I listened to a Webinar today billed as a tutorial on how to excel as a product manager. The session was led by a woman named Alyssa Dver who is CEO of a startup called Wander Wear, the founder of Type @ Consulting, and author of a successful book on the topic called “Software Product Management Essentials.”
Initially, I took in the Webinar because I figured the product manager is one of the most important employees a startup has; and a founder definitely needs to be able to tell if their product manager is any good, right? But half-way through, I realized Ms. Dver’s advice is applicable to any manager, to any founder, even to any employee who wishes to be ‘highly effective.’ So, I’ve summarized and translated her ‘7 Habits,’ below.
There are some very good metrics in her program that ought to help you measure and improve product management within your company (like: what percent of your product manager’s time should be spent in meetings; and in what kind of meetings) so do go to Red Canary, another great founders’ site based in Canada, and listen to the whole program.
Meanwhile, just read ‘manager’, or ‘employee’ (or ‘person’!) wherever you see the term ‘product manger’ below.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective (Product) Managers
1) Know your limits. Great product mangers know their limits. They know their product, but they aren’t a ‘know it all.’ Don’t try to talk the technical talk or the financial talk or the marketing talk when those division heads are in the room with you. Let others present to management or to customers in their areas of expertise. Respect the various department heads. Product mangers lose their credibility very quickly by trying to speak to everything. Be OK with saying ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find the person who does know.’ In other words: have command of your expertise, but defer to those who know more than you do about other things. This conveys good judgement.
2) Listen first before speaking. Good product mangers are master communicators. They listen even better than they speak. They gather information that is important to their audience, from their audience, before they begin speaking at their audience. The audience might be a group of customers, or managers, the board, or investors, etc. Good product managers are information collectors and information vetters. But this means listening, to collect and vet, before you begin evangelizing.
3) Ask ‘Why?’ not ‘What?’ Why do you want this product feature over that one? So if I ask you, ‘do you want it red, or do you want it blue?’ You say ‘blue!’ OK, so I make it blue. But at the end of the day, I might have to change it to green because I didn’t ever ask you why you wanted it to be blue. The important information, Dver is saying, isn’t what someone wants, but their motive for wanting it– the reason why. If you know why someone wants something (e.g., a product, a term in a deal, a raise, etc.) you are more empowered to come up with a solution that will meet their real need, and in a way that works for you as well. The question ‘what do you want,’ will tell you exactly one fact. But asking ‘why do you want that’ actually gives you understanding.
4) Be decisive. Good product managers make the decision. Sometimes ‘the decision’ can mean saying: ‘I’m not ready to make a decision today, but I will make a decision by this date.’ Being decisive and not wishy washy is a key ingrediant of good product management. You will NEVER have all the information in hand that you would like. That is a fact of life. But you are always able to make the best decision you can with the info set you have at the time, this is very important. A good product manager will say ‘this is what we’re going to do.’ Then, if a key piece of information comes in later that [contravenes your decision], good product management means having the courage to say ‘OK, let’s take a look at that, and if it makes sense, we will change our position.’ This equates to confidence, which equates to credibility. Both are key attributes of great product managers.
5) Be responsive. You don’t have to answer every email or every phone call. But you should try. Ignoring people is NOT good. We know this intuitively. When someone is trying to get your attnention, it is because something is important to them. When you choose not to respond, or you choose to ignore them, they will take it personally. A lack of response says to that person ‘I’m not important to [my manager]; so [my manager] is not important to me.’ In this way, the manager loses credibility. The employee might be (unconsciously) thinking ‘if my manager can’t even answer my email, what else can’t he do?’ So when you don’t have the answer(s) to an inquiry, respond anyway with something like, ‘I plan on getting back to you I just don’t have all the information right now, but your message is important to me.’ Respond with something that makes the other person feel attended to, and important to you. Good product managers are attentive, and that means being repsonsive.
6) Communicate frequently. This is the proactive side of ‘be responsive.’ You must also communicate of your own volition, and frequently. Send out status reports. Keep information flowing so that people aren’t harassing you with questions like ‘what’s going on?’ If it helps, Refer people to earlier emails or reports you’ve issued to keep the information flow going. But also communicate concretely, and concisely. People need status reports to make them feel ‘in the loop.’ This is easily accomplished if you communicate often. Just keep it short and sweet.
7) Manage passion. Passion is great, and great product managers are very passionate people. We love our products they’re our babies (sounds like founders!). We want to tell people about them and make others love [our baby], too. But somebody who has too much passion, who doesn’t shut-up enough to listen, or who doesn’t want to hear that their baby might not be ‘perfect,’ will also lose his/her credibility quickly. You need other people’s perspectives, and criticisms. So don’t be the kind of prodcut manager who won’t stop to hear that the baby isn’t perfect. Be enthusiastic but not so overzealous that you lose track of what the mission is: To succeed. Passion motivates you to execute, but passion is not execution. And without execution there is no success.
There was much more in Ms. Dver’s Webinar, so as I said, go to Red Canary and listen to the whole thing. She concludes by listing the 3 characteristics of a successful product manager: A humble leader. A careful communicator. An avid student. Her ‘7 Habits’ will go a long way toward helping you acquire them, too.