People, Process, and the Product - How to coach product managers
A product manager's job is complex and dynamic and requires a unique combination of skills and competencies. Product managers oversee the entire product development cycle, from ideation to launch, and must deeply understand the product and the market.
I love Ravi Mehta's idea of 12 skills product managers must learn to build products that bring value to the customers. Mehta has grouped these 12 competencies into four themes:
No doubt there's a lot to master, and even the best PMs don't excel in all of these areas. The difference between an average product manager and a top product manager is understanding the gaps in their knowledge and being able to put together a team to fill those gaps.
This can be difficult to do on your own, and companies are often too reluctant to accept help or simply don't know where to find it. Over the years, when I was still a product manager myself, and now that I've coached PMs, I've noticed that product management today is very much focused on technical skills. However, there is much more to product management, as seen from Mehta's 12 skills list.
The transition from product management to product leadership is particularly challenging, and it tests even the technically strong PMs. Suddenly you need to communicate to the management team and investors, evangelize about product strategy internally, CREATE portfolio-level strategy, and become a powerful communicator and strategic thinker. That's where mentoring is in a key position and where I can help.
More junior PMs can also benefit from developing these skills, and many are a bit unbalanced between product execution or customer insight, leaning towards one or the other. It's essential for the product's success to balance these skills. If you lack either one, you either build the wrong thing well or the right thing poorly.
We all have different strengths and capabilities, depending on our backgrounds. We must look at the current situation to understand the gap between our present and desired competencies.
When I start working with a new PM, or anyone for that matter, I think the most important thing is getting to know them well.
I'm a sucker for customer discovery, and this is no different - I want to understand what their goals are, what their problems are, where they need the most help, and where their needs match with what I can offer. So really understanding the people I'm working with and how we can create growth together.
As a tool for skills assessment, I like using the assessment tool developed by Marty Cagan alongside Ravi Mehta's mapping of skills to put together an actionable plan for improvements that we can use to create the structure for our sessions and also show progress over time.
The actual doing varies between going through practical stuff, like actually doing slides together or putting together a plan for the product strategy process, or writing job descriptions and thinking about team composition, and more high-level mentoring stuff, like talking about how to create culture, how to argue your case in the management team, or why customer discovery is essential.
With some clients, I might even speak to other management team members to understand potential barriers to product development or to advocate a particular approach.
Product is at the heart of a product manager's job, where most attention is focused. However, as mentioned earlier, having a balanced set of skills in product management is crucial.
When coaching product managers, I emphasize the importance of focusing on customer needs and building products that meet those needs. It's essential to deeply understand the market, the target audience, and the problem the product is solving. Without this understanding, it's easy to fall into the trap of building a product nobody wants or needs.
One of the critical aspects of product management is prioritization. There are always more ideas than resources, and making the right decisions about what to focus on is essential. I help product managers develop structured processes for prioritization to make informed, repeatable and quantifiable decisions about what to build next. It’s more about building a way of working in a company than it is about using a particular framework or process, so this, too, is very much about leadership and creating culture.
Another critical skill in product management is communication. Product managers must communicate the product vision and strategy to stakeholders, team members, and customers. I work with product managers to develop their communication skills and help them create compelling product narratives that align with the company's vision.
Together, with the client we start by mapping out their current competencies, identifying their strengths, and determining areas where they need the most support. I want to get to know my clients well, so I can provide personalized guidance and make it worth a while for them.
During our sessions, we tend to have discussions about the product organization's future, including its roles, responsibilities, and vision. It’s always exciting to brainstorm ideas and discuss the opportunities for growth and development.
I also want to discuss the importance of having a clear product vision and strategy and how to communicate it effectively. In the end we work together to prioritize future plans and set team goals to help the product succeed.