Years ago, I took a 30% pay cut to land a corporate career in Web Project Management. Although I was making significantly more in my own web development business, I was trading that loss for a skilled team and a steady paycheck. In my own business, I did everything. And I didn’t become great at anything. Working for someone else seemed like a good opportunity to focus, learn, and improve. (I also managed to negotiate a 10% commission on any upsells I made, which motivated me to earn back my pay cut.)
As project manager, I worked with my team to deliver development plans on time, within scope, and to budget. I wasn’t responsible for sales, marketing, support, and all the other responsibilities I had in my own business. I was able to focus on improving my project management skills and creating an infrastructure to scale up the value and volume of projects we sold.
Shortly into my new career, I noticed a trend with client projects. Although they were already sold when they got to me, there was tremendous potential to offer more. The sales reps would often overlook opportunities, giving me the ability to suggest additional ideas to fulfill the client’s goals. Most of these ideas required custom design and development on our core platform.
A project manager executes a vision set by someone else. A product manager creates a vision.
I evolved from checking boxes off an existing plan to developing my own boxes. I became a project manager and product manager. I oversaw client projects and the buildout of our technology platform. It took a few years before I could replace myself as project manager and focus more on the product. In those years, and several thereafter, I watched many product managers come and go. Here’s 6 traits that set the great apart from the good:
Every great product manager has a nagging persistence in the back of their head that propels them forward. A need to improve, grow, create, accelerate their products further, and push their team further. A great product manager doesn’t sit shotgun. He or she takes the wheel, puts the pedal to the metal, and relentlessly executes the roadmap.
2. User Empathy
There’s something special about creating something from nothing. Taking an idea and seeing it through to launch. The challenge some product managers face is to resist letting their emotional connection to an idea overshadow what will serve their users best. They lack user empathy. Great product managers have user empathy. They don’t fall in love with their own ideas. They fall in love with ideas that empower their users.
Perhaps the most challenging trait great product managers develop is the ability to communicate. To communicate their ideas, their team’s ideas, and their users’ ideas, and then to translate these ideas into actionable items that can be implemented. Truly exceptional product managers inspire and motivate their team (and constituents) to deliver amazing work, because they communicate the vision, explain its impact, and empower those around them.
Great product managers eliminate “tribal knowledge.” Instead, they set up a documented framework that makes the work process transparent. A working environment that allows everyone to contribute, which creates a check-and-balances system that speeds delivery, improves quality, and decreases cost. Using this framework, great product managers manage their time, and their team’s time, well. They prioritize, adjust schedules, and plan for pitfalls because they’re organized. Great product managers don’t believe in luck (although a little bit never hurts), they believe in preparation.
Problems persist in any journey, short or long. Great product managers use creative problem solving to find solutions quickly. They know that there’s always a solution, that everything can be figured out. They use creative articulation to inspire their team to think differently and discover a solution where seemingly none exists.
There’s a hunger inside every great product manager to learn why. Why a user interacts with a feature a certain way. Why they don’t use other features. They ask questions and seek answers because they’re always improving, always learning.
Great product managers never consider themselves great. Because they’re always striving for greatness.
Finding a great product manager is about more than the degrees they’ve earned or the companies they’ve worked for. It’s about the ability to understand users and market trends, then to use that understanding to sculpt a vision that can be communicated across the company. Once the vision is set, they have the ability to drive a team toward executing it while creatively solving problems and learning as they go.
The best product managers are those that are well rounded, growth-minded, passionate, and inspire the trust of those around them. And the truly great ones never give up.
So, look beyond the resume. Because while anyone can look good on paper, the underdogs almost always work harder to win.