Qualities You Need to be a Strong Product Manager

October 2, 2019

Product managers have, to say the least, an incredibly stressful job. There are hundreds of details to keep straight at any given time — in addition to managing a functional team, and reporting successes and failures alike to their bosses. It requires a macro-level view so you can determine how your product will fit into the grand scheme of things, in addition to a micro-view — without veering off into micromanagement, of course.

Like many other professions, project management requires a certain skillset, or type of personality. A lot of responsibility falls to PMs, and takes a lot of effort to get this job right. 

Here are six qualities you absolutely need in order to be a strong product manager.

1. The Ability to Prioritize

Prioritization comes naturally for some people, while others need to learn how to do it. In reality, everyone needs to learn at least a little bit about how to prioritize. While they might naturally understand how to prioritize when they’re members of a team, they need to learn how to do it a bit differently when they’re in charge of the team and there are more responsibilities to balance. 

A photo of coworkers smiling and laughing while looking at a laptop.
It always feels good to commiserate with a coworker.

Regardless of how a product manager learns this skill, it’s imperative that they possess it and work to refine it constantly over time. Each new product, situation, and team will require different prioritization tactics and the PM needs to be able to figure it out. Of course, like many other situations in business, he must also fail fast. If priorities he’s set aren’t fitting the bill, he’ll need to make adjustments as quickly as possible.

Passing on This Skill to Others

With great power comes great responsibility, and prioritization is a good one to teach your team members. If you can accurately communicate the most important aspects of each product your team is working on, you can help them learn how to prioritize better on their own (which will hopefully take some of this work off your plate).

There are plenty of obvious examples of issues that must be top priority, like when your in-the-works mobile app crashes every time someone puts something in their cart. But there are also a lot of less obvious examples that your team members might need help with. 

Let’s say your new mobile app design is nearing the end of its development. You’re into user testing, but your developers are still fixing some of the lower priority issues. Determining priorities for a bunch of items that aren’t urgent can be challenging. Which is actually more important? Where do you begin?

Sometimes, the project itself will help you figure out where to start. Other times, it will be the individual team member. Would they prefer to tackle the thing that will take the longest so it’s out of the way early on? It’s helpful for some people to take care of the most difficult parts first so it’s smooth sailing to the finish line. Others like to take care of all the easy stuff first so when they get to the difficult item, they know it’s the last one on the list.

As long as you can help your team figure out an action plan, you’re helping them learn how to prioritize. The experience will translate into future projects and they’ll be able to do it themselves, and pass on this skill to their own team members if they become PMs in the future.

2. Good Communication Skills

One of the major tasks of a product manager is to properly and effectively communicate with their team, as well as the rest of the relevant executives in the company. As Blueground product manager Alex Alexakis puts it, “product managers are expensive communication routers.” While this is a severe oversimplification, in many ways, he has a point. 

A photo of a business owner having a one-on-one meeting.
Smiling is always a good sign in a team meeting.

Any communication regarding the product, service, or mobile app a given product manager is in charge of — status updates, questions about various aspects, or important regulation changes — will go through them. It’s the PM’s job to take that information and make sure it gets disseminated accordingly. 

If the CEO wants to hear how things are going with debugging so she can update the board of directors, she’ll reach out to the product manager. From there, the PM can double check with the team member leading debugging and report back to the CEO. If the marketing team needs a demo to prepare their strategy ahead of time, the product manager will organize it.

The product manager is the main contact point, so it’s crucial that they can make sure everyone is on the same page and that everyone has all the information they need to get their jobs done. This is simply not a ball that can get dropped.

3. Excellent Organization

Much like having good communication skills, every product manager must be organized at an expert level — we’re talking Monica Geller style, with binders, labels and color-coding (or whatever your digital equivalent may be). 

It’s the product manager’s job to know exactly who is working on what at any given time and verify that they have everything needed to accomplish their task. Of course, those good communication skills can play a major role here, and can also encourage the rest of the team to speak up when they need help. 

It’s okay to not know the status of each individual task. Because people are constantly working on various projects within your product design and development, you may not be up to date at all times. What being organized means is knowing enough about the status to know when it’s time to follow up. 

When was the last time you checked in on the team members handling a design flaw discovered during the first round of testing? Two days? Five days? Make sure you leave yourself a note somewhere — a calendar event, or a reminder on a desktop or mobile app — that asks you if you’ve checked in with them recently. 

A close-up side view photo of someone typing on a laptop.
In the zone.

4. Strong Leadership Skills

It’s not a myth that there are natural born leaders — some people really do come out like that. They’re the ones who organize kids on the playground to play a game together, who run for class president, and volunteer to help the teacher. 

It’s this same personality trait that makes them so suitable for a career in product management. They have to be willing and able to lead a diverse group of people through the entire product life cycle. But they also need to have a desire to constantly improve their leadership skills. 

Author and entrepreneur Erika Andersen believes self-awareness is the absolute most important factor in improving your leadership skills — but unfortunately, not everyone has it. 

She wrote for Forbes, “Of the executives I’ve coached over the past two decades, I’d say that only about 25% of them are genuinely self-aware. The rest do not see themselves accurately — sometimes to an astonishing degree.  Without exception, the more self-aware someone is, the easier he or she is to coach; the […] better able to accept what they need in order to improve.”

In the Forbes article, Andersen outlines the three simple steps she believes are necessary for becoming more self-aware:

  1. Become a fair witness (which is to say you need to learn to be impartial).
  2. Invite feedback.
  3. Listen.

A strong leader will probably already recognize these steps aren’t actually simple — they can be quite difficult. But they’ll want to do them anyway, because it will make them better leaders. This is an extremely useful exercise for all types of product managers.

A photo of two coworkers listening to the team leader during a meeting.
It’s incredibly important to make sure everyone on your team is on the same page.

5. The Ability to Delegate Effectively

Delegation is a skill many managers struggle with — especially in their first managerial role. It’s hard sometimes to let others take the wheel, but the bottom line is that no team leader can do all the work themselves. There’s simply not enough time in the day. You must be able to delegate responsibilities to others, and then trust them to take care of it.

Your ability to delegate should get easier with practice, but also as you get accustomed to working with your team members. Each time you get a new team member, you may notice some growing pains, but focus on Andersen’s tips for better leadership above and you’ll find things will improve — it’s simply a matter of learning how to work with a new person.

Delegation Can be Learned

Jayson DeMers, founder and CEO of AudienceBloom is a firm believer that delegation, like any other skill, can be learned and improved upon. He shared some of his tips for learning how to delegate better with Inc. He mentions that some of the other qualities we’re discussing here are important in delegation as well — prioritization, for example. But one of the most important things seems obvious, but it rarely done well: include instructions when you delegate.

“Even if the task process seems obvious to you, make sure to include instructions with each task you delegate. If you have specific preferences for how the assignment will be carried out, include that information. If you have a strict deadline or milestones you need to hit, be clear about them. Including details and straightforward instructions from the get-go will avoid most communication gaps and will allow your tasks to be executed effectively. It’s a proactive strategy that both you and your employees will appreciate.”

This is particularly important with new team members. You’re both still learning how the other operates, so the clearer you are at the beginning of your working relationship, the better off you’ll both be.  

6. Desire (and Ability) to Work as a Team

There are many different types of product managers, but they’re almost all leaders, regardless of whether they’re natural or learned. It’s important for a manager to be a leader. They need to motivate and unify the team, give the rest of the team a good example to follow, and be a touchpoint for executives and other team leads.

So yes, product managers need to lead the product development team, but even the team leader needs to be able to work as a functional team member. After all, the team leader is simply the person on the team giving the most direction. 

A top-down view of multiple team members putting their hands into a circle.
Teamwork on 3!

On a truly functional team, everyone accepts feedback and constructive criticism. Everyone gets their fair share of the work done. Everyone has equal buy-in to ideas. Everyone is focused on the same objectives and does what they can do to achieve them. Functional teams take advantage of people’s strengths — including their own. 

Therefore, the product manager needs to be as open to feedback as she expects her team members to be. She needs to be just as productive (if not more). But perhaps most importantly, she needs to be aware of each team member’s strengths and weaknesses so she can assign work to the correct person according to the required tasks. 

How to Be a Good Mobile Product Manager

Taking product management into the mobile realm adds another layer of complication. It requires being up-to-date on design trends and a quickly-evolving competitive landscape. And if that wasn’t difficult enough, keeping up with mobile apps that have already been released to make sure they’re still viable is a job in and of itself. 

It may seem like we’re biased, but mobile app prototyping is one of the ways in which product managers can make their lives a little bit easier. Prototyping can seamlessly bridge the gap between design and development, allowing your designers to more accurately convey their vision and your developers to incorporate moving parts more easily. 

Prototyping eliminates the questions about how a transition should occur, or how an animation should look. There’s less back and forth because something doesn’t look quite right, and it saves you money because the development team doesn’t have to re-write code as frequently. And what product manager doesn’t want to come in under-budget?

If you haven’t incorporated into your mobile app product manager workflow, now is the time to try it out. You can get a 15-day full-featured free trial so you can test drive it before you subscribe. And please let us know what you think! We’re always open to feedback so we can improve our product. 

What qualities do you think good product managers need? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio!