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What Makes a Great Product Manager?

Written by
JJ Rorie JJ Rorie
CEO @ Great Product Management

A product manager defines the long-term vision of a product by keenly understanding customer needs, market dynamics, and company goals and then collaborates with a cross-functional team to execute that vision. It is a role that requires a balance of often contrary skills and behaviours. Product managers must be both visionaries and tacticians, data analysts and storytellers, leaders and doers. They must be motivated by individual ambitions while also being a collaborative teammate.

Before we go much further, I want to define “greatness” in the context of the product manager role. First, I do not think greatness is a ridiculous goal that can only be achieved by a select few. I also do not believe it should take a gruelling 60+ hours a week to achieve greatness as a product manager. If striving to be great ends up taking a toll on your physical and mental health, then we need to redefine greatness. I believe being great as a product manager should have a positive impact on both your professional life and your personal life. The work of great product managers energizes their lives, and their lives motivate and strengthen their work. They put the time into work as needed but also allow themselves to step away and rejuvenate. That is success. That is greatness.

"Product managers must be both visionaries and tacticians, data analysts and storytellers, leaders and doers."

JJ Rorie, CEO @ Great Product Management

Many organizations grade a product manager by looking at their product’s results, mainly via product sales or usage. That will likely be one way we are always assessed as product managers. After all, we are at least partly responsible for the business impacts of our products. However I believe this is a largely ineffective way to measure greatness in a product manager. On one hand, there are so many variables that lead to a product’s success or lack thereof. Yes, the product manager should help orchestrate the moving parts of those variables, but they do not control them all. I have seen excellent product managers work on unsuccessful products. The organizational cards were stacked against them, and it was too much to overcome. On the other hand, I have also seen mediocre product managers work on hugely successful products. They inherited a great product or are surrounded by an overachieving team that makes up for their shortcomings.

Another way I see organizations measure the success of product managers is through output, or how many products or features they release. This is a terrible gauge of greatness. Product is the quintessential example of “quality over quantity.” I would much prefer one release that truly adds value for the customer than ten releases that are all fluff. I am still surprised at the number of organizations that have an implicit system of currency exchange: funding or prioritization is the loan that must be paid back in the form of output from the product team.

And of course, there are also skills-based assessments that can grade a product manager. Some of these are valuable from a key performance indicator perspective. A high level of capability can be indicative of future performance, but I think this evaluates the means, not the end.

I like to assess greatness in a product manager by looking for the following markers. These markers may not be as quantifiable as product revenue or a self-assessed skills score, but I have found that the folks who embody these have something in common: they anchor themselves in five core capabilities that help them navigate the chaotic world of product management.

  • They realize the importance of their role and embrace the challenge that is product management.

  • They feel comfortable (most of the time) with their workload and do not constantly feel overwhelmed by the job.

  • They are not known as “workaholics.” No one doubts their work ethic, but when they do feel overwhelmed, they take time off to rejuvenate. They are also transparent about when they need that time off.

  • They enjoy collaborating with teammates. The creative exchange of ideas invigorates them, and they insist on diverse perspectives.

  • They change their minds when presented with new, persuasive information or viewpoints.

  • They are seen as subject matter experts on more than just “product matters.” People ask for their opinions on a wide range of topics.

  • They do not leave important things to chance. They are intentional about learning, connecting, and communicating.

  • They always seem to have a north star. They rarely appear to be flailing along without a clear direction.

The five core capabilities that allow great product managers to exemplify the above are what I call the “five immutable truths of great product managers”. Let me be clear: product managers need more than just these five skills, but these five are the bedrocks to success. The product management world will always be looking for the next great thing that will make us better; this evolution helps us grow and learn. But these immutable truths remain steadfast regardless of the latest fads in frameworks, schools of thought, and methodologies. In my humble opinion, this will always be the foundation needed to consistently succeed in the product manager role.

The five immutable truths of great product managers are:
  1. They have exceptionally high customer intelligence.

  2. They are experts at building relationships.

  3. They are master communicators.

  4. They have uncommonly good judgment.

  5. They are fanatical about prioritizing their time.

People have asked me which of the immutable truths is most important. The fact is, I do not see them as individual truths as much as an interconnected foundation that makes navigating the world of product management easier. The truths do not exist in silos; they interact and impact each other continuously. After a while, we do not even realize the truths are driving our behaviors.

Here are some of the ways I have seen the truths work together to make a positive impact in product teams:
  • When things start going astray on a project, a release, or just in general working conditions, quick and straightforward communication can get things back on track. The longer we let things simmer, the worse they will get. Strong relationships and good communication can nip this in the bud and get us going again.

  • A deep understanding of the customer leads to better prioritization. If we know what will make a difference with the customer, it is much easier to place those things at the top of our list. Accurate prioritization of product work is virtually impossible without a high level of customer intelligence.

  • Good relationships make work more fun, and it is hard to overstate the importance of an enjoyable environment. We may not love every moment of every day, but I have yet to see a team be consistently successful in a toxic environment.

  • The more product managers demonstrate good judgment, the more credibility they will have with teammates. The more confidence the team has in them, the better the relationships become. The better the relationships are, the better the team will work together.

  • When a product manager is good at communicating the story of “why” behind the team’s actions, everyone around understands the bigger picture and can carry that through their work. Product managers who talk about the “how” too much will not be as effective as when they consistently share the story of the “why.” This key communication skill leads to team cohesion through shared purpose.

  • Judgment is enhanced by knowledge, of course, but it is also enhanced by self-confidence. Few things make someone question their own judgment more than a lack of confidence in their knowledge and ability. When product managers know they have done the work to understand the customer and uncover the customer’s needs, they are more apt to feel comfortable making recommendations and decisions. Confident people communicate better. They build healthier relationships. They prioritize more effectively. And they learn from their mistakes and move on without losing confidence in their overall ability. If there is one thing that the five truths give more than anything else, it is confidence. And that confidence impacts practically everything a product manager does.

Building your immutable truths should not be an insurmountable task. Anyone can build these capabilities if they put the time, effort, and diligence into it. The time you put into this now will pay dividends in the future and be one of the most important investments you will ever make in your career.

As you're on your learning and development journey, give yourself time, space, and understanding. Do not be too hard on yourself if you have some missteps or occasionally do not seem to be moving the needle on these skills. You will become great at them, but it will take time, and you never really stop learning and improving. There will be a time when it just clicks, and you feel you have made real progress. There will also be times when you feel you have not improved at all. Remember that every task, every interaction, every release, everything you do in product management can be used as a learning experience and a stepping stone to better skills. You are surreptitiously constructing a better you with every new experience.

This is a journey. Be kind to yourself along the way.

To continue your learning, check out IMMUTABLE: 5 Truths of Great Product Managers today.



JJ Rorie

JJ Rorie
CEO @ Great Product Management

JJ is a true product leader with over 15 years of experience leading product development and management across various domains, including healthcare, financial services, technology, and media. She has a proven track record of delivering innovative and impactful solutions that meet customer needs and drive business growth.

As the CEO of Great Product Management, she helps organisations design, build, and launch products that create value and solve problems. She also shares insights and best practices as a lecturer at Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, an author of IMMUTABLE: 5 Truths of Great Product Managers, and a host of Product Voices Podcast.

Her mission is to empower product managers and leaders with the skills, knowledge, and mindset to succeed in this dynamic and competitive field.

Check out Great Product Management here: https://www.greatproductmanage...

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