3 Ways to Shine as a Product Manager

Contributed by Tom Huntington

When was the last time you really blew it? When have you nailed it? Product managers are changing jobs every few years, so we really need to know what it takes to shine. Twenty-five product executives tackled these issues at a recent breakfast meeting in order to sketch out how to be a superstar.

Knowing what to know

Our collective disasters included many instances of failing to bring data, or to listen to it. A former CEO of mine used to push back, “Do you think you know, or do you know you know?” Data is not a box to check. It’s a window into the truth. If you’re not actively exploring it, you’re unlikely to shine.

Customer viewpoints are core data, so it’s critical to get out of the building. Some product managers are setting customer visit quotas for themselves each month. This jibes with advice I heard from Steve Blank when he was in Boston recently. Anyone building a new product, he said, should do at least 8-10 customer development interviews per week or they’re not collecting enough data.

When collecting market data, be sure to cast a wide net. Reach outside your comfort zone. One product manager recounted how he spent $15,000 and several months on customer research to learn nothing new because too many of the respondents were pre-existing customers. Spend more time with the accounts you’ve lost, or haven’t won yet.

Don’t take alignment for granted

Alignment doesn’t happen on it’s own. Superstars work to bring all stakeholders on board. This requires the time to run cross-functional meetings and shuttle diplomacy. With skeptical stakeholders, consider running a pilot so that everyone can see the product succeed in the marketplace. The true art, one executive pointed out, is to involve stakeholders such that they think the product was their good idea. “Oh yeah,” said another. “I do that with my husband all the time.”

There was some disagreement in the group on whether a product manager should be “loved by the sales team.” Following Sales may be a political reality in some organizations. However, don’t mistake it for your purpose. A superstar product manager will cultivate a vision that well exceeds the current sales horizon. When you are pushing the team out of its comfort zone, love is a tricky word. Strive instead to be trusted.

Scalability as a must-have

There aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all yourself. Great product managers develop ways to scale. Pushing issues down in your organization is critical. When a junior member of the team solves a problem by his/herself, you both reduce congestion and increase the skills of that team member.

Communication tools are essential so that you’re not having the same conversation over and over again with different people. Some people do outreach with internal newsletters. Others develop repositories for key decisions and changes. An effective strategy likely requires both.

Tom Huntington is co-founder and CEO of Windshield, peer-to-peer coordination for organizations.

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