Thought Leadership

What Makes an Awesome Product Manager?

Product management is one of the first general-management jobs that many people will take on in their careers, according to Kellogg Prof. Mohan Sawhney. It’s the first time they’re likely to look at a product as an end-to-end business, taking a general-management perspective and working across all of the different functions involved in developing and bringing a product to market. So for those looking to accept that challenge, it’s important to answer the question: what qualities make for great product managers?

Sawhney broke it down:

  1. Intellectual curiosity: The idea that you should never be satisfied with how well you know your customers, your market or your technology. You need to always be learning, exploring and asking questions. Find out what’s going on in your industry. Talk to engineers, customers and channel partners, activating for yourself a wide variety of listening posts.
  2. Product and market expertise: This is what comes of your curiosity and makes you the go-to person for your product. The key to influencing people when you don’t have authority is to gain that authority through knowledge. You’ve really got to understand who your buyers, customers and users are. What are their personas? What are the problems you’re solving for them? Where are the opportunities, and what, therefore, should your roadmap look like? This also includes knowing how your product actually works.
  3. Persuasive communication: The ability to pitch and promote your vision for the product, both internally and externally. Internally, you need to speak to the engineering, marketing and sales organizations and to executive management when you’re looking for funding and support. Externally, it’s when you’re pitching to a customer or helping a sales team close a deal. That’s the art of being able to craft your story and messaging powerfully, but also being able to pitch through written and oral communication.
  4. Quantitative and financial skills: Your ability to think about your product as a business. Do you understand the business model, all of the financial calculations and your profitability? You must be able to work the numbers.
  5. Big-picture understanding: Your product doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s part of a larger offering. Particularly in companies like Google or Salesforce, you have to have a solid understanding of the synergies and dependencies so you can bring collective wisdom and knowledge to bear. “I was at Salesforce a couple of weeks ago, and one of the most important things they talked about is cross-cloud and cross-platform knowledge,” Sawhney said. “If you’re in a similar situation and are building a product that leverages all of the other products in the company, you need horizontal awareness across them.”

Overall, a great product manager combines hard and soft skills—quantitative and people skills—Sawhney noted. “That’s what makes it challenging, but also rewarding. It’s really hard to pick all of this up on the job because there’s a lot you need to know and map to be an effective product manager.”

Accordingly, it’s best to learn the fundamentals of the job in a structured environment such as that offered by Sawhney’s offering, he added. “The two key reasons you need a program like this are frameworks and perspective. We learn from people who do it well, and we learn from the mistakes others have made.”

Prof. Mohan Sawhney teaches in a variety of Kellogg Executive Education programs, including Delivering Business Growth, Creating and Leading a culture of Innovation, Kellogg on Branding and Leading Into the Future. He has written seven management books as well as dozens of influential articles in leading academic journals and managerial publications. In addition, Prof. Sawhney has won several awards for his teaching and research and advises and speaks to Global 2000 firms and governments worldwide. He holds a Ph.D. in Marketing from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; and a Master’s degree in Management from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta.

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