Becoming a Great PM

I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of aspiring product managers recently and am teaching a dozen or so the basics of product management right now as well. I find myself full of gratitude for my career thus far. It is a hard profession to break into. Like many professions I suspect, experience is wanted for just about every position out there. But no, this article isn’t about how to do it. Sorry.

I have been a hiring manager of product managers for 15 years. And there are not enough great PMs out there. The high tech industry needs many more great PMs to deliver innovative products that truly make the world a better place, not just gather downloads, subscribers, or monetization (next article may be about the dangers of a “growth PM”. Sigh…). There are plenty of articles with lists of what a great PM looks like (here’s one I just read — loved it). And I usually agree with 95% of what they are saying. So that’s not what this article is about either.

To become a great PM you need to embrace that great is rare and hard and that becoming great is a 10,000 hours problem. You need to prepare yourself for spending 2 years almost completely lost and having to make hard calls anyway. Then another 3-5 years of being OK at it and making a bunch of mistakes and (hopefully) learning from them. And then you start really understanding just how hard it is to be great. And how little any other discipline you interact with understands this. If you feel like you are at that point. Read on.

What follows are the qualities I think are the most essential and hardest to attain. That you won’t find in the typical “PM handbook”. The 10000 hours part of great. In other words, please know this list is not meant to be “complete”.

Empathy Creator

Not customer advocacy, not user research, not metrics. Empathy. The ability to visualize the world from someone else’s perspective and understand their feelings. Study it, think about it, and consider how to bring it to your whole team, not just yourself. What if everyone on the team had empathy for your users? How much better would the product be? Does that feel like your role would be of less value? Or does that possibility excite you? How could you make it happen? How do you even convince the team to try?

Master of Grey Area

A very junior PM will ask a question like “how do I decide which features to put in the next release?”. And hope that there is a formula to follow (number of requests? Importance of customer?). He will hope that making decisions like that will get easier over time. A senior PM will wrestle with when to move to the next phase of development (insight to idea generation, idea generation to selection, selected idea to sub-features prioritized…) and know that it’s never easy. She will not suffer from frog in hot water syndrome and will know when to go back to the drawing board even if it means wasted work or facing stakeholder anger. We are innovating and that means we cannot know the outcome with certainty. A great PM gets that, embraces it, struggles with it, and still moves the team forward.


PM’s don’t have any work product. Yes, you read that correctly. Your spec, your deck, your pitch — those don’t ship to the customer. Technically, products can ship without you. Which means you are here in service of the developers and designers building your product. And if they don’t consider you to be helpful, are you really adding the value you think? I’m not suggesting you give them their way all the time, since that won’t produce the most innovation. I’m suggesting you consider what it means to be helpful. And how holding that intention while still holding the outcome as the most important thing might change your approach. I think we’ve finally stopped talking about the PM as CEO of her product, but PM as conductor of the orchestra is also a bit overused now. What about PM as consultant? PM as servant leader?

Henry Fonda

Also known as leadership without authority but I’m tired of that term. Go watch 12 Angry Men. Henry Fonda plays a juror that sways a whole jury to not guilty when all but he started out in the guilty camp. His character would be a great PM! He deftly creates an environment where people add to the shared truth of the group, expose their vulnerabilities, drop their stories, and collaborate to get agreement on something ultimately unknowable. It’s a study in how to create a culture of innovation. Discuss the movie with your teammates, read about culture, consider what makes for the most innovation, consider your role as culture creator. PM as team builder.

Good luck and happy innovating!