About a year ago, I started thinking about the next step in my career. Considering what I had enjoyed doing up until now in my current work, I decided to pursue product management as a natural next step. Judging by the multitude of resources online dedicated to help others make that change — I can see I am in good company with many considering this career transition.
When I first started researching product management, I saw a lot of articles asking ‘are you sure you want this job?’. Product management can sound very glamorous — making an impact, designing the vision and strategy of the product and working with many different departments. No day is the same. But it’s also very challenging work, full of frustrations and quite a bit of politics. There are many things one can learn in order to excel in this career, and some of them can’t be learned by only reading a book. They have be developed with awareness and effort.
Such are soft skills — difficult to quantify and measure, can’t be taught in a classroom and often deemed more important than ‘hard skills’ by employers. Of course, soft skills aren’t only relevant to product managers. Soft skills serve us in every interaction we have with others, at work or in the supermarket. And as a result, we can also practice those skills in every interaction we have during our day.
After reading, listening and talking to many product managers, I comprised a long list of soft skills that a product manager should have. And after much thought, I narrowed that long list down to 5 soft skills I think are extremely valuable to have in a PM role:
In Overlap’s great article, Tim Casasola writes that the product manager’s job is essentially to make themselves unneeded. Meaning, a product manager’s job is to help others do their job successfully. To quote Tim, “If my team can prioritize and manage without me, I’ve done my job.”
While reading books, listening to podcasts and seeing lectures from many product managers, I haven’t heard that much about facilitation as a major skill for PM’s. But when I think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Product managers are owners of the problem the product is trying to solve, and therefore hold a lot of the knowledge needed to deliver a solution. However, they cannot deliver the solution alone. Their ability to get the makers in their organization — like developers and designers — on board and working on the solution is the key to their success in their role.
There is a reason Marty Cagan has a whole episode in his book ‘Inspired’ on Product Evangelism — product managers have the immense responsibility of harnessing everyone to the same goal to deliver a great product.
In the podcast ‘Product Nation’ (which I highly recommend), one of the episodes feature Ofir Eyal, Rakuten-Viber’s COO. When talking about his hiring process, he mentions the importance of resilience for product managers. PM’s need to work with stakeholders with different demands from across the entire organization. That means a single product can be pulled in many directions, changed, postponed, changed again, and sometimes even dropped after a massive amount of work. Product managers have to be able to take it all with stride and keep moving forward when everything seems to be working against them.
Resilience is one of those things you build as you go through life. You’re not born resilient — you acquire that skill as you encounter difficulties. It’s a tough skill to develop, but it’s also one of those things that level the playing field for inexperienced product managers — if you managed to get through adversity and come out on top, or learn from times where you didn’t — then you’ve already experienced some of the day to day of a PM.
Emotional Intelligence & Empathy
Look up the words ‘product management’ and ‘empathy’ and you’ll find many articles detailing the importance of listening, really listening, to your customers. Going back to Ofir Eyal’s podcast episode, he mentions the importance of emotional intelligence and empathy to the PM’s role. According to Eyal, there is so much work in a PM’s day and it can be easy to focus on ‘moving forward’, but developing this skill is key. Rather than running forward and trying to fill in the blanks ourselves, PM’s need to focus on getting the basis right and talk to the users to understand what it is they really need to solve.
Emotional intelligence is also very important when talking to team members and getting their point of view. Our counterparts are experts in their own field and can often help coming up with easier or simpler solutions we wouldn’t have the knowledge to offer ourselves.
Empathy is a skill everyone can practice regardless of their current role. Showing empathy at the office can mean practicing listening to your colleagues when they speak instead of waiting for your turn to respond, or trying to visualize what a situation looks like from their point of view — how do they feel or think about a certain situation?
This one is still a struggle for me sometimes. I used to think positivity is something you either have or you don’t — some people can just stay positive and happy through tough situations and I just wasn’t that kind of person. But my thinking on this has evolved in recent years, and I’m glad it has.
I used to work for the CEO of a small company who is a happy-go-lucky kind of guy. It looked like everything was going great for him and nothing ever bothered him. But working closely with him, I knew that wasn’t true — he was constantly running into roadblocks, considering how to handle missed targets or goals, communicating to demanding stakeholders — his days were full of stressful and frustrating tasks. But he never let that show, and that made a huge impact on the entire company.
His positivity affected everyone around him, bringing his employees’ positivity to the surface and creating a much nicer environment to work in as a result. Eventually that good feeling made them better performers and the company improved because of it. It was a very interesting cycle to be a part of.
Considering the social nature of the product manager’s job, that mindset can be what makes or breaks the success of the product they are working on. It can be really hard to remember and practice this important skill, but like so many other skills, practicing positivity in your day to day can only help you improve over time.
Yes, I know — this one is fairly obvious. But it’s so important that it must be included.
Product managers are not the only ones who benefit from great communication skills — when we manage to get our point across in a clear and concise manner, everyone wins. Seeing as product managers are at the intersection of so many teams in the organization — development, design, analytics, management, even marketing — this obvious skill becomes more critical than all others combined.
But how to actually improve communication skills? Here are a few things I learned that helped me communicate better:
- Be very clear when describing an issue — Avoid saying ‘it’ or ‘that’ when discussing a topic — explicitly say what you’re referring to, even at the risk of sounding like a broken record. Being unclear in your intention can run the risk of misunderstandings and eventually, mistakes.
- Slow down — speak clearly and slowly, and ask if what you explained makes sense, several times. Ideas that we have already processed in our heads may be very clear to us, but completely new to others. We need to make sure we are giving our counterparts time to process and react, rather than expect them to immediately understand our intention.
- Body language and tone of voice — It’s not what you say, but how you say it. The way you convey your message has a big impact on how others will react to that message. It’s very similar to the impact made from being positive — your behavior affects everyone around you. If you make your point while staying calm and positive, there is a much bigger chance of your message being received calmly and positively.
Communication is often verbal, but it can also be visual — mockups, wireframes, sketches, doodles — there is more than one way to get a point across, and a lot of chances to practice this in our day to day to improve.
The skills I mentioned in this article are ones I try to improve in myself every day. I wasn’t born a perfect communicator or inherently resilient, but then again no one is. I work to master those skills constantly by being aware of myself, asking others for feedback and being gentle yet honest with myself about my progress.
Do you agree with this list? Do you think there is another soft skill I should have mentioned? I’d love to discuss this in the comments, whether you’re a junior like me or more experienced!