The 3 Skillsets that Make Successful Product Managers

“When a project goes well, the engineering team was brilliant. When it fails, that meddlesome PM sabotaged everything… ”- An anon sr. engineer at Google

Being a Product Manager is tough. Succeeding is even harder. Over the last year, as I’ve taken on the responsibilities of managing a team of PMs I’ve been forced to think deeply about the skills that make successful PMs. It’s a tough question and no doubt I’ll refine my thinking in years to come but here is my framework to date.

At a high level, success as a PM comes down to passing a hurdle in each of the the categories below and typically indexing very highly in at least 1 category.

Successful PMs excel at 3 core skill sets:

  1. Setting a vision
  2. Getting stuff done
  3. Generating insights

Setting a vision
Engineers own the code base. Sales owns the pipeline. Great PMs own the vision. This doesn’t mean they “hijack” the vision - every cross functional member contributes but PMs need to actively sculpt, refine, simplify, stress test, guard and course-correct (if necessary) the vision. PMs that don’t own the vision will produce roadmaps - and ultimately products - that are off strategy, or orthogonal at best.

Owning the vision is a balancing act, but the PMs I’ve seen excel at it demonstrate 5 key qualities:

Getting stuff done
PMs that don’t ship product aren’t PMs, they’re just people with nice ideas. The critical skills - which are cumulative - that help PMs excel in this category are:

Generating insights
The last key component is the driving the product team forward with insights. The type and source of the insight varies but it’s the PMs responsibility to help generate, filter and evolve vision based off these insights.

The insights are critical because they help validate that the team is pursuing the right course of action (eg the feature we recently launched is driving up new payer conversion by X%) or informing the team about potential market, consumer or product changes that need to be tackled (eg the market appears to be shifting toward unbundled mobile apps w/ narrowly focused feature sets).

Overall, the PM role varies quite a bit company to company (sometimes even team to team) but the best PMs consistently deliver on the 3 key categories: set a compelling vision, getting things done and generating insights to keep the product moving forward. Understanding what a successful PM “looks like” is also critical. It provides an example to follow and furthermore helps illuminate rationale behind often asked questions like “Why does X co. only hire technical PMs? (eg if product is highly technical and PM needs to communicate w/ not only sales but eng, tech chops are an appropriate filter).

Lastly, a lot of great related material has been published by PMs (and some former PMs turned VC). Here are my favorites: @kennethn’s great piece on hiring PMs, @hunterwalk’s nice piece on PM DNA, @sachinrehki’s piece on the PM roleand @kevaldesai’s Quora answer on why GOOG and FB hire technical PMs and @ianmccall’s Quora answer on Top 1% PMs.

Follow me on Twitter @kivestu, for future posts!


Now read this

Re-entering the mobile app universe: Lessons from a 4-week experiment

4 weeks ago, while on vacation in Costa Rica, I dropped my iPhone and caused irreparable damage. When I returned stateside, I did something crazy: I decided to go “app-less” for 4 weeks (note: I used an original iPhone 3 to make calls... Continue →