What Background Does Your Product Manager Need?

What background does your product manager need? You can try and hire the right person, or save time and money by upgrading your existing team’s skills. Learn how!

As a manager, can you rely on a solid team?

After each quarter or even every sprint, you can sit down and look back at everyone’s performance. And you might have a couple of gold stars to give out; some average interventions; and then definitely certain members of the team that should have done better.

Hey, we are not pointing fingers here. Sometimes, there is just bad luck. Sometimes, you are facing really tough and unexpected competition. Most of the time, however, you will be at fault. Perhaps you did not prep correctly. Your Product Roadmap was unrealistic, or you lacked solid data to back your intuition.

But what if it was really somebody else who is responsible; literally, a team member was not up to the task?

Then, you’re also to blame, because you’re the one in charge of hiring the best possible people. Or training them to bring the best out of themselves. What background does your Product Manager need?

Once you finish reading this guide, you will know if it is in your interest to hire a new Product Manager or, as an additional option, save time and money by training your existing workforce.

Product Manager Backgrounds and Needs

Here, we will overview the different traits that a Product Manager needs in order to succeed. Make sure that your team is ready to launch your next great thing!

There are many possible trajectories in the path to Product Management. The most typical routes include software engineering, user design, program management, marketing and business consulting. Some PMs are also former startup co-founders or individuals who have been in roles involving product building.

There are even more diverse origin stories, however. Some which are still quite plausible include people with financial experience, graphic designers or salespeople. However, there have been successful PMs originating in music production. So your first tip towards assessing your employee’s product fit: never judge their background.

Next steps: understand their motivations. Why do they want to become PMs? Are they aware of the different approaches and methods? Do words like Agile or SCRUM make any sense to them? Admittedly, theoretical concepts will be of little use in the field. However, it is extremely important that you develop empathy with your team. Communication is essential for Product Managers: more so for those who are managing them!

Now, to the hard skills and tools.

Is there a direct alignment between your preferred methods and software services, and your team’s experience? This is very important. Every operation has their own preferred roadmap style or method to gather customer feedback. All of these skills are fully transferable, obviously. But there might be an adaptation period when your aspiring PM needs a little bit of guidance. You should provide that.

What about soft skills? These are the abilities that are not directly related to particular technologies or fields but are fully transferable between disciplines.

While all PMs need to know how to communicate, command a room and influence people; not all are required to deploy these skills to the same extent. Some Product Management roles are really public, requiring that the PM becomes a product evangelist at external conferences or with other business partners. Other positions require a special ability to work with remote teams, run workshops or be an excellent writer. Well, a full-spectrum PM would need to have it all!

You are in the position to define these needs, keeping in mind that every PM should in principle be ready to show interest in expanding their abilities.

Once you have defined your “shopping list”, you can apply it in different ways. Probably, the first steps you should take concern your current team. If you can already count on PMs working alongside you, then learn more about their strengths and “gaps”. We call them gaps because they are not really weaknesses. Through our careers, we tend to specialize in certain fields as they hold comparative advantages with regards to our progression.

Thus, gaps can be your secret weapon: that strategic lever where your PM can advance to the next level.

Things are different if you are considering hiring or upgrading an existing employee to Product Management. Hiring a qualified PM is no easy task, but it can be done right by following a proper method. On the other hand, it might even be faster (i.e. cheaper!) to train your existing workforce to become a PM.


Mind the Gaps: Complement your PMs’ Backgrounds

Now that you have identified those strategic gaps, you are already on your way to making a huge performance jump with your team. The following are the most common skill gaps that product teams are solving.

Lack of Market Awareness

Not a problem for PMs emerging from Marketing or Sales, it is a very common issue for heavily technical product people. They are more used to upstream activities, which can make it a problem with more downstream tasks. This involves plenty of skills such as competition research, opportunity hypotheses, developing personas, etc. This type of business acumen is fundamental because value-generation is the most important goal to guarantee long-term sustainability.

Limited Technical Skills

The opposite of the one above, it usually affects aspiring PMs with heterodox backgrounds. While most jobs today involve some sort of technical awareness, it can be a challenge for most to fully understand what engineers are working on. To ensure proper communication and build influence with these teams, an aspiring PM should add at least a minimum of technological awareness to the toolbox.

Poor Thought Leadership

It is often assumed that only a handful of people in tech need the capacity to command an audience: the visionaries and futurists. In reality, most PMs (who “rule through influence”) need to formulate and promote their own Product Vision. They cannot limit themselves to their own little cubicles: they have to go outside and make people sing from a shared hymn sheet.

No Strategic Insights

This gap will not be noticed from the get-go. However, as you advance through the roadmap, it is possible that you will notice certain lacks. For example, your aspiring PM might not know about oncoming regulatory changes to the industry (for instance, European GDPR) that might alter forever your whole way of doing business. Other missing insights might include not knowing about the competition or ignoring localization issues. A sustainable product, one that lasts in the long-run, requires strategic vision.

Unfamiliarity with New Tech Trends

This point is a bit relative, because “tech” encompasses so much. But it can be said that, in certain times, certain new applications surpass all others in terms of their impact. In the last century, microchips are the perfect example. Today, machine learning is possibly the discovery with the greatest future applications: if your PM is not aware of these innovations, you will fall behind the competition at a certain point.

No People Management Skills

Of course, the PM is the “CEO of their product”. But they actually manage people, sometimes indirectly. They need to know how to make their vision effective, but without seemingly imposing their will over others. This is because management hierarchies are still in place, and they need to be respected to avoid conflict. In general, a PM works in the shadows and slowly builds relationships with internal stakeholders to drive projects forward.

Data and Analytics Averse

Super-intuitive, almost physic PMs hate this point. But they MUST back their hunches with data. This is because you never know which audiences you will have to face. At the beginning, it might suffice you with convincing your close colleagues. However, imagine that you have to convince an investor of your product’s potential. Besides your public speaking skills (which must also be perfect!), you only have numbers to rely on. And they better be sound.

Low Stakeholder Empathy

Single-discipline professionals, especially those of a technical character, can often get by without developing substantial empathy. Not the PM. A Product Manager relies on knowing customers better than they know themselves. A PM relies on speaking to engineers, marketers, and salespeople as if they were engineers, marketers and salespeople. Thus, empathy is paramount!


Product Management: A Role in Constant Evolution

It’s not so easy to make it in the product scene. One thing you can always notice, though, is that successful Product Managers are always in training. They never stop learning.

As a Manager of Product Managers, you have a risk and an opportunity. A risk of not taking the chance of advancing your team further: an opportunity to exploit those gaps to make them perfect product machines. Here, we have listed some common lacks which are shared by product management beginners. Take a look around your office, and make a note of which ones you associate with which professionals.

Here in Product School, we have experience training professional teams, and it is always very impressive to see how well-performing teams can reach even higher targets after they take a dedicated course to expand their product skills.

Remember that you can always contact us if you want to become one of our corporate partners.

What is the best way to prepare your Product Managers? Tell us on the comments!

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