In my last article on ProductCraft, I wrote about the myth of the superhero product manager, and how to recognize when you’re overextending yourself or at risk of becoming burnt out.
Guarding against encountering those red flags takes vigilance, but it’s important to become just as dogged about making sure you’re cultivating the qualities that are absolutely essential to being a successful PM.
Here are the critical aspects of being a product manager that no one should compromise on:
1. Being the champion for progress
Even if it feels like the barber pole illusion at times, the PM is absolutely responsible for advocating for the team and its progress—both internally and externally. The PM needs to bring that “cheerleader-like” mentality to their engineering team and help cultivate an environment where people feel motivated to bring their work to users because it matters. This won’t always be easy and it will certainly feel exhausting, but it is undoubtedly a critical part of the PM role that no one else can truly replicate.
2. Being an obstacle remover (at least in mindset)
In terms of execution, product managers have to relentlessly find ways to clear obstacles for the engineering team. This is the essence of the optimistic, can-do attitude at the core of a PM’s DNA. It’s hard to work with PMs who are constantly finding reasons not to do something, or casting doubt on a team’s plan and ability to execute. Whenever a challenge of any size presents itself, PMs should be asking: “How can I unblock the team?” or “What risk does this pose to our project’s success?”
Again, elements of this mindset can be very exhausting, because not all problems can be fixed solely by one PM. That’s where it’s important to recognize where to ask for help and additional guidance. But at its core, even knowing when to bring in outside assistance is a part of being an effective obstacle remover.
3. Being an advocate for the end user
This is very often described as a key attribute of the PM role, and for good reason. If a product manager ceases to rally around what is good and necessary for the user, they will inherently be less effective with their work. Engineering, UX, marketing, sales teams, and others are all relying on PMs to understand more intuitively than anyone else what the users need and what the organization can feasibly build and deliver to solve those needs.
This requires a careful combination of knowing what will be helpful to the users and what’s possible. If a PM takes their eye off either, there is a risk of falling into less impactful busywork. The team may still be executing, but the organization as a whole may fall short of its objectives. This is why it’s imperative for effective PMs to understand the needs of the users and push for high expected value bets.
Find your balance
There’s a natural tension between knowing what PMs should always strive to do and recognizing when we’ve created an unhealthy expectation. Part of the inherent challenge is that it’s still a relatively nascent field and by definition, an amorphous role depending on specific context. The roles and responsibilities also have naturally blurry lines where PMs are expected to cross traditional boundaries and wear many hats as an overall team player. Without a doubt, these are all attributes of the PM job that come with the territory. It’s impossible to expect PMs to live by a very defined set of responsibilities and ownership areas, because there is significant variance in each company and its product organization.
It takes iteration and experience to learn what works, but the more we share the realities and challenging aspects of product management, the better prepared we all can be for what to expect.