What makes a good Product Manager?

Adrienne Tan

So you want to be a good Product Manager… what are the skills, traits, and behaviours that will set you apart from the rest?

It turns out that soft skills are highly valued.

In October 2017, Brainmates hosted six senior Product leaders at a round table discussion in Melbourne to talk about the State of Product Management in Australia.

They shared four skills and traits they’ve seen in the best Product Managers: collaboration, storytelling, composure and lifelong learning.

Melbourne Product Leaders talking about what makes a good Product Manager
Melbourne Product Leaders talking about what makes a good Product Manager

A Good Product Manager is an awesome collaborator

Product Managers are acknowledged as leaders, but it was clear from the discussion that command-and-control style management is out and servant leadership is in.

“I think a lot of people misinterpret the CEO of product thing as, ‘I have complete autonomy over this thing, and I can do whatever I like,’ which is in my experience, has absolutely been not the case,” said Amelia Crook, Product Principal at Cogent.

“I think a good listener is an excellent start to being product manager because you don’t need to know everything, but you do need to understand the different challenges different teams are facing… and how to bring that together into a whole,” she added.

For Adam Fry, Head of Product Management, Melbourne IT Group: “The drive to ‘find a way’ needs to be partnered with an understanding of how to recognise and navigate different stakeholder situations… and how to influence tactfully.”

“The thing that makes you a super product manager is that you can manage conversations with different kinds of people, with different objectives,” added Adrienne Tan, Founder and Principal Consultant at Brainmates.

Nicole Brolan, Product Director at Seek uses case study exercises during the hiring process to test how candidates engage with others.

Partway through the activity, Nicole reveals that one of the given assumptions is incorrect, to see how the candidate reacts in a pressure situation.

“A massive part of product management is engaging with so many people around the business. To watch them engage with other product managers or leaders when they’re being challenged is really, really helpful,” Nicole said.

A Good Product Manager is an effective storyteller

Closely linked to collaboration and influence, is the ability to tell a compelling story about the future of the Product and what you understand about your Product today.

“I mentioned influencing tactfully, someone who is an authentic communicator and can understand their audience has a massive head start on this. The ability to construct and tell a story is essential,” said Adam Fry.

“You need to create a vision… Communicate that well to your team. Get them onboard with what you’re doing. Get the business across what the data is showing. Make a story out of the data so you can communicate to your audience,” said Erica Wass, Director of Product at Zendesk

Paul Greenwell, Head of Product, Partners at MYOB agreed Product Managers need to make sense of  mountains of data.

“Definitely being able to craft a story is key. I think you’re dealing with a whole lot of facts, and figures, and numbers, and information. You really need to be able to pull that together.”

A Good Product Manager is composed under pressure

Paul Greenwell believes good Product Managers are unflappable. They have to be composed as they face infinite demands from the organisation around them.

“[As a Product Manager] you’re always disappointing people because you’ll have five different stakeholders… sales, support, your customers. They all want five different things, and so someone’s going to be number five on the list,” Paul said.

“It can be quite stressful sometimes, and so you want someone who doesn’t get too stressed by that, and can just take it in stride, be methodical, communicate, give people the facts, not get too emotional about it.”

A Good Product Manager is a lifelong learner

Jarod Pickering, Digital Program Manager at Cricket Australia, thinks good Product Managers take control of their personal development.

“Thirst for learning is always up there. Certainly in digital, it’s always evolving, and so they’re keeping up with the trends and really actively pursuing their own professional development,” he said.

Your next job interview

So if you’re looking for your next job in Product Management, think about how you stack up on the soft skills.

If you come across one of the Product Leaders who participated in this discussion, they’ll likely be testing you on key capabilities like collaboration and storytelling.

“I’m not looking for someone who’s technically brilliant, or can do PowerPoint in the most beautiful formatting,”said Amelia Crook.

“I look for people who… connect with people, and connect with users, and communicate effectively, and bring people together, and set a vision, and get people to move in that direction.”

“These are skills that I think are undervalued on product management skills charts,” Amelia said.


Thanks to the panel:

Paul Greenwell, Head of Product, Partners at MYOB

Amelia Crook, Product Principal at Cogent

Jarod Pickering, Digital Program Manager at Cricket Australia

Nicole Brolan, Product Director at Seek

Adam Fry, Head of Product Management, Melbourne IT Group

Erica Wass, Director of Product at Zendesk

Adrienne Tan, Founder and Principal Consultant at Brainmates

Nick Coster, Founder and Head of Training at Brainmates

Sarah Mitchell, Product Manager for Leading the Product at Brainmates

The session was facilitated by Jen Marshall, CEO at Brainmates


For more insights from Australian Product Leaders, check out these blogs:
What’s next for the Product Management career
The Future of Product Management in Australia
Stop failing fast, start experimenting fast
Product Management Terms – misused and abused

Adrienne Tan

Adrienne Tan | Author

Adrienne is Co-Founder and CEO of Brainmates and Co-Founder of Leading the Product. She has been championing Product Management since 2000, earning international recognition for raising the profile of the Product Management profession. In this capacity she regularly consults to the Asia-Pacific's top businesses and speaks at business and Product events around the world.

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