At the University of Michigan, where I coach students on tech careers, everyone wants to be a PM.
After all, it’s the sexiest job in tech – the leader, the strategist, the creative genius all rolled into one.
And so students assume that the key to PM success is typical leadership 101 stuff:
You have to be a charismatic guru like Elon
You have to be a brilliant visionary like Steve
You have to be a technical rockstar like Zuck
Which is exactly what I thought when I was in their shoes – since, as an outsider peering into the tech world for the first time, all I knew were the big, romantic stories of tech greatness.
But then I landed my first tech job at Apple. And my second at LinkedIn. And my third at an edtech startup.
And you know what? I was dead wrong.
Because I saw first-hand that the very best PMs don’t necessarily have any of the above attributes. But there’s one thing that they all share – and it’s not on that list.
The Prototypical PM
To illustrate, let me start by describing one of the very first PMs I worked with. I’ll call him Jeff since he definitely fit the alpha CEO mold described above… :)
Jeff was charged with solving an existential challenge for our company: How do we continue to grow and stay relevant, even as we become a large, mature organization?
And on paper, Jeff was the absolute perfect guy for this huge job:
He had impeccable technical credentials, including a PhD from one of the world’s top universities
He had a magnetic personal style that caused people from across the company to drop by our team’s area just to hear him speak
And he was truly a “Beautiful Mind”-type, who could immediately diagram our entire ecosystem on any whiteboard
There was just one problem: None of that ended up mattering to our team’s success.
Because at the end of the day, a PM and his/her team is only judged on two things:
Did you ship a product?
And did people use it?
And the killer part is that neither of those questions have anything to do with charisma, IQ, or technical chops. To understand why, let’s unpack each.
What It Takes to Ship
The first naïve assumption of product management wannabes is that the PM is “The Boss.” When, in fact, a new PM typically has exactly zero people reporting to them.
How can this be true? What about all that leadership 101 stuff???
The fact of the matter is that, even though product teams are cross-functionally organized (i.e., PMs work with engineers, designers, marketers, etc.), each team member still reports up their own departmental hierarchy. So the engineer reports to the Engineering Manager, the designer to the Design Manager, and so on.
Which means that PMs control neither the carrot (“Here’s a juicy bonus to meet our tight deadlines”), nor the stick (“If you don’t get this feature coded, you’re out of here!”). Instead, they have to influence through emotional intelligence – e.g., “I understand that you’re hungry to get more API experience, so I’m going to put you in charge of that for this launch so that you’ll be motivated to kick butt.”
And the problem for Jeff is that all EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) is grounded in that very first step: understanding. Which, as the top dog, he had no inclination to spend time on. Instead, he was too busy meeting with other corporate chieftains and bigwigs. Because, like those fellow alphas, he preferred to lead by fiat – even though, as a PM, he had no official authority.
And the result was that, even after three years of working on this project (an eternity in web-based development time), we had very little to show for it. Our engineers weren’t motivated, our designers argued constantly, and we business people didn’t have anything to market or sell.
What It Takes to Win Users
The other major misunderstanding of prospective PMs is that great products spring forth, fully formed, from the minds of genius product leaders.
The fallacy of this myth, however, lies in the fact that techies are often completely unrepresentative of their audiences. For example, if you’re building a new pizza delivery app that you’ve promised will disrupt Domino’s, you’re implicitly saying: “I can build an experience that 100 million people across the globe will love.” Which is crazy if you’re a vegan foodie living in San Francisco who only eats pizza topped with soy cheese and organic micro-arugula!
That’s why the great entrepreneur coach Steve Blank says, “You have to get out of the building.” In other words, you’ve got to spend just as much time listening as leading. Because there’s simply no other way to understand what your prospective users care about.
And yet, who do you think is the least likely to follow that advice?
That’s right: The visionary gurus who think they know better. The Jeffs of the world.
And sure enough, because Jeff hadn’t spent any time meeting with the potential users of our product, when it finally did launch, years behind schedule, it crashed and burned. In fact, it really only resonated with one very thin slice of the population: the users who were most like Jeff!
What It Takes to Be a Great PM
While Jeff’s story illustrates the perils of focusing on PM skills that don’t actually matter, Jeff’s successor’s experience showcased the skills that matter most. Let’s call her Jess.
Now, Jess was nothing like Jeff. Mild-mannered, lacking in superstar credentials, no one was going to spend hours watching her work her magic on a whiteboard.
But Jess did have one thing going for her: She listened.
First, she listened when the team described their experience with Jeff. Then, she listened to their hopes and dreams – what drove them to be on the team in the first place. And, most importantly, she went out and listened to the users she needed to win over – even though there wasn’t a corporate chieftain or bigwig amongst them.
The result? Within just six months, Jess and her team had shipped a product that was garnering rave reviews from the exact users the company needed.
And she did it all without being a guru, a visionary, or a rockstar. Instead, she was that most humble of PMs, a listener.
EQ > IQ
While it would be tempting to write the above story off as an isolated example, a brief detour from the prototypical pattern of PM success, I’d argue that it’s actually the gurus, the Steves and the Elons, who are the outliers. Because time and again, I’ve seen respectful, empathic PMs crush their overconfident, undersensitive counterparts on the only metrics that matter – shipping and usage. But, of course, the very nature of respect and empathy means these stories aren’t the ones that get told. And so we constantly return to the rare but self-promotional tales of the diva PMs.
Which is too bad. Because product management really is a sexy job. And a critical one to boot.
And so, if you want to not just land a PM gig, but do it justice, don’t get hung up on the stories of the bold-faced names. Instead, think about what true leadership actually entails. Understand what your team needs. And what your customers want. Because that’s the surest path to PM success – and you don’t even have to wear a turtleneck!
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