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Characteristics of Exceptional Product Managers

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

article by ronkepm

Table of Contents

Exceptional PMs know they are not perfect. They are always a work in progress.

If you feel a deep-rooted calling to be a product manager (PM), you have indeed wondered what exactly makes exceptional product managers who thrive at people management and product leadership. The answer: they build both people and products.

What makes exceptional product managers?

Great PMs recognize that the people they work with should come first. They invest in them by nurturing their development and growth while making it important that their teams are recognized before they are. In essence, they build a community around their cross-functional and partner teams.

As a corollary, you have motivated individuals who want to help bring the organization‘s product vision to fruition. Great PMs think from the outside; they continuously plan for other segments even if their organization is not there yet, building from a platform approach. They create products that are invaluable to their customers and their companies. They generate products with sturdy client adoption that successively increase revenue growth and perhaps become an industry disrupter.

Exceptional product managers embody leadership abilities in their professional and personal lives, motivating other people to take action and setting a course for success in the future. Great PMs emphasize developing their emotional aptitude, enabling them to be even more adaptable, resilient, and open to receiving constructive feedback from their cross-functional teams and leadership. They are efficient listeners, and they are accessible to change.

In my many years of experience in product management, I’ve come to learn that outstanding product managers flourish because they epitomize the attributes necessary to build people and excellent products and, therefore, excellent businesses.

The following traits are necessary:

  • They are customer-obsessed

  • Over-communicate strategy and vision

  • Partner and influence

  • They are both strategic and tactical

  • Utilize data and their intuition to make decisions

Let’s dive into each one in more detail.

Exceptional Product Managers are Customer Obsessed

Exceptional product managers are customer-obsessed. They believe in forming an enhanced customer experience commencing with the customer's perspective. They incorporate into their product management culture a commitment to having a customer-centric approach. For great PMs and their cross-functional teams, this means the customer remains at the core of everything they construct.

An example of how I make customers the heart of our product culture was pre-covid when I worked for a much smaller organization, I would invite our local clients to our office for lunch. I would take them on a tour of our headquarters, and if our CEO were in the office that day, they would have a chance to meet him. I would then introduce them to the scrum, design, product marketing and leadership teams, and we would all eat together. During this time, I would lead the discussion and try to understand why of all the vendors they were evaluating, and why they chose us. What was the deciding factor, how many people at their firm use our platform, their roles and responsibilities, and what other tools do they use and why? Specifically concerning our product, what features do they use (and not use) and why? Finally, what are the top five functionalities we could add that would change how they do their jobs to save them time?

In my experience, these sessions have the power to transform, align, and inspire the customer, allowing them to feel valued and heard. Likewise, cross-functional teams go through a transformation. They feel empathy because they better understand the pain points and the stresses of their customers.

Over Communicate Strategy and Vision

Great PMs employ a customer-first approach. They want to solve their customer’s problems by providing them with what they need, want, and what they will see as value. Because they preserve these facts at the forefront of their thoughts, it powers their communication with an irrefutable objective as a natural consequence.

To get everyone on their team to see and appreciate the story of their product, the problems it solves for customers, its marketplace distinction, and how it ties to the overall strategic goals and objectives of their organization, they have to over-communicate strategy and vision. They are indeed evangelists.

After the research is completed for every project, I begin with what I have come to call the “communication tour,” which is done in five acts.

Act one: This act begins with a working session with my first 3iab (product manager, design lead, content lead). We discuss the product or feature, the pain point we are solving for, the customer value, business value, market distinction and what KPIs we want to measure. The outcome of this meeting will help us determine if additional exploration is essential.

Act two: This is a discussion with the second 3iab (product manager, design lead, tech lead). We review the first draft of the experience and answer all queries. If there are architecture, technical debt or scalability concerns - we will know from our discussion as the tech lead will confirm if any research or proof of concept will be necessary.

Act three: This will be a meeting with the leads of the customer-facing and non-customer-facing teams. These would be our teammates in product marketing, sales, customer service, technical support, relationship management, data science, billing department and pricing. Our 3iab (product manager, design lead, tech lead) will walk them through the experience for the new product or feature we plan to build, the objective, customer benefit, and benefit to the business. We collect their feedback and iterate on the experience if needed so we can indeed ascertain we are solving the right customer problems.

Act four will be a workshop with the leads of our cross-functional teams. Our partners in these groups will encompass risk, compliance, legal, policy, and architect teams. Our 3iab (product manager, design lead, tech lead) will make a formal presentation that will comprise the customer problems we want to solve, benefit for the customer, business value, product roadmap and product strategy and vision, along with how everything connects back up to the organization‘s strategic objectives. From this workshop, we will know if additional investigation is needed and if there are any setbacks that will impact, delay, or prevent development.

Act five: This act is a share-out with leadership and collaboration with our research team to conduct usability studies and create a learning plan. Great PMs are responsible for managing the success story of their product(s) by giving voice to value, setting context, becoming influencers, and translators, and being customer advocates. To galvanize, transform, align, and inspire their organization, exceptional product managers, when needed, must over-communicate strategy and vision.

Partner and Influence

Exceptional PMs partner and influence. They recognize it is vitally important because they lead cross-functional teams from development to the launch of new products or features. Subsequently, they need to develop deep-rooted connections with their partner teams.

Product leaders are at the heart of their organizations. They are the link between what their customers are requesting and what is introduced in the marketplace; thus, they have an enormous stake in their partner teams who develop their product vision. Because these teams are critical to the success story of their product, they evangelize the following:

  • Product roadmaps and vision

  • Personal networks

  • Solicit observations

  • Malleable and open to constructive feedback

  • Communicate updates effectively

At the beginning of the year, when our product teams defined our product strategy, I put together a working group that consisted of our 3iab and cross-functional product team leads, and we walk them through our product roadmap. The reason is to align with them early on so that we can influence their roadmap and eliminate surprises.

This process enables them to plan their roadmaps with our projects included. Additionally, we continue to engage by reviewing the first iteration of our product or feature experience with them. We do this to solicit their feedback and to determine if there is a dependency team they need to coordinate with and if they foresee any problems that might thwart or hinder development.

When it comes to networking, I have been known to invite cross-functional team members for coffee pre-covid and virtual lunch since we have been working from home. I do this to form better relationships and connections. This affords me the opportunity to know what to look forward to and how to communicate with our partners, so things do not get lost in translation.

In addition to forming my own relationship with the product leads of our cross-functional teams, I also lead the networking of our scrum team by putting together monthly lunches with engineers from our partner teams, such as risk, compliance, etc. I plan these events so our scrum team can meet and get to know their counterparts. This matters because if there is a relationship in place, it makes it easy to conduct project technical deep dives, creates a proof of concepts, inner-source code, test, and fix high-priority bugs.

Being malleable and open to feedback is imperative. I strive always to create a safe space where our cross-functional teams can communicate their opinions and ideas and point out if there is a problem with our experience or project, even if the reaction is not favourable. Our teammates express concern because they care and are invested. Being open means, I can sort out early what kind of experience or technical challenges we might face during and post-development of our product or feature.

Communication of updates is essential; disruptions and unforeseen alterations can and do transpire. I make it a priority to regularly provide up-to-date information to the scrum team, partners, stakeholders, teammates, and leadership. I do this via meetings, in person(pre-covid), and email. This is very important because they need to know if and when key dates need to be amended if the extent of work is modified, then all the teams involved can adapt to new timelines. Communicating early and often builds trust.

Strategic and Tactical

Exceptional PMs know they must be strategic and tactical. They are adept at achieving the appropriate balance between making determinations at the strategic level and on the field with their cross-functional teams, tackling the little details. The rule I follow is to safeguard that strategy takes precedence. This is paramount because the strategic plan for the product delivers the roadmap to resolving the tactical-level detail queries from the scrum and partner teams during development.

I long ago recognized that I must be both strategic and tactical to achieve success. During the execution of a product’s strategy, the cross-functional teams will reach out to me to manage tactical specifics; they will have comprehensive questions concerning what will be encompassed in Minimum viable product (MVP) or Minimum Viable Experience (MVE), adjustment to schedules, and discussions over the tiniest particulars of the product.

I am able to answer these questions if there is a product strategy solidified that the scrum team, partner teams, stakeholders, and leadership have all agreed we would implement. To be successful, our strategy should typify all of the tactical determinations we make everywhere in the development process. Devoid of a strategic plan for our product, we will be unable to find a solution to the tactical-level details that will come during development.

Exceptional product managers employ data and their intuition. They know through experience, they will have to make challenging decisions. They are often faced with how much information they consider before making a pronouncement when things are not obvious, not distinctly explicit. These leaders recognize that they will need to utilize data and their intuition.

While data is well-defined and extremely useful, it does not paint the whole narrative. This is where product leaders have to use their intuition. Intuition is the result of a deep-rooted experience in a particular space. Such experience is exactly what allows exceptional product managers to take a look at a complicated problem and then make a quick fortitude that does not have to require explanation or divulging lots of evidence.

Utilize Data Intuition to Make Decisions

As a product leader with several years of experience in Fintech, I use both data and intuition. Nevertheless, there exists a balance that comes from my experiences. My mantra is never to ignore my intuition, but it is not enough. When I join any new organization, one of the first things I do is seek data and artifacts about my product.

It helps to understand the story of my product. I then seek out all the custom-facing and non-customer-facing teams to help me understand the history of the product. Data and comprehending the historical context of my product will both help me when I need to make quick decisions.

Final Thoughts

Exceptional product managers are successful because they build people and products. They develop meaningful relationships with their scrum team, partner teams, teammates, and leadership. In my experience, the upshot of investing and nurturing people produces driven individuals who work together with every part of their organization to fulfill their product vision. When it comes to building products, these product leaders think divergently and avoid complacency. Essentially, they foresee each part of their product's success story as their responsibility.

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