The softer aspect of product management skills

By February 9, 2019 May 30th, 2019 Career advice, Leadership, Product management

Product management requires an extensive set of hard and soft skills. Both are useful, yet there is a clear distinction: While the hard skills in product management enable the day to day work to be done, it is the soft skills that enable product managers to have a deep and lasting impact on the business.

Skills in product management

Let’s start by briefly examining how skills are categorized. Hard skills are teachable abilities that are directly related to specific job competencies and can be clearly defined and measured. In contrast, soft skills are more abstract and are also known as interpersonal or people skills.

Regarding the hard skills required in product management, the list includes requirements gathering, prioritization ability, business and technical acumen, research and analysis proficiency, a basic design taste and so on. It is worth mentioning that the required set of hard skills varies from company to company, as product management is a practice that differs greatly in how it is practiced. For example, some companies hire more technically oriented product managers while others more commercially oriented ones. In larger companies there may be different product roles that focus on specific skill sets (the pricing product manager or the technical product manager), whereas in smaller companies product managers have a greater breadth of responsibility.

On the other side soft skills are by nature more difficult to quantify. They mostly stem from a person’s demeanor but they can also be learned. As all skills they get better by practicing and actively trying to use them in personal or work life. Product managers typically start by learning the hard skills and they increasingly depend on soft skills to get things done as they progress in their careers. The best product managers exhibit mastery in soft skills.

Soft skills and product leadership

Proficiency in soft skills is also a characteristic of people in leadership roles. This correlation makes perfect sense as product management is a leadership function. While most product managers do not have no direct authority over people, they need to be able to to rally people in their organizations so that they can make things happen.

Consider the following quote from the podcast “Hacking your leadership” on what a leader is (addition in the brackets is mine):

A leader [but also a great product manager] is someone who can project calm into the face of chaos”.

I think that this is very relevant to this discussion. Businesses can get frenetic sometimes. New products, new launches, fast changing environments. Product managers need to be able to keep calm in stressful situations and project dependability. They need to be the voice of reason in their domain. Consistently exhibiting this attitude will greatly help them guide their teams through difficult situations and allow them to elicit positive outcomes out of what would otherwise appear as ordinary mess.

Another relevant leadership trait is being positive. Thinking of the half empty – half full glass analogy, product managers should always be the ones viewing the glass as full. They need to be radiating positivity. There will be always difficult problems to solve, pressing deadlines, competitors threatening your market share. The team should be able to look up to the product manager and draw the courage to press on. Positivity is the power that helps pull the team together to overcome obstacles and march on to successfully launch products.

Empathy as a core asset

The best product managers have the ability and desire to get into the shoes of others and see things from their perspective. Empathy is essentially approaching people relations on the principle that it is about them and not us.

Successful products solve important problems. Product managers need to be able to connect with their users so that they can identify what the important problems are along with all their nuances and hidden details. They need to make a habit of actively listening and probing deeper to uncover the root causes behind what appears on the surface.

They need to care for the pain that their customers experience.

There is an important detail however. Chris Voss in his great book “Never split the difference” defines empathy as: “the ability to understand the perspective of a counterpart and the vocalization of that recognition”. Notice that his definition does not dictate to agree or commit to anything – that’s sympathy. Trying to be empathetic should not be confused with trying to provide solutions for all people’s problems. Being empathetic as a product manager means making an effort to understand what the important problems of users are and why they are happening, so that they can be solved in a way that aligns with the company’s mission and vision.

The glue that binds

Closely related to empathy is the ability to communicate effectively. Simply put, great product managers are also excellent communicators.

Building products is a team sport. An interesting metaphor for product management is that it is the glue that binds several departments together in order to solve problems and launch products. A product manager’s ability to communicate is closely related with how effectively they can do this.

Building products is also messy. It is common in organizations for effort to be wasted due to miscommunication when building products. There are usually many people involved, across various departments, each one with their own set of goals and objectives. What makes sense for one may not make sense for the other. And what one assumes as a given may be an edge case for the other. Closing the communication gap in product development falls squarely on the shoulders of product managers.

Moreover, it is very important for product people to take written positions on important matters. Writing things down has the added benefit of being able to take the time to think thoroughly about matters. Not only that but information in written communication can be easily followed up and spread around. In contrast, action items assigned verbally in meetings are almost never followed through and corridor agreements have the tendency to be forgotten.

Dear fellow product managers, do not be afraid to over-communicate. No harm can come out of it. As George Bernard Shaw once said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”.

Grit

Product management is hard. If you have come expecting an easy ride and instant gratification then I would suggest to look somewhere else.

There will be days when things will be chaotic. When your communication will fall on deaf ears and common sense will be an elusive notion. This is usually normal. (As long as it does not happen all the time).

Product managers need to be resilient and be in for the long game, as product success comes from the small day to day wins that accumulate over time. That is not to say that the big wins are not important – they are – but it is the steady pace of the small successes that sets the stage for the big splashes. Product managers should lead their teams through this process, enduring the hard times and continuously push forward knowing that there is light at the end of the tunnel. And that takes grit.

Grit is defined as: “a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state” (Wikipedia). In simpler words, grit is the ability to endure the hardships of day to day while remaining focused on the long term vision. That is exactly what successful product management requires.

Final words

Hard skills enable product managers to effectively manage their products – gather requirements, prioritize requests, do market research and so on. However, it is the soft skills that enable product managers to grow beyond the roles of backlog manager or product expert and have a deep impact on the business.

While there are numerous soft skills and most of them are certainly useful, it is the ability to empathize, the aptitude for effective communication and the grit to relentlessly pursue long term goals what allows great product people to rise above the rest.

And the true product leaders? In addition to having mastered the above soft skills, they are always positive and lead with conviction. If you have ever worked with one, you will certainly know what I mean.

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