10 Leadership Qualities of Successful Product Managers

Published on 9th March 2016

Learn how to develop 10 important leadership qualities that help you become a successful product manager and effective product leader. Grouped in pairs, the qualities balance and complement each other.

Collaborative and Decisive

As the person in charge of the product, you usually don’t have the authority to tell people what to do. Instead, you need to collaborate with the development team and the other stakeholders to help you build, market, and sell a new product or new features. This allows you to benefit from their knowledge and it generates strong buy-in. The following three techniques help you collaborate: Invite the key stakeholders to joint workshops and review meetings, actively listen to their ideas and concerns, and seek consensus on important decisions.

If no consensus can be achieved, have the courage to make the decision. Don’t shy away from tough calls and don’t let powerful stakeholders take over. I’ve seen product managers act as feature brokers—mediators who try to negotiate a deal between the stakeholders. Unfortunately, that’s hardly the right strategy to create a successful product, as it involves making weak compromises and agreeing on the smallest common denominator. Instead, focus on the customers and users, do what’s best for them, and balance collaboration with the necessary decisiveness.

Strategic and Tactical

Thinking strategically and looking at the big picture are important qualities to be a successful product manager. This includes being clear on the product’s value proposition, target market, key features, and business goals; being able to describe how the product is likely to evolve over the next six to twelve months; measuring the product performance; and being aware of market developments and trends.

Being strategic, however, is not enough to succeed with digital products. As the product manager, you have to pay attention to the details—from getting the user interaction right to providing right functionality. You should therefore complement being strategic with being tactical. Carrying out the necessary tactical work and collaborate with the development team, for example, by writing user stories and updating the product backlog together with the team members.

Balancing the two qualities avoids focusing too much on the problem space and forgetting about the actual product, as well as getting lost in the details and no longer seeing the wood for the trees. What’s more it makes sure that strategic decisions are translated into the right actions, and new insights generated from the tactical work informs the product strategy.

Enthusiastic and Critical

Being a product manager is a demanding job. To play the role successfully, you have to be enthusiastic and motivated. You should have a vision for your product and truly believe that your product will benefit the customers and users and that it’s a worthwhile investment for the company. Otherwise it will be hard to inspire others and sustain the necessary energy to manage it, particularly when the going gets tough and problems appear.

Too much enthusiasm can cause you to be too pleased with your product, ignore problems, and overlook opportunities. You should therefore balance being enthusiastic with being critical. Don’t be satisfied with the status quo, look for opportunities to make the product even better and create more value for the customers and users, as well as for the business. Challenge your own ideas and assumptions, experiment with new approaches, and develop and grow as a product professional.

User-focused and Business-savvy

A successful product does a great for the customers and users: It either addresses a problem or provides a tangible benefit to them—think of a product like Google Search that solves the problem of finding information on the Internet and a product like Facebook that provides the benefit of staying in touch with family and friends. It’s therefore important that you are user-focused and clearly understand why people want to buy or use your product. Techniques such as, regularly interviewing and observing customers and users and frequently reviewing the relevant analytics data, help you with this.

As important as a compelling value proposition and a strong user focus are, they are not enough. To sustain developing and providing the product, it must also create value for the company—be it by directly generating revenue or by helping sell another product or service. You should hence complement being user-focused with being business-savvy. Understand how the product helps execute the business strategy, clearly communicate its business goals, and use the right key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the product performance.

Data-informed and Intuitive

“In God we trust; all others must bring data,” famously said Edwards Deming. To succeed as a product manager, you should use data to test assumptions and generate new insights—rather than believes and opinions. This increases the chances of making the right decisions and it mitigates the HIPPO risk—the danger of following the highest paid person’s opinion.

Being data-informed, however, has its limits, as Albert Einstein noticed when he said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” You should therefore complement being data-informed with being intuitive. Use your intuition and imagination to come up with new ideas; then test them and collect the relevant data to see if they hold true.

Take the Next Step and Develop the Qualities

Some of the qualities described above may resonate more with you than others. You might find it easier, for example, to be collaborative than to be decisive; or you might prefer being tactical over being strategic. This is normal and usually relates to the degree to which you have developed the quality.

Becoming aware of your preferences and knowing the qualities you find difficult to master is an important step to grow as a product manager and become a successful product leader. Try to develop those qualities that you find challenging, regularly reflect on the progress you have made, and look for opportunities to further enhance your leadership qualities.

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