How do you become a great product manager? Learn the secrets of 10+ experts.

You will hear that a product manager is the person "in charge of the process of building and releasing software”...

But I can’t personally think of a more generic job description!

If you dig a little bit deeper, you'll learn that the path to becoming a great one is never easy, and that you need a lot of experience on the job and several specific skills.

We want to help you advance your career, so we asked to some amazing people in the product management world: what does it take to become an excellent product manager?

Here's what they told us:

  1. Be a leader!
  2. Know when to say NO (and how)
  3. Protect your team
  4. Drive Decisions with a Clear Product Vision
  5. Choose the right tools for your work
  6. Create a process to help your team communicate better
  7. Define what success looks like
  8. Understand the needs of your customers
  9. Deal correctly with stakeholders
  10. Know when you should take action (and when you shouldn't)

And if you are looking for even more inspiration, the guys of Jaco put together a list of 31 great product managers to follow. 

1. Be A Leader - Go Above And Beyond For Your Team And Product

You have to be a leader for your team. Ok so how do you make your people follow you no matter what?

First the obvious: Rally the team behind a common goal.

To make them believe in the product vision. To make them proud of what they are building. To make them understand they’re part of something great. You can only get the most out of your team if you inspire them. Every day!

Ellen Chisa
VP of Product at Lola -
"To be a leader, you need to know what you do in your worst moments. You have to be aware of it, watch for it, and make sure it doesn't impact your entire team."

Second: Leverage the natural skills and strengths of your team.

Part of your role is to determine your team’s skills and to find ways to improve them. You would be surprised to see how frequent it is for people to be assigned to the wrong position or for them not to be trained well enough in various aspects of the job.

Rather than taking people and roles for granted, you need to pay close attention to both people’s motivations and skill-sets and ensure you leverage them in a way that maximizes your team’s productivity.

One of your main goals is to ensure the productivity of the team: you can only achieve that by optimizing their skills and making sure they have what they need to succeed at their job. And by constantly inspiring them.

The role of a product manager is to be able to rally the team behind a common goal.

2. Learn When to Say No (and how to say it)

This is one is tough:

You will never be the most popular guy in the room.

By the very nature of the job, you are forced to constantly say no - to stakeholders, team members and other folks in your organization.

You will need to say no while sheltering the team from unnecessary noise. 

Or, when people will to try to push their request up the list of prioritized features.

Other times you need to say no to your own team regarding the product feature list, attending or not meetings and much more...

Brian Lawley
CEO of 280 Group
"The most important skill for a Product Manager is the ability to gracefully say “No” when suggestions aren’t in line with the long-term strategic vision for the product."

Stakeholders may ask for new features and changes that go completely against your strategy and industry best practices, so you need to learn to politely say no as well.

But how?

A great guide for you is the Gentle Art of Saying No, by Leo Barbuta.

3. Protect Your Team From Unnecessary Noise

You are not only the guardian of the product, you are also the guardian of your team.

A big part of your role is to make sure the team is isolated from the rest of the organization – but in a good way.

As you set the overall vision of the product and document the requirements for a feature, you expect your team to focus most of their attention and time on the implementation of the prioritized work load.

Your team won’t be able to be productive if they are constantly pulled from the assigned work and asked to do something else:

You'll want to minimize any unnecessary distractions from the current tasks assigned.

Richard Banfield
CEO at Fresh Tilled Soil
"The most important skill of a Product Manager is to consistently develop an environment where her team can be as creative and productive as possible. Product Managers can't directly control creativity but they can influence the physical, emotional and mental spaces where creativity is most likely to happen. "

In order to do this there are just two things you need to establish from the beginning:

1) You are responsible for the prioritization of the tasks the team works on.

Every second your team spends on other tasks puts your overall plan at risk, so you want to take full ownership of incoming questions and demands.

2) Make it a habit to prioritize your own tasks as well.

Unless there is a truly urgent request that requires immediate attention, it is your job to also shelter your team from, well... yourself.

The most productive teams are allowed to work primarily on what THEY agreed to deliver.

4. Create a clear product vision and use it to drive decisions

The product vision defines your customer, user, and value proposition. It should reflect the company goals and objectives. It needs to be clear and not open to interpretation, so you and the rest of the team can use it to drive the product roadmap. 

At the highest level, a product vision is the overall set of targets you have in mind for your team and how you plan on measuring the performance of the features you release against those goals. Regardless of what company you work for, your overall product vision will likely strive to attain one or more of these high level business objectives: increase traffic to your digital program, reduce the costs and increase sales / conversions.

Establishing clear product vision and strategy is something you need to own and socialize. It is one of your most important product manager responsibilities. 

And it's essential to get it right:

As Marty Cagan puts it, "It's a persuasive piece. It might be in the form of a story board, or a narrative like a white paper, or a prototype (referred to as a “visiontype”).  It’s primary purpose is to communicate this vision and inspire the teams (and investors and partners) to want to help make this vision a reality."

Your product vision is your elevator pitch. It is a clear, powerful, inspirational mission statement which you repeat, again and again, to everyone in the company who will listen. You want to be crystal clear about what the vision is and how you will get the company there.

A great Product Manager creates a clear product vision and uses it to drive decisions.


5. Define the Optimal Toolset

From day to day communication to requirement gathering and documentation, QA testing and post production archives, the tools your team users in the project lifecycle are critical to the overall success of your program. 

Ryan Hoover
Founder of Product Hunt
"The best product managers are curious. They're eager to experiment with creative ideas and humble enough to kill their own projects when they don't work out."

Product managers often just inherit the process and tools used before they arrived. Make sure to evaluate what you're inheriting and ask: does my team have the necessary tools to get the job done? Don't just learn the current process and follow it without raising objections. It is your job to make sure what is in place is actually effective.

First you need to determine how people interact with each other

Do they use Slack, Gchat, Skype or other tools to communicate with each other and decrease over-reliance on emails? Is this working well or can you identify any gaps?

Second, you need to determine how requirements are captured, reviewed and implemented.

Do they have access to JIRA / iRise / Mingle or any other tool and is that used effectively and efficiently to document requirements and follow up questions/ answers?

Third, how are code changes captured, documented and stored once a feature is complete?

In other words, if a developer leaves your team and someone takes his or her place, can they access the right tools and documentation archives and learn what was implemented without having to go and check the code?

Forth, what are the tools for capturing and reporting defects?

In software development there are so many different stages of the project where people need to interact with each other and document their work. You need to conduct an audit of all current tools and how they are used. You must also identify any potential gaps and explore the possibility of integrating various tools with each other, when possible. 

At the end of the day, the key to a successful product is close collaboration. The tools used in everyday interactions are critical to achieving effective collaboration and communication among team members. Choose wisely.  

6. Establish the Right Process for Effective Collaboration

Implementing the optimal process for your team, so they can collaborate and iterate quickly, is an important responsibility of the product manager. 

Tomasz Tunguz
Venture Capitalist at Redpoint
"The most important skill a product manager should have is to be able to manage by influence and to ask the right questions to guide a team."

In order for your team to run smoothly, they need both the right tools and a clearly defined process in place. As many technology companies are shifting or have already implemented Agile, we will focus on refining that process. It's worth noting that "100% Agile” is more of an aspiration than reality, and that many companies implement a hybrid approach. The recommendations below apply to a company implementing any of the... 50 shades of Agile. 

First you need to enforce the typical “agile ceremonies.”

They are in place because they have been proven to work well for a team. Attendance to the daily standup, bi-weekly iteration planning meetings, mid-sprint checkpoints, retrospectives, and scrum of scrums sessions are mandatory. There are processes where you want to be more flexible about (more below), but there are specific recurring meetings you want to make sure the entire team attends. The team needs a clear structure to follow.

Second, clearly establish the minimum viable requirements for how things get documented.

What is the minimum amount of information required for a feature story? What is the format which should be universally followed? What are the mandatory fields? The mechanics of the overall project execution should be more or less the same regardless of the feature you are building.

Third, be flexible and determine what can be removed from the plan.

Software development is fluid. You want to provide the structured environment for your team in which they can succeed. But you also want to be flexible.

You need to closely analyze the process and determine when there is room for leeway for your team members. You might find that some meetings are redundant or not needed for a specific project.  Whatever the case may be, you need to strike a balance between what’s required every time and what can change depending on specific circumstances.

7. Define What Success Looks Like – And How It Ties Back To Your Product Vision

Product managers are so important also because they are the product’s biggest promoter, inside and outside the team.

To do that, you'll need first of all to define what success looks like, and how value is created.

Tristan Kromer
Lean Startup Coach and T-shaped Product Guy
"Success for Product Managers is value created, not captured. Value for the customer AND value for the business model. Hint: Value for the business model = validated learning."

Also, monitoring and reporting on the progress made against your product vision and KPIs are essential.

Analytics is not just a strategy to measure how your product is performing:

That's because your boss (and other people in the organization) will summon you to provide data points needed to justify current projects or future enhancements. 

How can you tell if your strategy is working unless you can define how features are performing against the KPIs that you have set for your team?

Your job is to stay on top of the strategy and to make changes mid-flight if the results you are seeing are not in line with the goals you have set.

From a different perspective, analytics are key to your team’s success.

Often time, data points are seen as an outward communication mechanism. People from outside the team need to see how the program is performing and you need to justify getting funding for another year. Yet collecting and socializing data points will help you inspire your own team to work more, harder and be passionate about your project.

Every time you move the needle in the right direction you should share the good news with the team. You should specifically call out the members of the team that make it happen. 

Reporting on success stories, however small they may be, has the great advantage of making people proud of their work and feeling good about themselves.

That in turn results in higher productivity and overall better team morale.

Do not waste a single chance at being the champion of your own product, for your own team and other stakeholders. 

Define and track what success looks like and always socialize the results.

8. Put Yourself In Your Customer’s Shoes And Be Their Biggest Advocate

In order to be effective at your job, you need to show empathy towards your users. You need to see your product from the eyes of a customer. Only that way you can really appreciate your customers’ pain points and identify gaps that need to be addressed.

Mona Patel
Founder and CEO of Motivate Design
"The best product managers understand and evangelize for their customers, including getting way beyond what users say they need into what will improve their lives (or the world!) and going to bat for them in internal meetings to make sure the user experience is optimized."

In addition to the overall product vision and execution, you are directly responsible for your users’ satisfaction. That makes you the number one user champion at your company. You need to feel the pain of your users. You need to feel the urgency in fixing an issue or adding much needed functionality.

One of the best ways to understand how your customers feel about your product is to allow them to test it before you build it. This is what is typically called usability testing: creating a prototype of your application and showing it to current/potential customers before actually writing a line of code.

Nir Eyal
Author of "Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products"
"To build something people love, you have to understand what makes them tick to understand what makes them click. Knowing the fundamentals of human psychology makes the job much easier."

The cost of performing user testing is always significantly lower than the cost of developing a feature and changing it down the line because it performed poorly.

iRise provides business analysts and UX designers with a very robust prototyping tool - it can be used to build dynamic and interactive functionality without the assistance of any technical resource. Needless to say, whether you use our tool or any other software, you should ALWAYS consider creating prototypes and testing them on actual users to determine their satisfaction with your current product and any new feature you may be building.

If you are not your customers’ biggest advocate, taking their input into account and acting on it, then nobody else will be.

9. Learn How to Put Together a Business Case

It might sound counter intuitive that you need to put together a business case when you're the owner of the product vision. But you do. One of the responsibilities of a product manager is to defend why you’re implementing a specific feature at a specific time while postponing others.

You will constantly be bombarded from a wide variety of stakeholders, internal and external, who want their favorite features implemented - yesterday! Make it a habit to have a business case for every single feature.  For every feature, before you schedule its implementation, try to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the user benefit of the feature?
  2. How many users will benefit from it?
  3. What is the final impact of building this feature?

Let’s take just one real life example.

Let’s say I would like to build an express checkout functionality for my company similar to Amazon 1 click checkout.

To determine prioritization, I will look at how many people go through the current checkout screens without making any changes on any page. Let’s say it’s 95%. Then I will look at the average time it takes for the customer to go through the screens that will be eliminated from the flow when the express checkout is enabled. Let’s say it is 4 seconds. Then I will assume based on publicly available data that it will take ~ 1 year to convince 25% of my customers to enable it.

So now I have a business case: the benefit of express checkout is the convenience for the user to quickly complete a transaction and return to other tasks (customer satisfaction). The impact is that the user will save about 4 seconds per transaction and it is a feature that could potentially be used by 95% of my customers with an expected adoption rate of 25% within the first tear.

Coming up with a strong business case is ALWAYS a beneficial strategy. It will help you communicate, both internally and externally, why you are prioritizing one feature over anything else. It will legitimize your role and show that you use data to help drive your decisions.  

10. Learn When To Stay Out Of The Weeds And When To Jump In

When you work as a product manager it's natural to feel you are responsible for everything that happens within the team. That’s not entirely true. You are ultimately responsible for the outcome of the team but not its actual implementation.

You'll come across situations (too frequently, I'm afraid), where you'd handle a challenge differently than one of your team members has chosen to. The role of the product manager is to know when to get involved and when to leave it to each individual member to carve out the best strategy for getting a task done.

Guy Kawasaki
Chief Evangelist at Canva, Former Chief Evangelist at Apple -
"The most important skill for a product manager is the ability to convince people that doing things his or her way are their decision."

You need to restrain yourself from dictating how the work gets done. Not just because you want your team to be happy, but also because you want them to feel empowered, take initiative and be creative about their work.

On the other hand, there are times when your team needs you next to them in the trenches. And some product managers take the wrong approach of saying: that’s not my role, go figure it out. 

Sometimes, even if the team doesn’t ask for it, you should get yourself involved. A clear example is the writing of QA test cases. Although this is handled by the QA team, you are the overall owner of the feature. You know what your vision is. You know the requirements. You getting into the weeds and determining how the feature needs to work is important, and the sign of a great product manager.

You must always strike the balance between when to get into the weeds and when to stay out of them. It is critical for your team’s success that you both intervene when the team is struggling, and allow them to stretch their wings when the situation permits it.

So these were the traits of a great product manager

From product vision to business cases, analytics strategy and day to day team management - there’s a lot a product manager is responsible for.

This list could be much longer! 

I hope these ten tips help give you a better understanding of what a product manager needs to do well.

What’s your favorite tip? Share it with us on Twitter @iRiseTeam

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Dominic Infante
Dom has been with iRise since day one. From the early days when the concept of “application simulation” was invented by iRise (his name is included on five of its patents), through the development of the product vision and of the product itself. Over 17 years at iRise gives him a unique view of the platform and of the marketplace it leads.