The Skills Product Managers Need in 2021

The needs of tech companies ebb and flow with the times, and never more so than now. That means that the most sought after product manager skills also need to change with the times. Whether you’re already established, or looking to break into the industry for the first time, knowing what 2021 will demand from product professionals will help to boost your career.

We’re going to start by reviewing the core skills needed by all Product Managers. (If you’ve already landed a PM role, skip this part, you should know all of this already!) We’ll then move on to the top 5 skills that every product professional needs to develop in order to thrive in 2021.

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Core Product Manager skills

First, there are a few core skills that you will always need to have as a Product Manager no matter what year it is. For those of you wondering “How can I become a Product Manager? Do I have what it takes?” this is where you need to begin…

  • Strong communication skills
  • Team working and team leadership
  • Strategic thinking
  • Time management
  • Stakeholder management

If you have experience, or proven capability of doing the common everyday tasks of a Product Manager, you’ll also be well positioned to land your first PM role…

  • Setting OKRs and KPIs
  • Roadmapping and prioritizing tasks
  • Defining requirements
  • Data analysis
  • Market research
  • Risk analysis
  • Owning a vision

This is of course the short version of this list. A Product Manager will work on so many different things depending on the size of the team, the type of product being working on, the maturity of the company, and the seniority of the Product Manager.

Building your core skillset

It can feel impossible to build your skillset in these areas without first landing a Product Management job. And how can you get a Product Management job without first building your core skill set.

Read more about this chicken-and-egg problem in our interview with ‘Every Product Manager’s First 30 Days’ author, John Franck

There are a few great ways to gain the skills on your own. If you’re already working in a company that has a digital product, ask to shadow the product team. Not just the Product Manager, but the people who have the skills you need and who work on the tasks you need experience in. For example, if you’ve never worked with user personas before, find out who works on them at your company and ask to pick their brain.

It’s a small step, but a very effective one, and could even lead to an internal transition to Product Manager somewhere in your future.

If you’re completely outside of the tech industry, you could start by joining a hackathon. It’s a misconception that hackathons are just for developers. Mimicking the lifecycle of a real product, everything built in a hackathon needs to be communicated and presented to the judges in order to win. Every great hackathon team needs someone to lay the ground work for a great product, especially as time is of the essence.

Even if you don’t win, you’re showing prospective employers that you’re passionate and full of entrepreneurial spirit.

Speaking of which, you could also consider building your own side project. It doesn’t have to be a full digital product, it could be a podcast, a blog, or a community. It’ll show that you’ve taken steps on your own, made some product decisions, and shown off your creative flair.

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Skills for 2021

Adaptability: Roll up your sleeves and dive in

There’s no such thing as ‘that’s not my job’ anymore. In times of unpredictability, neither you nor the company hiring you knows for sure how your job role will evolve.

If the company has a complete pivot, you might find yourself working on a completely different project than the one you were hired into. You may be asked to take on more responsibilities that you were expecting, or not having all of the resources you were promised at the start.

A winning Product Manager in 2021 will be able to roll up their sleeves and say “OK, what do we need?” That willingness to say yes and dive in will be an asset to any company in the coming months and will be absolutely key in setting yourself up for success.

That’s not to say that you should be a pushover, and if you find yourself working more in a project management role, make it know that your other skills are being under-utilized. Being adaptable doesn’t necessarily mean being taken advantage of.

Interpersonal skills: The cornerstone of good Product Managers

Yes, this is a core skill for Product Managers no matter what year it is. As someone who works with teams across all of product development, as well as with management and external stakeholders, good people skills are a non-negotiable skill for any successful Product Manager.

But in 2021, you’ll need to go a step further than just being able to run interference between marketing and sales teams. You’ll need to understand, really understand, that your colleagues, stakeholders, and customers are people.

If one of your developers is taking too long to finish a task they’re working on, maybe consider than in 2021 maybe people will still be feeling the effects of 2020. It won’t be unusual to have to work with people who have a lot on their mind, which means you’ll need extra empathy and patience.

The best Product Managers will not see their colleagues’ difficulties as a detriment, but as an opportunity to support and uplift them. Take notice when your coworkers are struggling. If you’re the person who helps them, that’ll improve your reputation within the company. Also, it’s just nice to be nice.

This will also go a long way in understanding and being able to communicate with your customers. Having a little more human empathy will help you to better understand your users, and aid you in identifying new ways to help them and solve their problems.

Technical skills: Seize the opportunity

Technical skills

While many of us are working from home, you might be one of the lucky ones who finds yourself with extra time on your hands. Hours you would have usually spent commuting have been given back to you. Now might be the time to take advantage of the extra time and boost some of your more technical/specialized skills.

While it’s not necessary to have a CS degree to work in Product Management, you will need to at least have the capability to lean more about the tech you’re working with. Just knowing enough to be able to communicate with engineers is enough at the start.

But what happens when you want to progress? If you’re feeling stuck in a rut, and you have some free time on your hands, upping your skillset outside of work could be a great step forward.

While we’re not suggesting that you need to go back to college, learning never stops. There are plenty of short, online, and at your own pace courses, many of them free. We’ve already compiled a list for you here.

Remote working skills: Working together but apart

By now you should know what the forecast for your working situation looks like, in terms of whether you’ll be in an office or remote. Regardless, being comfortable in a remote working situation will be helpful for all kinds of professionals, even if they still have access to an office space.

That’s because a myriad of companies have made the switch to remote working, many of them permanently. Some of your dream companies may have decided to make the switch to remote permanently, and many new startups are having to build from the ground up with distributed teams.

Especially if you’re yet to land a PM role, being able to work well with others and forge bonds with distributed teammates will open up a whole world of possibilities for you. It’ll help you to hit the ground running when joining a new team.

Stability: Sticking to your guns

One less talked about skill, because it’s never been so important, is stability.

Perhaps you’ve been a little too excited to try out new tools and methodologies. While it’s great to test out new things and see what works, you’re actually slowing yourself down if you keep dancing between them.

Once you’ve figured out what works for you and what you like, be consistent with it.

The same goes for how you interact with your teams. You need to be a point of stability for your teams. They need to feel that you’re reliable. So make it clear to them what your availability is like, what you’re able to do for them, and what you’ll have to delegate.

When you say you’re going to do something, do it. Be up front, don’t mince your words, and be transparent as much as possible.

When the people working with you consider you a rock, you’ll help them, your product, and yourself.

Do you have what it takes to be a Product Manager in 2021?

If you’re looking to make a commitment to yourself and your product career in 2021, we’ve got an invitation for you.

We’ve just launched our brand new, and exclusive Product Management community. No, not our community of over 1 million product people…this is Product School Pro.

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