If you’re not a product manager, you might wonder why the role is sometimes called the “product CEO” or even the “second CEO.” Don’t those terms also describe the head of engineering? What about the CTO?
Unlike the typical CTO or lead engineer, product managers touch every area of the business. They’re responsible for the product’s progress, of course, but they also coordinate with marketing, sales, procurement, and external teams. In doing so, they straddle the worlds of leadership, strategy, design, development, communication, and more.
Unfortunately, that holistic role makes product managers not just critical to the company, but also incredibly hard to hire. “It doesn’t matter how good sales is, it doesn’t matter how good engineering or customer service is — if you don’t have a product, you don’t have a company,” warns Dane Palarino, founder of Palarino Partners, which specializes in building world-class product management teams for private companies.
Signs of a Star Product Manager
So how can you separate a masterful product manager from her peers? Look for the following qualities:
1. Emotional intelligence in spades
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage not just one’s own emotions, but also others’ emotions. But product managers aren’t counselors or salespeople: Why would they need to be emotional experts?
Vivek Bedi, Northwestern Mutual’s head of consumer experience for digital products, answers that question with another question: “If you had to spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 14 days with one person, what would they be like?” Bedi asks in a Product School blog post. “Patient? Flexible? Collaborative? Thoughtful? Funny? Empathetic?”
Those adjectives, Bedi notes, are all signs of emotional intelligence, which enables a product manager to “read” those she’s interacting with and respond appropriately. If a product manager can’t read people, she’ll struggle to build relationships with and broker compromises between competing stakeholders.
2. A constant eye on the clock
Part of being a product manager is feeling like there’s always another feature to build, test to run, or call to take. That’s why the best product managers make the most of the time they have. They prioritize their work, structure their days around it, and stick to their schedule.
Because great product managers are efficient, they expect the same from those they work with. They’re not afraid to abandon a time-consuming feature or leave a meeting if it runs long — even if that meeting is with a potential future employer.
Don’t mistake a top product manager’s ruthless efficiency for rudeness. If a candidate asks for a decision within two weeks, it’s because she knows her time is valuable. Palarino Partners indicates the hiring process should last no longer than four weeks, with most lasting three or fewer. The candidate could lose interest because she doesn’t feel engaged, the company notes. But she may also sense you’re unable to make tough business decisions quickly: “She’ll fear that the red tape and bureaucracy will limit her ability to enhance the product at your company.”
3. A healthy dose of skepticism
Successful product managers ask “What if?” Because they’ve seen products — and deadlines — fail, they tend to question assumptions, timelines, and budgets. Although someone might take their skepticism as stubbornness, it’s actually a tool product managers use to protect their product.
How, exactly, can you spot a skeptical product manager? Look for someone who’s never satisfied with just one answer, suggests Shivan Bindal, Procure’s director of product management. This person might provide long-winded answers, ask an unusual number of questions, or even challenge the interviewer’s own answers.
4. Unshakeable proactivity
It’s easy for product managers to fall into the trap of reactivity. Because they’re busy and working with multiple stakeholders, low-end product managers often do what they’re told rather than dictate how they spend their time.
As a product manager, “you can’t afford to prioritize a specific set of feedback just because it appears urgent,” Maddy Kirsch of ProductPlan explains. Instead, she suggests, you ought to “ask yourself if implementing the suggestion or feedback will advance your product’s strategy.”
During the hiring process, a proactive product manager won’t wait for the interviewer to bring up sensitive subjects like benefits and salary. Not only does the product manager not have time to waste, but she wants to be sure the conversation covers the parts of the role that matter most to her.
5. Crystal-clear communication
Because a product manager spends much of her time getting stakeholders on the same page, she doesn’t care for miscommunication. She’s not afraid to pick up the phone, but she’ll happily shoot a short email instead if it’s the most efficient method.
Nick Hynes, senior product manager at letgo, shares how he communicates effectively, both verbally and in writing. He argues that, in both cases, less is more: Not only does he say that strong product managers listen twice as much as they speak, but they keep messages as brief as possible.
Don’t assume a quiet product manager is incompetent or bashful. She’s likely trying to digest the details and make her own questions meaningful. Notice, too, whether she emails materials in advance, and whether those communications contain typos. Effective product managers know that mistakes undercut the perceived value of their content, while sending it ahead of time improves the chances it gets read.
Product managers come from all sorts of backgrounds, but it’s not a role everyone can handle well. The next time you need to hire one, don’t put too much stock in her resume. Just like CEOs themselves, it’s her soft skills that tell the real story.
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