Just Another “What It Takes to Become a Great Product Manager” Story

I have been away from my job for a few weeks. This has benefited me as I had the opportunity, for the first time in my career, to take a break and reflect. Time to think about what I wanted. Time to think about how I wanted to continue my work, my personal development and my growth. Time to think about the idea I want to represent and my mission. Am I still aligned with myself and what I want?

“I want to represent the idea that you really can make what you want I believe I can create whatever I want to create.” — Will Smith

Deepening my self-reflection

Over the past few years, I have served as a senior consultant, practice leader, senior product manager, senior mobile product manager, and chief product officer. I followed the path I believed was the best and made more sense. In the end, along the way, based on my own motivation and beliefs, I gained momentum in my field, in my skills and my role and acquired more responsibilities. I didn’t want to follow society’s expectations.

My reflection is on my work of being a product leader, although, I believe it can be followed and used by anyone.

I was afraid to become what I observed in big corporates. Following the market and what is expected from you. I believe that without looking for more, it ends most of the time with Peter’s Principle “People in a hierarchy tend to rise to their level of incompetence”.

Therefore, I followed the principle of putting myself in danger in my career, as a product manager, as much as possible in a risky position where I had to develop and have new skills to be successful. Always at the limit of what I knew, still intending to grow personally, humanely and professionally. I learned later what was the impact of this discomfort in my brain and how it helped me achieve different things.

I am constantly amazed when working in product. This is one of the only jobs that you can mould the way you want. It encompasses this diversity in terms of people you can meet, fields to work in or technology. In my career, I’ve worked in industries I’ve never touched before, as fascinating as IoT and connected cars, and as complex and regulated as healthcare or contractors and human resources compliance. You can ask 10 product managers to define their role, and if they don’t use a definition from literature, you can have 10 different definitions.

And they will all be right!

I only see life in two ways, and maybe that’s a bit black and white, but either you decide to be a spectator or an actor. I chose to be an actor and to be as little dependent as possible on external factors. Kind of like a hero in a game, mastering his craft, making choices based on what he believes. There are times when everything goes well, and times when nothing goes as planned.

COVID is of the latter type, same as the financial crisis of 2008. It has had and still has adverse effects on people’s lives mentally, economically and unfortunately physically. I was impacted as I lost my job in the last months. At the same time, I can’t stop thinking it’s an opportunity. Now is a chance to take the time to reflect. I did not feel any pressure from the market. I didn’t have to look for a job right away.

After all, everyone was in the same situation, and not just in one country or continent, the impact was global. I speak from a privileged place because I have the choice to do so. I’m lucky, right?

No, I don’t believe in luck. I think these opportunities are created. My parents raised me in a certain way and also the influence I had from my surroundings and my family. Part of it was a life lesson they lived the hard way: Be prepared for the worst and take responsibility for whatever you do.

That’s what I did, and that’s how I define my career in product management…

The problem is, I can’t stand still, it’s not in my nature. Lately, I’ve been interviewing for jobs, and every company has a different hiring process. What’s interesting is that with the experience of running, managing and monitoring the process, I can almost instantly tell you what type of business I’m going to be working in.

The recruitment process is an extract of the corporate culture and the internal atmosphere. You can identify it by the type of interactions and the questions they ask you.

And, to be honest, some of these questions were very interesting.

Note to myself: I should definitely make a compilation of the type of questions I received, and the questions I ask for other product managers to see and maybe create a collaborative list.

The most important skill

By going through these processes, a question stuck to my mind: “What is the most important skill for you as a product manager?”

With experience, you know that you don’t answer questions like this too quickly. So I matured my thoughts before responding. I wanted to be honest, tell the truth, and not try to say what my interviewer wanted to hear. In the past, one of my weaknesses was wanting and still is sometimes to be loved. I try to please too much. I learned over time, through meditation, and as I got older that my desire to be loved came from my fears. It was either the fear of being rejected or the fear of not being recognized.

“What if I say what I think and they don’t accept me? Does that call into question my worth as a product manager?”

So I hid behind answers that made me feel good. I tricked myself in believing that’s what people wanted to hear.

My feeling, though, could be sum up by the two following quotes:

Eric Thomas said: “You know others more than you know yourself.”,

And

Will Smith said, “It’s not self-esteem if we find it in other people.”

So I finally gave my answer to the question after my break and it was simple “Leadership”.

Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

Product managers do not exist alone. Product managers are relay runners. In this work, I take the baton from one place and pass it to another. I play with and for the team. There is nothing personal about it and the most significant truth of it all. As a product manager, I am not a superior being with superpowers or imbued with a divine mission. And whoever thinks that should come back to earth and get a reality check ASAP!

However, the difference between product managers is how they think about leadership. It is also the soft skill that takes the team to another level of performance and happiness.

You can take all the definitions that are in the books, and you will see that it boils down to this concept:

  • “the communal manservant to your engineering team, holding a large, cumbersome shit umbrella above their heads bent over keyboards on which they furiously type” — Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez
  • “CEO of the product” The hard things about hard things by Ben Horowitz
  • “In the middle of technical, business and UX” — Martin Eriksson

As a product manager, I don’t exist alone. Also, the role of “manager” in the title is more honorary than anything else. I am not a direct line manager of the development team or the designers. I work with them and make decisions on functionality, strategy and product vision and roadmap based on input from other people. However, I don’t have a“lethal” power. It is like being an unarmed sheriff who needs to “force” my coworkers to do whatever I want. Therefore, my relationship skills and leadership skills are essential for success.

A product manager is a catalyst for the wishes and minds of the people they work with. I am always in relation with someone, and I rely on someone else to find, build or launch ideas. Look what one of my typical weeks looks like.

Monday, I can have product manager meetings, then engineer meetings. Maybe Tuesday or Wednesday I’ll talk to architects about projects we need prototyping or to analyze new potential features. I can then have discussions with sales, marketing, customer success, onboarding, customer support, strategy, UX, and design. During these days, I can also have meetings with customers, prospects and potential users. Wednesday or Thursday, I organize discussions with engineers to discuss new epics. I will obviously do demos and prepare communications for internal use and be a support to other departments.

I am not special

I’m not unique with this kind of schedule. I can’t tell you what a day looks like. I can tell you approximately who I need to talk to depending on the situation. I imagine my week as a marked path, where we go from riddle to riddle until finally finding the grail, the real pain. The famous “WHY”.

What I do know is that I am not doing my job alone and in return, since the product is the basis of other people’s work as well, they will look to me for answers, clarification, or for a brainstorm. They will come to me when something goes wrong when they are stuck in their work when they cannot achieve their goal.

And that’s what makes the job of a product manager so exciting, unusual, and so exhausting and frustrating. At that point, when they send you that email, that phone call, or they request the meeting, you’ve got to be at your best. You have to be the leader of yourself and your emotions, above all else, because they will come with theirs. This way, you can be fully present at the moment and help them, unlock them and make their lives easier.

Apart from being a torchbearer, I like to define my role as a person who manages frustrations, others and mine.

I can’t count the times I have had to make tough decisions, like stopping product development or saying “NO” to a customer or even the CEO. It’s the truth; however, I can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, and it’s essential to understand that I can’t put my ego in my decisions and that it shouldn’t be the one talking. My ego is just an obstacle to my path to success.

I have to be the voice of reason because I am the custodian of the product, the team and the users behind it. Being the guardian doesn’t just mean being protective. It also means believing in my mission, being adaptive, being tough, resilient and relentless.

Radical honesty

Reflecting on this, however, I began to feel that my answer was only one possible answer. It’s my view of product management, and it’s also product management that suits me. It is an entirely selfish way of acting and looking at something. Maybe this article is a confession. In any case, I try to be sincere, authentic and transparent in my way of explaining it.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I guess that’s because a friend of mine sent me this article on “radical honesty” a few weeks ago and it has influenced my writing lately.

I’m also tired of reading articles telling me what to do, how to act when to get up in the morning. No one has the science infused in them and if everyone knew in advance what was going to happen, why are there so many questions and so many failed products out there.

What I mean is every answer is right if it’s right for you, if you believe in it and are passionate about it! No one can tell me what it’s like to be a product manager. Of course, there are all the technical/hard skills involved; however, this is the easiest part of the equation. I also recognize that I have been influenced by my readings and my personal interests. My background is unique, as is the combination of knowledge and experience that I have acquired.

That is why, for me, all of the following definitions are also correct.

I think the most crucial skill for a product manager is:

  • the technical aspect of the product and understanding how to provide the best product with the best technology supported by innovation and market trends;
  • the delivery side of the product and being able to master delivery processes such as Agile, Kanban, Scrum, Waterfall as this will ensure that the product is delivered with the best quality and on time;
  • the marketing side of the product and being able to understand the market and the competitive landscape, being able to talk to customers and make them understand the value of the product so that they adopt it which will bring them value;
  • the strategic side of the product and being able to analyze current and future trends to find the best strategy and vision based on the accumulated knowledge and the strength of the existing company.

I just made these up. The point is, whatever you have in mind, I could go on and on. Maybe as a reader, you will decide to put your own version, and I will be happy to quote you and add it to this article.

What I’m trying to convey, to any reader or anyone else who aspires to be a product manager, is that there is no right answer. You decide what a great product manager is.

I still think there should be a clear distinction between every single role in the company in terms of responsibilities. So WHAT are you going to do is one and that should come from the employer, but HOW are you going to do that is something completely different and I find my way great for multiple reasons. One of the biggest being — it’s good for both me and my teammates.

It’s good for my teammates because there is no person in this world that doesn’t want to have fun and be happy. Especially if the work we’re doing together is tough.

It’s good for me because while I am trying to have fun I am also exploring the boundaries on a daily basis. I define my role and that’s how I am trying to achieve more and more. I am growing and the growth may be potentially recognised. If I am just doing what I am being told, that’s not enough, that’s not growth, that’s not exceptional, that doesn’t even deserve praise, that’s being regular, standard. That’s being OK. And do you want to be OK? I know for myself the answer to that question is — No, thank you, I’d want to be great!

I do me! You do you!

For my part, I choose this path, or if I’m honest with you, this path chose me. I haven’t changed who I am on the inside. I have my own style of leadership, based on fun. I love people, I love to laugh. I like to bring joy to people’s lives. Most importantly, I love to see other people happy.

Photo by Amanda Jones on Unsplash

However, don’t get me wrong. Again, this is something selfish! I do this because it makes me feel good. I like to think I have something to do with this laughter, with this memory that we have as a team. I love to create rituals, celebrate life, and turn boring things into exciting things. Anyone can be a great product manager when things are going well, but can you be a great product manager, whether things go well or wrong. Can you survive anything? After you left, what did you leave behind? Do you know if today your team will follow you, support you and go to bat for you? More importantly, are you ready to go to bat for them?

My reflection brought me to this conclusion:

I want to have the biggest impact on people around me in my daily life, I want to be able to help people in any way so they can reach their true potential.

This is why I am writing this kind of article. This is why I just launched a podcast with a friend (The Naked podcast). We all need a bit more truth, love, honesty, transparency and care in this world. I am not ready to help everyone though. I will be miserable by doing so. More importantly, I want to be myself. I want to build products which help people, that have a positive impact on people’s lives and also a culture around it where people have fun.

As a Product Manager, I know I can make an impact on the lives of others and decided some time ago to help improve the lives of people around me.

“You must realize that there is something special within you, a basic goodness that you must choose to manifest in every way you can — toward your family, your profession and your planet. Each of us has something to offer.” Les Browns

Your job will take up a large part of your life. You don’t have time to do the job like someone else. And as Oscar Wilde said: “Be yourself, everyone’s already taken”. So why not join me on this journey and look inside yourself to find who you are and be the product manager you want to be?

Product manager based in London. Cook, writer, into fitness, health, personal growth, coffee and whisky. Love sharing and trying to have an impact around me.

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