5 key competencies of a product manager

A typical product manager role is defined as the ‘GM/CEO’ of the product. It is an entrepreneurial role to drive business, long term customer satisfaction and competitive advantage.

But what are the competencies that are associated with effective and successful product managers? Linda Grochels – a top author and executive educator at Wisconsin School of Business calls out these five

  1. Drive business results –
  2. Deliver results through people
  3. Ensure market driven direction
  4. Guide product ‘fit’ and function
  5. Manage multiple priorities

Drive business results – Product managers need strong business skills to manage a piece of business. Setting a clear vision and strategy, converting this strategy into a plan with measurable objectives in terms of revenue and growth and having solid financial knowledge and decision making are some key skill that will enable product managers to drive business results

Deliver results through people – Product managers usually don’t have direct authority over people, but requires product managers to deliver results through people. This means product manager needs to be able to lead upward, downward and sideways. They need to be effective communicators, both oral and written. And they also require perseverance and fortitude.

Ensure market driven direction – A key aspect of a product manager’s role is ensuring long term customer satisfaction. This can be achieved by ensuring product is guided by the market’s and customer’s needs. The product manager must not only have an ‘intimate’ understanding of customers, but must be the champion for the customers and advocate for the market within the organization

Guide product ‘fit’ and function – To deliver for the customer’s needs, and drive competitive advantage for the organization, product managers have to create a superior product and offering. This requires solid technical and operational knowledge and skills. Product managers have to drive technical product specifications with a view of ‘what’ the product has to do and not necessarily the ‘how’.

Manage multiple priorities – Finally, product managers must be able to see the big picture while managing details and schedules. To manage multiple priorities, time management and project management are essential skills.

As product managers, we all need a ‘roadmap’, and over the years I have used a simple responsibilities matrix (shown below) as an effective tool to guide myself and other product managers building software products.


5 key competencies of a product manager

‘Unbundling’ of Retail

One of the primary thesis that I have on Retail is the ‘Unbundling’ phenomenon. With mobile and mobile apps, the consumer shopping journey is distinctly split into two parts – Shopping and Fulfillment.

 Shopping can happen anywhere anytime and will primarily be a click/touch tap away for the consumer. This means a retailer’s advantage of having stores remains a fulfillment factor and not necessarily a shopping advantage. And to the extent that retailers can fulfill immediately (aka stores) or quickly to home (prime, one day, same day), such fulfillment will be table stakes expectations for the customer.

 Then do retailers that have stores stand to have an advantage over those who don’t? (not if the pure play ecommerce players encroach on building ‘stores’ and fulfillment capabilities (aka pop up stores, same day, 1hr delivery etc.)

 Now that brings me to the question – Who has an advantage on shopping in this new mobile centric world?

In the pre mobile world retailers who built stores in close proximity to the customer won footsteps, shopping mindshare and thus the market.

Similarly, in a mobile centric world the ‘retailer’ who has the advantage, is the retailer whose app is on the customer mobile ‘home’ screen (or on key pages) That’s the digital equivalent of your store, just a tap away from the consumer.

This evens the playing field for retailers (the cost of getting a great shopping experience is the same for a large retailer as it is for a smaller one) (might be even easier and quicker for the smaller retailer).

 As a retailer, you can drive differentiation in 2 key ways – one being the shopping experience and second is your product assortment/pricing.

 Two dominant business models develop in this new market reality

 The marketplace driven retailer – This is the large retailer who wants to offer the breadth and depth of assortment at super competitive prices and will primarily compete on the ‘biggest box’ concept. Here shopping experience will be defined by availability of the product, price leadership, service and trust.  Fulfillment will be best in class on options and will thrive in ability to build a data driven, algorithmically optimized massive scale business.

 The niche retailer – The smaller retailer will start building into niche categories and carve out market share from the larger players, build a brand, and they will innovate on experience (flash sales, subscription, exclusive etc.)  and assortment (limited and curated).

(We have seen many players emerge – Trunk Club, Birchbox, Zappos, Zulily etc.)

Retailers who cannot adopt to this ‘unbundling’, and this new reality of business will start to get impacted.  Count Macy’s, Sears, JCP, Kohls, Dillards and many more into this. Some of these businesses just don’t have a massive moat of profitability and cash flow through their operations to sustain the attack of ‘unbundling’ and the giant Amazon march into their territories






‘Unbundling’ of Retail

How to implement your product strategy

Once you have product vision established and strategy set, you need to implement and drive success. This requires leadership and management. Product managers have to play both these roles. Management is about coping with complexity, while Leadership is about coping with change.

As Product managers, you have to lead by setting direction, aligning people to that direction and inspiring people to achieve the vision.

Product managers need to be change agents and be able to implement their strategies, implement them through other individuals. There are three key aspects that product managers need to consider to be effective change agents.

1 People must agree that change is necessary

Status quo should not be acceptable and the people must see that the strategy is real, attainable and consistent with the overall company’s strategy.

The gain from it should outweigh the pain

2 Product managers must overcome barriers to change

Product managers should consider turf barriers, personality issues and any other factors that could impede a successful implementation. Product managers will need to think of ways to minimize the negative impact of those factors

3 People must understand the personal or individual implications of the strategy

As one implements the strategy through individuals and teams, product managers should address critical questions for those individuals or teams such as

How is the change relevant to what I do?
What specifically do I need to do?
What’s in it for me?
How will I be measured?
What consequences will I face?

As one goes about executing the product strategy, the product manager needs to monitor the underlying assumptions of the strategy are still viable.

Lastly as product managers implement this change, care should be taken to ensure there is a system of feedback and learning so that the strategy is not static.

How to implement your product strategy

Product Strategy – How to create a strategic vision for your product.

Many product managers make the mistake of projecting the past forward and using that as their view of the future. The past is important aspect of planning, but product managers should also think about the external trends and changes that could impact their products & offerings

Tony Manning in his book ‘Making sense of strategy’ states – “Strategy must enable your organization to make a difference that matters to critical mass of the ‘right’ customers”

So as a product manager you need to ask for your product – What really matters to your customers? What really matters to your company? Strategic thinking requires product managers to look broadly at both customers and competitors.

One good tool to create your strategic vision is to write out a ‘press release’ or ‘annual report’ for your product. Pick a future date, 12 months to 3 years out and write what your product line would be and how this would make a difference that matters to your customers. How would you want your product to be performing for revenue and profitability? How would it offer ‘complete solution’? Think about the context of the problem that your product solves. What emerging business models or competitors would cause your customers to migrate away from your product? What would differentiate your product from the competition? How does this align with your company’s growth strategy?

And strategic thinking is not strategic planning. Strategic thinking = Broad, while Strategic planning = Focused

Strategic thinking requires product managers to look at all market shifts, competitors and opportunities. But you can’t chase all the opportunities or problems implied by these potential futures. You have to decide on a particular direction and plan for it.

Product managers should have a clear understanding of the relationship between strategies, tactics and operational activities. Strategic goals can be formulated by looking at what you are trying to develop. Are you looking to extend your core business? Or are you wanting to leverage your company’s existing resources and assets? Is there a trend that you want to respond to or defend against? How is the customer value chain in your business and where are you on that value chain? Thinking through these questions and answering them will provide you the right strategies to create a difference that matters to your customers.

Product Strategy – How to create a strategic vision for your product.

How is product management at an ecommerce company different from a classical product manager at a company that sells software?

There are few differences and some similarities.

In a typical software product firm, the product manager is accountable to deliver a product which leverages the firms distinctive competency and serves a large identified market.

You start with identifying a market problem, doing technology and competitive benchmarking, creating MRDs, PRD, working with engineering teams to build the product and then work with your sales and marketing team to launch and sell the product. Depending on the size of the market, breadth of the solution, your own experience in product management, and the role of product management in the company, the product manager drives the ‘internal’ build-out, road mapping and is responsible for the ‘product’ and the sales guy carries the ‘number’. Few orgs have the PM responsible for P&L (in my experience very few are structured this way though). You might also have other PMs or Analysts that you might manage.

In an eCommerce company, you typically have product management which is aligned to the various critical functions of the eCommerce life cycle.
PM’s are aligned to specific feature sets like Search, Navigation, Content, Cart and Checkout, Shipping, Social, SEO, API, Mobile etc. Each PM is responsible for their area. For example, the Search PM is accountable for internal search on the site, optimizing both the feature function and resulting revenue. In my experience (having been a PM in classical software product firm and eCommerce PM) a classical software PM typically is optimizing product feature function for market fit, while the eCommerce PM optimizes for increased conversion and customer satisfaction. In most eCommerce product management organization, I have seen product management to be more ‘business’ focused metric driven versus software product managers have stronger bias for ‘product’. In most parts, activities like problem identification, requirements definition, road mapping are similar. But you will not see much of persona build outs, win-loss analysis, channel training, sales training etc.

Also in some organizations, non-technical PM roles tend to be slotted into vertical businesses such as shoes, automotive etc (where it has more merchandising flavor)

How is product management at an ecommerce company different from a classical product manager at a company that sells software?

A chalk talk from Steve Jobs – thinking like a product manager.

Steve Jobs was undoubtedly one of the best product managers. This video is a blast from his past when he was running Next.

In this video he talks about some of the basic fundamental aspects that a product manager should think

1. Who is our target customer?

2. Why they are selecting our products over the competition’s?

3. What distribution channels are we going to use to reach these customers?

In the video he talks about how he has talked with customers, internal people, and looked at the data. He then goes on to draw out what the marketplace for his product looks like. Then touches upon a competitive look between the various market players and then calls out where his product could be a standout.

Steve is a great example of how to think about product management.

A chalk talk from Steve Jobs – thinking like a product manager.

How do you identify a talented product manager?

A talented product manager would be

  1. Someone who sees consistent patterns in the market which otherwise might not be obvious and ability to relate this into a solution that addresses this opportunity
  2. A person who has great passion for building a product (defining the overall experience and not just components of it)
  3. He has the tenacity to execute to the product vision over multiple iterations
  4. Understands what would constitute a true success
  5. Knows what is ahead 3-4 steps, can identify a win or a failure  and knows how to pivot from an unsuccessful position
  6. Can communicate succinctly.

There are many more qualities, but some of the above are the ones that you would consistently see in top quality pm’s

How do you identify a talented product manager?

Difference between a Project Manager and a Product Manager?

Product Manager usually is the business side of building a product. Which means a product manager needs to think about what market to serve, which problems to solve and how to solve that profitably. He does that by building a product which addresses the market problems with the right feature sets and marketing it to get a profitable outcome. In that process he is responsible for collaborating and directing a set of cross functional teams which could include marketing, sales, engineering, finance and project management.

Generally speaking Project Managers manage projects which have definite start date and an end date. They are typically responsible for managing resources, allocations, methodologies and schedules. Their ability to stay on scope, schedule, plan and budget enables a successful delivery of the project. Their teams would typically include engineering and business analysis resources.

Another wide observation is that you will see Product Managers on the product (software, hardware, engineering etc) side of the world, while Project Managers are quite often seen in services oriented businesses (IT Services, Consulting, Construction etc)

A simplification of these roles would be –

Product managers own “What” and “Why”.
Project managers own “How” and “When”.

Difference between a Project Manager and a Product Manager?

Getting into Product Management

A good product manager is someone who can see ‘patterns’ very well. It means that in a given market place, you can see a ‘unsolved problem’ or ‘unfulfilled need’   and you have the passion to build a solution that will address the marketplace as a whole and not just the individual constituents. Add to that some good writing, prototyping, user experience, marketing and team skills – you will have the necessary recipe to do product management.

In enterprise software companies, many Product Managers come in typically with functional or domain expertise. So having that would help if you are looking in the enterprise software market.

Also many come with Consulting background. This typically exposes them to problems businesses face or unfulfilled needs in a consumer marketplace. That experience to understand it and propose building a solution is another way to get into product management.

One can also move into product management via ‘doing things’. Go build a product, an app or a site. Use that experience and sell why a potential employer should consider you for a job in product management.

As for me – I came into product management by accident rather than design, I came in with the consulting and technology experience mixed with functional expertise, so while at consulting I was solving similar problems for a wide variety of industries and that led to a product company looking to design products and serve a market with similar solutions.

Learn from what others have to say on this topic – How do you get your first product management job?

Getting into Product Management