Before my current job, I spent a lot of time with founders who were developing their initial product ideas in incubators and accelerators.
I now spend a significant amount of time working with our product team, and as a mini-product manager myself, running our growth squad.
This is a list of the qualities that make a great product manager. They apply equally to founders and product managers in larger companies.
They Live the Problem
Good product managers have lived the problem their customer is facing. They know whether a product has truly provided a solution. They listen to customer feedback, but they can parse it for what is valuable, instead of building everything for every customer.
They Know the Market
Good product managers know the market well. They know what the competition is doing, but they aren’t obsessed. They chart their own course. They know the market size, and they think about how the features they’re developing fit into their long-term market goals. They can feel the market pull when it happens, and are able to shift their strategy when needed.
They Communicate Well
Good product managers are articulate, prolific communicators. They write well-structured, clean documents that are easy to follow and present strong arguments. They communicate well verbally, often giving presentations to a variety of different teams and backgrounds.
They are punctual, sending status updates on time, closing the Send-Confirm-Acknowledge loop, and making sure stakeholders stay up-to-date.
They continuously improve how they format their documents and updates, incorporating feedback from those reading them.
They Are Constantly Learning
A PM has to understand and be comfortable with many different areas—UX, UI, design, basics of code and architecture—which means there are always areas to improve.
Moreover, continual learning is an important source of new ideas. The best PMs are always seeking to improve and expand their knowledge.
They Have Great Decision-Making Skills
Building a product is a series of hundreds of choices. There are never enough resources, and an almost infinite number of things that could be done.
A great product manager has frameworks for making decisions that are clear, communicated to others, and repeatable.
Their decision frameworks help them evaluate the quality of their decisions, and improve over time.
They make decisions considering all the relevant factors, incorporating their vision for the product and market in the future.
They Are Organized
Working efficiently depends on knowing what you have to do, and when you have to do it.
A great PM makes sure that everyone in their team knows what they need to do, and uses the tools at their disposal to communicate progress with stakeholders.
They support the others in their team while taking care of their own to-do list too.
They Prioritize Well
Being organized is much less valuable if you can’t also prioritize. Not only must you accomplish things, but you must accomplish the most important things first.
Great decision-making skills help you choose the right things to do, great prioritization skills will help you choose the right things to do first.
Great PMs can do both.
They Have Good Taste
Great PMs can identify great products.
They can break a product down into components by putting themselves in the shoes of other PMs and their customers, identifying key features and the use cases they enable.
They can construct a vision from that information, and can do the same with their own product.
They Understand Great Design
Some PMs are designers. Most aren’t. But great PMs can recognize great design, even if they can’t design themselves.
A bonus is being well-versed enough in design that they can articulate the elements that contribute to why they do or don’t like a particular design.
At minimum, they can recognize great design and understand enough of the design vocabulary to communicate well with designers.
They Understand Technical Trade-offs
Like design, some PMs are technical, but many aren’t.
That can come with advantages, like keeping focus on user stories and customer problems.
But great PMs understand the technical basics of their product. When technical options are presented, they can factor those trade-offs into their decision-making.
They work efficiently with development leads as a result.
They Are Fluent With Data
The best PMs are fluent with the data tools provided in their organization, can do data analysis on their own, and know when they should ask for help from a data scientist.
When building and evaluating products and features, they can blend quantitative data with qualitative data like user interviews and customer feedback.
They also know when they should put the data aside, and build something because it helps them reach their product vision.
Getting stakeholders on board with big product decisions requires buy-in from almost every division in the company—the C-suite, customer-facing teams like sales and customer success, and the product team.
Great PMs can communicate clearly regardless of the technical knowledge of their audience, and this requires simplification.
Great PMs express simple ideas that link features to user stories and the product vision, and their ability to simplify compounds their other skills.
They Can Write Good Copy
Most organizations don’t have a dedicated product copy person, and so it often falls to designers, content marketers, or other members of the organization.
But a great PM knows the product and the customer well, and they can write clear, effective copy. This helps keep messaging aligned, and speeds up building features.
They Can Zoom In and Out
We often talk about “detail-oriented” people, and “big picture” people, as if they are two distinct types. Great PMs must be both.
They need to build a product vision that aligns with the company goals, and project it several years into the future.
But they must also be able to jump in on details like copy, design, and UX for specific features, to make sure the product is built as they envision. Small details like this often seem trivial, but they add up over time.
Conversely, PMs who love the detail must be able to step back and make sure what’s being worked on fits into the overall vision.
Product managers have to influence others, often with little authority. There are lots of tactics for increasing authority, but in the end it comes down to this: do others trust you? Do they respect you?
To earn their trust and respect, good product managers think about the goals and struggles of coworkers. They work hard, and help their colleagues.
They form opinions which are thoughtfully considered, and ask for input from others. They change their opinion when necessary, and are a positive influence on their team and colleagues. They inspire others in order to accomplish their goals.
Do Great PMs Have All These Skills?
They won’t be great at all things. They will have strengths and weaknesses. But they should be good in all these areas, and great in some.
The best will be able to tell you which.