4 Unexpected People Skills Every Product Manager Needs

product managers in a startup office environment drinking coffee

It’s all about the technology, right? Nope. I learned that fast in my first product management role. Product managers need a wide array of skills to be successful. And a lot of those skills involve people. When you factor in that many product managers work within a “responsibility without formal authority” context, having interpersonal skills is essential.

To be successful, product managers need obvious strengths like communication. They must be able to clearly articulate where the product is going and energize their teams to build it.

But some of the skills that are important to becoming a successful product manager may not necessarily be as obvious. Some of us are fortunate to have an early mentor to help shape our thinking and growth. Others have to feel it out as they go.

If you fall into the category of the latter, this post is for you. Here are a few of the non-technical (also known as “soft” or “people”) skills that helped me navigate the challenges I faced as a product manager:

Curiosity
Product managers spend considerable effort understanding our customer’s needs. We learn to go beyond the laundry list of requirements to identify ways to make customers happy and successful. We think deeply about it, approach from different angles, and, at the end of the day, we provide a useful, elegant solution that meets their needs.

However, as product managers we don’t always spend the same amount of care when listening to our internal teams. We are dependent on them to make our product successful, but we don’t always make the effort to be curious and find out how we can help make them successful when working on the product.

Remember: Most of these teams — from those performing demos to setting marketing plans — are actually our “customers” too in that they are or will be using our product, just in a different manner.

Compassion
Is marketing busy handling two upcoming conferences? Is the training team short-staffed and tied up with other initiatives? If the work of other teams was all perfectly aligned, then that might make our job a little easier — but it isn’t always the reality.

Being compassionate and having an understanding of what the broader group is working on can go a long way. The full calendar and staffing issues of other teams are not areas that product managers can control, but perhaps we can provide information earlier in order to give them more lead time. We can find ways to take action in areas where we do have control so that we can stay on target with our goals.

Diplomacy
The daily work of a product manager includes more negotiation than you might expect. (Though it’s not always apparent when you first get started.) Remember that “responsibility without formal authority” context? This is where negotiation comes into play.

Listening and empathy are important. But that does not mean that product managers are doormats. Knowing how and when to negotiate with others is an important skill for product managers to hone. Difficult conversations and tough trade-off decisions can happen daily. We have to find ways to find common ground — and assertive negotiations rooted in a true understanding of how each side will affect the product go a long way.

Loyalty
We already established that it’s a given that everyone at work needs to be able to “communicate.” In the workplace, that word encompasses everything from written to oral (and aural!) skills. I’d like to make communication a bit more specific to product managers — it’s about loyalty to our teams.

As an example, our relationship with engineering leads is critical. We need to protect their time if necessary. If we have differences of opinion, we discuss them… between us. But when we are in “public” — whether it’s in front of the team, company executives, or external parties — it’s important to have each other’s backs. (Obviously there are other HR issues at play if there are differences that can’t be resolved, but that’s out of scope here.)

Product managers need to build soft skills — because without the ability to listen, consider all points of view, negotiate, and communicate clearly, the product will suffer.

Product managers have to work with a lot of different personalities and teams. While there are unique dynamics to every business and product, it is important to remember that we are all human. Oftentimes, it is helpful to know you are not alone and to hear what fellow product managers have experienced.

This is a guest post by Grace Lee Camoglu. If you are looking to be a great product manager, create brilliant strategy, and build visual product roadmaps — start a free trial of Aha!

About the author
Grace Lee Camoglu is a senior product manager who has worked with numerous software products in various aspects of a product lifecycle. During her career she has also overseen marketing strategy, operations, and technical documentation. Passionate about sharing and learning from fellow product managers, Grace is a contributor to the Product Management Festival.

The Product Management Festival is such a forum where product managers worldwide come together to learn from each other and from leading experts. As a reader of the Aha! blog, when you register for this year’s product conference, you will get 25 percent off with the discount code: Discount-Aha

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