Want to Learn to Manage? Become a Product Manager

Businesswoman leading a group meeting
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I make no secret about my two favorite positions in any organization: project managers and product managers. The annoyingly similar sounding titles are distinctly different positions, and both are significant sources of value creation in our firms. And don’t confuse the two roles, as each party is fairly sensitive about being mistaken for the other.

While project managers bring ideas to life through others, the best product managers translate market issues and customer needs and technology trends into offerings that beat competitors and grow revenues and profits.

Great product managers must function as part entrepreneur, part general manager, part process expert and part diplomat in their very challenging roles. They bridge the various functions to bring their products to life and they make the key feature, function and pricing decisions throughout the lifecycle of their offerings. At the end of the day, they are accountable for the results of their products, even though they don’t directly manage the development, marketing or selling of their offerings. This is one tough and important job.

7 Great Management Lessons You Learn as a Product Manager:

1. You learn to think about customers in the form of unique personas. Everyone in an organization talks about customers often referencing them generically. In reality, not all customers are the same. Product Managers work to develop a specific profile for each distinct customer group they serve or desire to attract.

As long as the distinguishing characteristics of each persona are meaningful, the product manager can guide the various functions to develop unique offerings and tailor marketing approaches.

2. You develop as a strategist. Part of the excitement of this role is your immersion in helping define and execute your firm’s strategy.

From assessing and selecting markets to enter to identifying potentially profitable customers to serve, product managers are often involved in many of the core strategy decisions of a firm. After selecting markets and customers, the detailed work of identifying unique offerings and guiding critical pricing and positioning decisions are part of the product manager’s responsibilities.

3. You learn to lead across functions. Similar to the role of project manager, the product manager has the challenging task of leading others and being accountable for results without the luxury of direct authority. Any role where you learn to drive results through others without formal authority is a great teaching role.

4. Product Managers develop their diplomatic and political skills as a matter of survival. Spend a day shadowing a product manager and you’re likely to participate in customer calls, field inquiries from salespeople, run a meeting with engineering, meet with customer support to hear about quality issues and participate on a webinar with your marketing friends. At every encounter, you’re faced with issues and people demanding decisions or commitments. Your diplomatic skills allow you to navigate these challenging encounters in the best interests of your firm and your customers.

5. You learn that customers evaluate your offerings for the entire experience, not just the physical product or actual service. If the product is great, but customers struggle to understand the documentation and cannot reach support for answers, this will reflect poorly on your product and sales results and reputation will suffer. Product managers are accountable for the “whole” offering, including the physical product or actual service and all of the customer touch-points surrounding the offering.

6. You cultivate great communication skills. From your first day on the job, you’re engaged with customers and colleagues in other departments, and after some time on the job, you’ll find yourself serving as a frequent contributor at executive meetings.

You learn quickly to adapt to different audiences and you learn that your ability to communicate effectively is your most critical asset.

7. You learn to make profitable tradeoffs. In your role, you are choosing where to invest your firm’s money in developing new and enhancing existing products. Every decision has a cost and an implication and product managers are constantly called upon to make priority tradeoffs.

  • Engineering might have limited resources to work on your offering and instead of your top five feature requests, they might only be able to deliver three in the time-frame you specified. It’s up to you as the product manager to select the features to be left-behind.
  • If you want more time to train your sales team on your latest offering, you’ll have to negotiate for time on the schedule with the sales executive.
  • Need to drop your price due to a competitor’s action? You’ll be spending time convincing your finance department why they should make less money on every product they ship.

These tough decisions are daily issues for product managers, who become masters of managing tradeoffs.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

One of the first blog posts I ever wrote was entitled, “The Product Manager as Most Valuable Player.” While it’s not polite to play favorites, in my opinion, the professionals who occupy this critical role are perennial nominees for that MVP award. If you’re interested in cultivating your management skills, this is a great role to aspire to. And here’s a secret in case you’re interested in learning more about becoming a product manager: they love to talk about their work. Find a product manager and offer to buy her a cup of coffee. Be prepared to listen, take notes and learn. 

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