What Makes a Great Product Manager

What sets great product managers apart from merely good ones?

It is a difficult question to answer because there are so many things that "great" product managers do. And because the discipline itself is changing very quickly. There is no universal answer. But it is a question worth asking.

I tackled this question by interviewing industry leaders, drawing on my own experience, and research.

Here are the top traits, principles, and tactics I collected, that great product managers tend to share.



Data + Intuition

As product managers, we face many decisions every day. But what does "effective decision making" mean?

Being "data-driven" is a good start. But the term is so overused that it has lost its meaning. It also has its blind spots.

Here is how Trevin Chow , Director of Product at Nike, put it:

Great product managers are able to find the right balance between data and intuition at any given moment to inform and drive their decision making. This could be something as small a bug fix, or something much larger such as which features to include in a v1 vs what to cut. The best product managers I've worked with are able to do this very well, balancing all sorts of inputs of "data" and combining it with their intuition to find the right balance of any given moment on what to index on.



Truth-Seeking

Both scientists and product managers play a truth-seeking game — scientists test their ideas in the natural world; product managers test theirs in the market.

 Daniel Falabella , Director of Product at Duolingo, believes that "90% of a Product Manager’s job is to find 'truth'". And this is one reason why Daniel thinks that entrepreneurs make the best PMs. He added,

Lots of PMs go through the motions: they talk to teammates, become familiar with vanity metrics, talk to 2 users, or assume that their managers are right. They give the illusion of having the right inputs, only to pay up the price when it's time to discuss outputs.



Adaptable

Product managers are responsible for the success of their products. But the path to get there is rarely straight-forward.

 Andrew Kritzer , Director of Product at Tableau, said,

Great PMs are adaptable. They know when to go into execution mode, and when to step back and work on strategy. They make everyone around them feel heard. At the end of the day, they make their customers and business successful, and their teams and cross functional partners want to work with them over and over again.



 Erik Torenberg , co-founder at Village Global and On Deck, talked about a similar idea for founders :

Underrated skill for founders: Altitude shifting. People are often either good at high-level strategy or atomic-level execution, but rarely both. It's the ability to zoom out & paint the 5 yr vision, and then drop down into the weeds of day-to-day, & see how the two connect.



First Principles

 Brandon Chu , VP Product & GM of Platform at Shopify, wrote in an article that some of the best PMs he knows make their decisions based on first principles. He explained,

First principle thinking helps PMs because as companies scale, communicating the rationale behind historical, current, and future decisions can be simplified in a way that their team and stakeholders can rally around.
This enables people around the PM to move quickly in the same direction, decouple, and make smart trade offs without their presence.



I also covered first principles thinking in a previous post about mental models .



Deep Understanding of the Problem

It is tempting, especially for the technically-minded folks, to start with an idea for a solution and run with it. But building a great product requires understanding the problem, and understanding the person behind the problem.

 Bo Ren , Head of Ecosystem and Assistant GM at Samsung NEXT, explained in an interview ,

If you get on the ground and hear what people are suffering from, then you can have a deeper understanding of what needs to be done. It’s not just empathy. It’s being specific and zoning in on the areas of improvement based on people’s real experiences."



 Melissa Perri , CEO and founder of Produx Labs, said in an interview that " what sets a decent product manager apart from a really great product manager, is really the way they think and approach problems". She continued,

To me, thinking like a product manager is about problem solving. It’s about synthesizing a lot of information, understanding the system, trying to piece together what is the problem, breaking it down into small manageable chunks so you can analyze it, and then figuring out what is the right solution from there.



Humble and Coachable

Being humble/coachable is what Daniel (from earlier) considers the other important trait of a great product manager.

Related to the truth-seeking point, you will be wrong a lot throughout your career. This may be a tough pill to swallow for the smart and ambitious ones. But it is an important part of growing as a person and learning to make better decisions over time.



Evangelize

Your work isn't done when the requirements are defined, or even when the product gets shipped.

 Alex Reeve , Senior Product Manager at Linkedin, wrote in his essay :

If you’re not sick of saying it, you probably aren’t saying it enough. Constant communication might feel like “fluff,” but it isn’t. Evangelism is a critical part of the role—and it’s your job to make sure the organization is aligned and swimming in the same direction.

And that,

For you [product managers], communication  is  a primary “output,” and it should be exceptional.



Resourceful

There are always more things to build than there is time for. And often, you don't get as many people working on your product as you would like.

Mastering the art of stretching resources given a tight budget is valuable.

This could mean finding cheaper technical workarounds. This could mean ruthlessly focusing on the small number of things that will really move the needle.



Love of Making Things

 Ellen Chisa , Co-founder of Dark and former VP of Product at Lola, said in an interview that, "You have to really love making things, but you have to be okay with not being the person actually making the thing."

Having a genuine love for making things is powerful. This intrinsic motivation can keep you going, especially when things get difficult.

This genuine interest also translates to you noticing other cool products in your life and building things outside of work.

 

At the End of the Day

Ultimately, your responsibility as a product manager to ship successful products. To help your business and customers succeed.

Being on top of things. Delivering results. These are attributes of a great PM that few would disagree.



Further Readings

 Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager . A 1996 essay by Ben Horowitz.

 The First Principles of Product Management by Brandon Chu. It boils down product management to maximizing impact to the mission given a set of inputs and accomplishing everything through others. 

 Principles for Great Product Managers by Alex Reeve, piecing together 22 principles (across 6 categories) for product managers.

 ESTEEM Method by Lewis C. Lin: Execution, Superior communication skills, Tactical awareness, Extraordinary mental toughness, Exceptional team builder, Moonshot vision.

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