The Exceptional Product Manager: What is the Right Stuff?

By Mark J. Tiedman June 17, 2007

What makes an exceptional product manager? I was struck by this very question many years ago when I first became a manager. When it came time for the company’s annual performance review process, it seemed that managers could agree most of the time on who the top performers were, but when asked to articulate the reasons why, the answers invariably were phrases like “high output, high-quality work,” “displayed leadership,” and so on, with an example or two given. While true, these reasons were too ambiguous and did little to guide people. Intuitively, we all know a star performer when we see one, but we are often at a loss to succinctly say why.

Hence, I asked myself: “Why is so-and-so a star and what makes him/her stand out?” What emerged was a list of attributes that were essential to not merely fulfilling, but exceeding, the requirements of the job. Star performer s invariably scored well on virtually all of them, while others scored lower.

I use the list of attributes as a complement to the standard company performance review forms to both assess an individual’s performance and to coach them. In so doing, keeping the list to a single page ensures maintaining focus on the key attributes. Employee feedback has been consistently positive because it provides specific goals in performing the job, practical assessments and tangible improvement ideas.

I found that about a third of the list is common across all jobs, not just that of product manager: for example, exhibiting a good attitude is universal. Other attributes, such as good communication skills, are also universal but their importance and the degree to which they are used varies by job function. Still, other attributes are unique to the product manager job itself.

So, what is the “right stuff” for product managers? Here is my list of exceptional product manager attributes, forged and honed from 15 years in high-tech product management.

Attitude: Foundation for success

Attitude is the first attribute on the list because it is what drives individuals to achieve results and improve their performance. This is especially important for product managers because they must be self-starters and leaders who must constantly move their products and organizations forward.

ATT1 Is enthusiastic, sees problems as opportunities, and proactively develops knowledge and skills needed.

ATT2 Perseveres through any and all situations with indomitable spirit and professionalism, keeping perspective and displaying a good sense of humor.

I remember being told as a young engineer fresh out of school that if the boss said, “I have an opportunity for you,” to run for cover because it was probably an undesirable problem. With many “opportunities” under my belt since then, I have learned that problems—while admittedly sometimes painful to have to deal with—truly offer opportunities to improve. For example, customer objections to purchasing a product often require sharpening the value proposition and/or competitive positioning. Or, by clarifying the objection, an alternative solution may emerge that is much easier to deal with.

In a world that is increasingly global, competitive, and perhaps uncertain, how we handle adversity can determine the winners. In short, product managers are highly-visible role models: they are looked to by other members of the company for direction and, when times are tough, for how they respond and for assurance that the right things are being done to ensure success. Humor is an especially effective tool. After a particularly difficult call with a customer, I recall my manager slowly shaking his head, and saying with a resigned smile, “In the next life, I want to be the customer!” That instantly broke the tension we all felt and allowed us to get on with addressing the customer’s issues.

Knowledge: Applying what is learned

Knowledge provides a groundwork for most of the other attributes and its application helps product managers excel at them.

KNOW1 For each product managed, intimately understands its features and capabilities, how they relate to customer benefits and uses, and how the product compares to competitive or substitute products and solutions.

KNOW2 Understands key applicable market, customer, industry, competitive, environmental, regulatory and technological forces and trends.

KNOW3 Is well-versed in market requirements and product definition using best current practices, and the end-to-end product realization process from conception through discontinuation.

As a product manager, I spend a lot of time being an “Information Broker” since I am constantly called upon to provide information to engineers, the sales department, and customers. Engineers want to know: Why is this feature or requirement important? Why must this be developed by such-and-such date? What is happening in the market or with a particular customer? Sales and customers want to know: Why is your product superior to competitive solutions? When will this feature be available? How does this feature work? And, so on. The fact is, knowledge inspires confidence and confidence breeds success. Knowledge is the source of a product manager’s ability to influence and lead: engineers will be confident in the decisions we make, Sales will be confident in the ability to sell the product, and customers will be confident in both the product and the company.

Communication: Engaging others

All jobs require some communication, but effective, proactive communication is especially important for product managers, who must engage a wide variety of co-workers, partners, customers and industry colleagues. Product Management is about communicating with others to both learn and convey what is—and is not—important, and what should be done, and why.

COMM1 Superb, empathetic, open-minded, active listener; asks good questions.

COMM2 Demonstrates clear, articulate, and well-organized oral and written communications style.

COMM3 Proactively interacts and establishes rapport with people of diverse styles, backgrounds and job positions/levels.

The previous section on knowledge discussed examples of communicating information. However, effective communication begins with listening: “Seek understanding before seeking to be understood.” In communicating, nothing is worse than conveying information that the other party is either not interested in or cannot understand. When called upon to make presentations to customers, for example, I always try to find out as much as I can about the audience and what they want to know, as well as what we, as the vendor, want to accomplish. At the meeting itself, I also seek to have the customer talk first and I ask clarifying questions. All of this allows me to target what I present and how I present it to the customer’s specific needs.

Customers: Being the customer advocate

“It’s the customers who pay our bills” is an old and very true saying. The product manager’s fundamental role is to ensure the bills keep getting paid by identifying the intersection between what customers value—and are willing to pay for—and the organization’s distinctive capabilities to satisfy them better than anyone else.

CUST1 Understands, empathizes with, and can articulate customers’ viewpoints and perspectives. Understands what problems, challenges and opportunities customers face in their businesses and how customers use, or could use, the product(s) to address them.

CUST2 Translates customer wants and needs into concise technical marketing requirements.

CUST3 Synthesizes and prioritizes across customers’ wants and needs, balancing them with company capabilities.

Having an engineering background, I have seen first-hand how easy it is to become enamored with technology and the tendency to add “bells and whistles” because it’s fun and because it can be done. As product managers, however, we must realize that the limited resources available to us must be laser-focused on solving customer problems and opportunities. Simply put, to be successful, help make your customers successful. At the same time, customers sometimes want the world and it is up to the product manager to qualify this, make the necessary tradeoffs to fit within company capabilities and timeframes, and drive ambiguity out of what needs to be done via articulate technical marketing requirements.

Managing: Passion for results

Exceptional product managers are extremely results-oriented, doing whatever it takes to achieve the desired objectives.

MANG1 Establishes appropriate goals. Plans and manages toward achieving goals, anticipates problems and issues and proactively drives their resolution.

MANG2 Handles many tasks at one time and prioritizes among them.

MANG3 Able to lead a team and be a team member. Instills a winning, “can-do” spirit among co-workers and team members, bringing out the best in them and lifting their level of play.

The first two attributes, here, are important yet basic “Management 101” concepts. The third attribute is less obvious and crucial. As a product manager, you are, by definition, the Chief Cheerleader for your product. You must believe passionately that your product is a winner and be able to communicate crisply why it is. You count on your teammates in engineering to build the product (to your specifications) and you count on your teammates in Sales to sell the product (using materials you have developed). As a result, you have a great ability—and responsibility —to enable others to do their jobs well.

Decision-Making: The essence of product management

The best, most succinct definition I ever heard as to what my job as a product manager entailed was: “Your job is to make decisions.” Product managers face a never-ending progression of decisions that range from the very specific and tactical, such as, “What words or letters should go on a label?” to the highly strategic, “What markets do we want to go after two years from now?”

DEC1 Understands the problem to be solved, the issue to be addressed and/or the need to be satisfied.

DEC2 Determines the criteria (business, technical, economic, customer impact, etc.) to be used in making the decision and formulates the path leading to the decision.

DEC3 Makes sound decisions in a timely manner knowing when to get more information and when to proceed with incomplete information, avoiding “analysis paralysis.” Accepts responsibility and accountability for decisions made and their consequences.

DEC4 Envisions possible future scenarios and outcomes and develops appropriate business and product strategies and contingencies.

A typical decision product managers face is to decide which features—and which capabilities within a feature—to include in a software release for Development. That release may take 6-12 months to develop and another 6-12 months before it is deployed and used by customers. That means it could take 12-24 months before it is known whether the decision was a good one—a lifetime in most markets where much can change. Waiting to get more information to make the decision can help reduce risk, but it can also delay the release (and associated revenues), possibly missing the market window. Unlike the engineering world I started out in where things are “black and white” and answers are “right or wrong,” most decisions product managers face are in a world of “gray.” One of the most important lessons I learned came from an ex-CEO professor in business school who said: “There are no right answers, only intelligent choices.”

Conclusion

Product management is a demanding discipline because it requires making sense out of a changing and uncertain world in which, as we have seen, there are often no “right” answers. It requires leadership, to relentlessly drive one’s organization and product forward in an increasingly challenging and competitive world. Yet, the joy and rewards of winning in the marketplace and seeing one’s product address a customer problem or need better than any competing solution are incomparable. By using the list of attributes, product managers can improve their effectiveness–and their managers can better coach them so they develop and have the “right stuff,” and, in turn, more frequently experience those joys and rewards.

Mark J. Tiedman

Mark J. Tiedman

Mark Tiedeman is Vice President of Marketing at Copper Mountain Networks, Inc. He has over 25 years in the high tech telecommunications industry including 15 years in product management and marketing roles. You can contact Mark at mtiedeman@coppermountain.com

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