep the conversation going. Working with engineering teams can be very demanding of PM’s. Engineers tend to have strong opinions and are hard core problem solvers. They carry strong points of view, which often come from battle hardened years of building products and fixing nasty bugs. There are times when PM’s are exhausted trying to convince these teams of the importance of a feature or the demand for one, based on customer needs & company commits. Its potentially a point where several PM’s give up. Keeping a conversation going helps to create empathy with engineers, discuss and gather the best ideas and solutions and align stakeholders around a product. Additionally, PM’s can use actions like –

1. Asking questions: In any difficult conversation, use questions to develop a deeper understanding of technology, the engineering perspective and the what and why of the problem being addressed.
2. Engage people with Product Vision: Using the product vision is a great way of building a community and engagement around the product. PM’s can effectively use the vision statement as a conversation enabler to respond to questions around it. This also helps to clarify the product vision with all stakeholders throughout the product development cycle.

• Be curious. Successful PM’s demonstrate curiosity about almost anything. Changing technology and keeping up with constant questions from customers and engineering teams as well as several unknowns, can be looked at differently with a curious mind. The simple and continuous act of asking questions and listening to all inputs could lead to a moment when a customer says “Hmm.. that sounds interesting”. That’s it! Moments like these result in solving the right problems as well as developing a healthy backlog of product ideas. Stay curious keeping eyes and ears open all the time.

A simple way for PM’s to get started is to remember “4C-crets” – Consistent, Communicative, Connected and Curious.

In conclusion, some PM’s already have and use many influencer traits. All of them can be developed or cultivated. To be an effective PM, try and be an influencer. The road to becoming an effective product manager is super hard, with loads of ambiguity and expectations of running at warp speed. Write your own playbook on how, when, where and whom to influence, to help create, nurture and deliver great products.

I would invite your comments and views on this post.

What do you think?

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