This guest post written by Assaph Mehr, delves into the most important soft skills for product managers.
Have you ever noticed that all the best product managers have really bad soft skills?
“Wait, what?” I hear you say. Bear with me.
See, I’ve been in “product” for more years than I care to admit: building products, managing products, and leading the teams and organisations who make them. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in product management and I’ve observed that to succeed in this field you need really, really shitty soft skills. It’s the number one trait I look for when hiring, and what I coach my team members to develop.
Every day, product managers need to:
💩 Organise sh*t
💩 Communicate about sh*t
💩 And, most importantly, own sh*t
Now that we had a chuckle, let’s unpack what this means, and how you could get better at it. I’ll address them in order of importance, from least to most, as that often mirrors the progression of development – both personal and career – of product managers.
Sadly, this is what far too many product managers think is the core of product management. Writing a comprehensive user story; Colour-coding backlogs; Playing estimation poker like it’s a high-roller room in Las Vegas. This is, almost exactly, the wrong kind of focus. Jira is where good ideas go to die, not where “product” happens.
Instead, learn to…
Organise time. Time is your most precious resource, and there will never be enough of it. If you tried to do everything for everyone, you’d work 60+ hours a week, still leave things undone, and burn out.
Instead, learn the difference between Urgent and Important, learn to identify which activities have a high leverage (high impact to effort ratio). For example, I leave writing of routine tickets to the developers. When they clamour for “acceptance criteria”, I take them on an hour-long customer journey to understand what we’re hoping to achieve and why. Pretty soon, even the shiest of developers build an innate understanding of the users, their needs and constraints. On the other hand, I’ve spent hours analysing logs and helping debug when it’s a critical bug that could bring the system down.
The basic rule is: Urgent and Important = do it now! Important but not urgent = block time in your calendar. Urgent but not important? Delegate. Not urgent and not important = eliminate.
Take a look at your calendar, and colour-code your meetings. See where the time-sinks are. Learn when your productive zone is, and when your team needs you. Block time for the important stuff, and ruthlessly eliminate the waste in the same way you learnt to say no to feature requests from sales.
Organise information. Maybe it’s the 20 years I’ve been dealing with knowledge and information systems, but you can’t beat a good information architecture. Spent hours methodically and meticulously organising folders and tag taxonomies… Actually, scratch that – give it a year, and your IA will be outdated. Just look at your Confluence and SharePoint from a year ago, and you’ll be like Gandalf’s in Moria – no recollection.
Part of why product management is a “beautiful mess”, is that things keep changing. There is some benefit in building an IA for long-term information storage and retrieval – for example, being able to pull down the list of customer calls where a certain feature was discussed – but you’ll likely find that it’s a limited benefit that’s rarely needed. Two years from now things would have changed so much that it’s just not worth spending hours on it weekly.
Instead, go for lightweight organisation. Record, publish, tag, and move on. Focus on clarity in the notes, on capturing information and extracting the important nuggets (like a customer interview, with sections for raw observations and a summary of takeaways). Slap on some reasonably consistent tags to aid searching. Send it to the relevant people (not just everyone, but those who need it), and talk about it when needed. Then move on.
If you can find information, if you can tell someone over a Slack message where to find it, you’re doing OK. Focus on information, on actionable intelligence, rather than noisy raw data or prescriptive catalogues, and ensure this is what gets disseminated.
It seems like everyone has “great communicator” on their CV, and when probed it’s because they know where the spell-checker is. Well, this ain’t it.
Communication is the most important skill for product managers because it’s what you do 90% of the time. Delivering presentations? Sure. But also writing user stories, interviewing users, negotiating deadlines and resources, diagramming, and chatting online or IRL. All of these are about building a shared understanding and conveying ideas.
Here’s the second secret: 80% of communications is listening. It’s absorbing what the other party is saying and what they aren’t – leaving unsaid, circling around, or simply not important to them. It’s about building empathy so you can appreciate their challenges and desires, then using this empathy to build products they’d love and buy.
“Active listening” isn’t a hack. It’s not about repeating a person’s words as some Jedi mind trick. I’ve seen many junior product managers start to fidget when a customer (or an internal stakeholder) is going off on a tangent or when they think they understand what the customer is saying and want to save time and jump to the solution. It’s about leaving space to grow empathy with two-way feedback.
If you find your mind sparking off ideas when you can see the problem and just want to help the person by jumping to the solution, there’s only one thing to do. You need to shut the eff up. Even if you’re right 9 out of 10 times, shut up, because the tenth time is when you’ll learn something new.
Listen to people without thinking of your response (or more realistically: when you do, just get back to the present and focus on them). Summarise what you heard them say to crystalise what you understood and have the space to be corrected. And then tie whatever message you want to deliver back to what they said.
As a bonus, when you take the time to listen to people you learn to speak in the same language, which is key to marketing and sales messaging. It’s not about extracting quotes for the brochure; it’s about fundamentally connecting your offering to their world. It’s why conducting customer interviews (and extracting the insights) is critical.
I’ve launched products that did the one thing, and because I understood the languages of different customers groups I could sell it – and teach our salespeople to sell it – to different people. The police investigator that had a backlog of digital crimes and the lawyer that has reams of paperwork to sift through perceived the exact same problem and solution with different concerns: one was worried about the sheer number of cases, about proving that they’ve done everything by the book, while the other needed to know they are optimising costs and don’t have to be awake at 3am before a court date.
Other ways to improve your communications: Go read Presentation Zen before you next open PowerPoint. Join Miro and Coda.io, subscribe to their mailing lists, and learn about interactive two-way comms and meetings. Learn the art of email-fu, of CTAs and info tailored to your audience. Even write a short story (or a novel) and get a professional editor to learn self-editing.
This is the hardest to define category, but the most important. It also takes time to build in each new role that you take on. If you can organise your time and extract information from noise, if you build empathy and clearly communicate across different mediums and audiences, the last step is to own your shit.
Three “skills” might help you here.
Know why. When the executive HiPPO swoops in, you better know exactly why you’ve selected what you’re doing. Why are we building this feature? Because we heard a handful of customers talk about the problem it solves and want to see if others take it up. Why did we choose that database? Because our customers need these queries faster than the cost of that storage. Why should I care? Because we can show you how to close more sales.
Be humble. Product management is a profession where you’ll either thank everyone for their amazing contributions or apologise for why you messed up. Leaving your ego at the door is not just a platitude, it’s a requirement for building empathy, ensuring alignment, and leading people as well as products. I’ve walked into tense meetings and diffused them by apologising for something that happened before I joined. It lets people move on, and that’s what you want. After all, it’s not about you, but about your product.
Follow through. Anything that’s worth doing is worth understanding, planning, budgeting, scheduling, and reporting on. Worth doing right. Be ruthless about what you select to do, but do those things to the best of your abilities. Know why and what, know how much, know when and how, and clearly communicate this before, during, and after. If you made a promise, deliver on it. If you took action-items, act on them.
How do those things translate into ownership, and why does it matter? It comes down to trust. If you show that you have a good reason for what you’re doing, while at the same time, you really listen to feedback and take it on, if you have the information at your fingertips and can convey it in the right way, if you demonstrate both passion and compromise, and just get shit done, then I can trust you.
If I trust you, I’ll listen to you, and “buy” more from you – as a customer, as a colleague, and as a leader. I’ll know who to go to when the next big opportunity opens up.