12 Top Product Manager Skills to Know

Learn how to wield influence without authority.

Written by Tammy Xu
12 Top Product Manager Skills to Know
Image: Shutterstock
UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Feb 06, 2024

Like CEOs, product managers are responsible for guiding the direction of projects and making sure they are completed. They have to coordinate between different stakeholders, including external customers, internal stakeholders, designers and engineers. But unlike CEOs, product managers don’t have the ability to dictate how any of these groups should function. Instead, they must use their skills to negotiate between the parties’ conflicting needs.

Product Manager Skills

  • Leadership
  • Technical understanding
  • Problem-solving
  • Flexibility
  • Prioritization 
  • Communication 
  • Customer empathy 
  • Research expertise 
  • UX design knowledge 
  • Analytical thinking

Indeed, the role of a product manager is quite nuanced. While product managers must possess a certain degree of technical expertise, they must also master a range of soft skills for navigating the intricacies of their positions.

More on Product ManagementHow to Become a Product Manager (According to 3 Experts Who Are)

 

12 Top Product Manager Skills

To successfully see a project through to the finish line, product managers must apply various skills each day. Here are 12 of the most vital product manager skills that every product manager needs to have in their toolbox.

 

1. Leadership

Setting deadlines, establishing a product strategy and delegating tasks all require leadership. However, product managers don’t simply tell people what to do. They must be comfortable listening to other teams’ input and considering the needs of stakeholders while still unifying all parties behind a common goal. Product managers must then tap into advanced leadership traits to keep different personnel invested in their specific product vision.     

“The best product managers are great leaders,” said B. Pagels-Minor, who has worked as a product manager at a variety of companies. “It’s people who are smart ... but they also have this nuanced approach of, ‘What does it take to win people over to my cause?’”

 

2. Technical Understanding 

Leading the product development process means product managers need to have a thorough understanding of the products they’re building. Background knowledge of software development, web development, app development and other areas can help product managers better grasp the needs of technical teams and accurately gauge how much time they’ll need to test and finalize products for release. 

 

3. Problem-Solving

Creating elegant solutions is at the heart of product management, but figuring out what those solutions should look like usually takes more work than simply asking the customer.

Pagels-Minor said customers often have an idea of the kind of solution that would solve their problem — but the solutions customers envision are not necessarily the best solutions, or even good ones. The trick is to first understand the problem that the product is trying to solve, which starts with asking the right questions.

“You have to have the forethought to say, ‘What is the actual problem that needs to be solved?’” Pagels-Minor said.

 

4. Flexibility 

Industry trends, business needs and customer demands can change quickly, so product managers need to remain nimble and be comfortable adjusting on the fly. Applying agile techniques is a great approach for following a general product roadmap while still making room for tweaks and updates to accommodate shifting variables. 

“Sometimes, we are too shackled by what the business needs, by what the roadmap says, or by what we’ve said before,” said Colin Pal, a product manager in Malaysia who produces Product Un(censored). “You just feel like, ‘You guys may not see the full picture, but I’m in the trenches every day, I really know what the business needs at this point in time.’”

 

5. Prioritization 

The bulk of a product manager’s work involves carefully balancing the demands of different stakeholders while slowly steering the product in the right direction. To walk this tightrope, product managers must know which tasks to prioritize at what times and explain to teams and stakeholders how their decisions ultimately benefit the product and the business’ bottom line.

As negotiators, product managers are not in a position to compel any party to do anything — they must instead rely on their communication skills and their thorough understanding of the actual problem that needs to be solved to guide the situation to a successful conclusion. Product managers must then be comfortable prioritizing more relevant ideas and suggestions over others and convincing stakeholders of their choices, even if they don’t satisfy all parties involved.    

 

6. Communication

‘Hard skills,’ such as writing good acceptance criteria, form the foundation of a project and are important for helping product managers understand the problem. But getting others to understand the problem means product managers must know how to communicate their ideas in a way that makes sense to different stakeholders.  

“Storytelling is one of the big underrated skills of a product manager,” Pal said. 

Product managers use their understanding of the problem being solved and the perspectives of other stakeholders to tell business stories catering to the needs of each group, which includes customers, developers and the business.

 

7. Empathy 

Product managers are always walking a fine line between maintaining customer interest and tempering expectations. While product managers need to conduct research and gather feedback to understand the needs of their target audience and create a meaningful product, companies that cater to every whim of their customers will waste time and resources instead of building a product that makes sense.

Product managers are only able to successfully walk this line if they have an accurate understanding of the problem being solved, and what that problem looks like from each stakeholder’s perspective. Product managers can use this knowledge to keep all parties in the conversation, and to figure out which features are necessary and which features are ‘nice to haves.’

“Product managers need to obsess about the why,” Pal said. “That’s a huge part of the storytelling, is the why, because everybody has a different reason to do it or not to do it.”

 

8. Research Expertise

A product is destined to fail if it has a poor product-market fit and doesn’t address any relevant needs or pain points of consumers. As a result, product managers must know how to perform in-depth market research and competitive analysis to gain an accurate picture of their industry and what products could thrive under current market conditions. 

During the product development process, product managers must also employ A/B tests, customer feedback surveys and other methods to gauge their product’s performance and make improvements based on the latest available product data.   

 

9. Analytical Thinking

After gathering data, product managers must be able to analyze it, spot patterns and determine what those patterns mean. Taking an analytical approach, product managers can more accurately measure product performance, make more informed product decisions and defend their logic to stakeholders and teams with data-driven results

“You’ve got to learn how to manage upward as well, which is learning to influence your stakeholders by telling them that we need to not do this and do that instead, and this is the data that is supporting it,” Pal said.

 

10. UX Design Knowledge

Having a working knowledge of UX design principles is essential for product managers who want to construct products that meet the needs of their customers. With a mastery of design best practices, product managers can oversee the development of products that feature user-centered designs and fulfill the expectations of a diverse customer base. Product managers can also leverage their understanding of UX design to ensure their products remain accessible to users with disabilities and other conditions.     

 

11. Project Management 

When managing projects, product managers must set deadlines, delegate tasks and measure each team’s progress. Effective product managers know then how to encourage a collaborative environment among stakeholders and use meetings efficiently. Pagels-Minor said the first thing they do at every organization is become friendly with everyone, and reassure other departments that they aren’t trying to do anyone else’s job.

“The healthiest organizations I’ve been a part of — everyone gets to put in their two cents of what they think should be a focus,” Pagels-Minor said. “Let me know how I can support you, or how you like to work, so that we can figure out a way to work successfully together.”

Product managers will usually work closely with the technical lead and design lead early on in the project’s lifecycle to avoid wasting time planning projects that are not technically sound or that lack good design.

“The most optimal way, with the least amount of ‘lossy’ communication, is when you collaborate,” Pal said. “There’s always the representation there, so that you’re dealing with all the potential roadblocks upfront.”

 

12. Time Management 

Maximizing the use of everyone’s time is a crucial skill for product managers to ensure their teams meet deadlines and product launch dates. For example, product managers may decide to place less urgent tasks on the back burner and emphasize more immediate product needs. Product managers may also plan agendas before meetings and determine when meetings may be unnecessary. Making these decisions can ensure teams are applying their energy and resources efficiently and staying on track to hit key product milestones.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

A successful product manager needs to master skills like leadership, problem-solving, analytical thinking and time management.

Product management is a combination of both hard and soft skills. For example, a product manager requires both UX design knowledge and customer empathy to build products that serve the unique needs of customers.

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