Good product managers are not born, they are made

If you want to be a bad product manager, just start being a product manager. Obviously you were hired or promoted or appointed for a reason. The fact that you were given the job should be evidence enough that you’re qualified to be a product manager. Don’t worry about training, education, best practices, or any of that stuff. You’ve sold products, built products, marketed products — so managing them is practically the same thing, right?

If you want to be a good product manager, you need to work at it. Very few people are just naturally good at product management. In fact, very few people are just naturally good at anything. Most things in life require skills, knowledge, experience, and hard work to succeed. Unfortunately, that basic truth does not seem to carry over to product management.

Too often, people are simply put into the position of being a product manager without any experience, training, mentoring, or support in the role. You would never hire a software developer who had never written a line of code and expect them to be productive from day one. You would never promote someone into an accounting position if they had never been an accountant before without putting them through extensive training first. However, new product managers with no product management experience are too often put in the role with no support structure in place to help them succeed.

One day someone is a designer or analyst or marketer or engineer. The next day they are a product manager, expected to perform all the functions of product management with no little to no idea as to what a product manager should do and how to do it. Is it a wonder why so many products fail?

There is clearly a void in many organizations in training and developing product managers. Who is responsible for this problem?

First and foremost, the person who hired and who will manage the product manager is responsible for making sure the new product manager is effective. Those who manage product managers must ensure that product managers know how to do their job. Every product manager is a “first time” product manager at some point; prior experience in product management is not necessarily a prerequisite for a product management position.

However, when product managers come from some other area of the business — engineering, sales, marketing, design — they may not have enough exposure to the other aspects of product management. Managers of product managers need to make sure that product managers are well-rounded. Best practices should be shared. Resources need to be available for training, coaching, mentoring, and other opportunities for learning.

However, product managers need to take responsibility for their own learning and development as well. A new product manager should not expect to wait and be taught, if for no other reason than for the fact that most managers of product managers do not provide adequate teaching and training. You are responsible for your ongoing growth and career development. The best product managers are ones who are constantly learning and improving their skills.

As trite as it sounds, many new product managers do not know what they do not know. A new product manager may not know, for example, that they should be visiting customers without salespeople, or that a long-term product roadmap should be created, or that they should be developing a product strategy based on the needs of the market and not based on responding to competitors.

People reading this blog already realize that they need to be learning about product management, so in a sense this is preaching to the choir — if you are reading this, you know that you need to work at being a good product manager. If you manage product managers, you need to ensure that you are providing the support that new product managers require. If you work with new product managers, you can help them learn and grow by passing along tips, resources, and guidance to help them learn — ultimately, that will help you develop your skills as a product manager even further.

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14 thoughts on “Good product managers are not born, they are made

  1. Hi Jeff,

    I see what you’re saying here, though I think you need to call out more that product management means vastly different things as you change companies.

    Companies have different customers, employees, talents, operations approaches, administrative structures, and so on. The PM needs to find the best way to navigate those waters. What worked in the last company (or even group within the same companies) may not work in the new one.

    Plus, the product manager (hopefully) makes sure that everything is running smoothly and picks up slack in the areas in need of attention.

    Finally, there are many times where the product manager just CANNOT pick up all of the slack. In these cases, s/he must try to get more resources or change direction to make due with what is out there. Many of the failures stem from such situations where management does not provide the resources or the ajustments are simply not made.

    In the end, PM is a mind reader, strategist, and a philosopher that just has to make things happen. There are far fewer “born” PMs than we need, so some new blood will need to learn the ropes and make it happen or we’re in for a rough ride going forward.

  2. Hi jeff lash,

    I am a product manager for an emerging consumer electronics company in india. Currently i am having major task to roll out an innovative product and manage.

    In this process i want to learn and follow best methods and processes to succeed in my assignment. I have gone thru your ten tips and it really helping me.

    Now, Can you share something on product strategy and product commercials.

    Lakshmi Narayana

  3. Chris — I think the reasons you’ve outlined just add more support to the idea that you need to work at being a good product manager. As you mention, different companies (or even different areas within the same company) treat product management differently, and what worked in one situation may not work in another.

    I’ve talked with too many product managers who were basically just put in their position, not given any direction, and in some ways set up to fail because of the lack of training and development. There seems to be an expectation for product managers — but for few other positions — that you can just put someone in the role and they’ll do fine, despite the fact that they’ve never done it before.

    Whether it’s your first time as a product manager or you have years of experience, the important thing to remember is that you always need to keep learning.

    Lakshmi — Thanks for the kind words. Keep reading this blog and I’m sure there will be more posts on product strategy and promotion in the future.

  4. Product Management is probably one of the most difficult jobs to define.
    I’ve done the Product Management job in two different companies operating in two different markets and the
    difference in job function is quite different – even in the same company the PM job function was different
    depending on the product and the stakeholders the PM had to manage. One step in helping the PM become successful
    is to do a role network analysis.
    What do Product Managers do? What is expected of them? And how not to become overwhelmed?

    What Your Leader Expects of You
    for more information

  5. jeff,
    i am slowing groomed to be a product manager in my new company. you could call me a product manager executive.
    you mentioned in your artcile that a product manager should go out and meet his customers. but what if the product is something like orkut or facebook and to top it, the product is a start-up.
    how then can i meet customers to enhance my product via product management tools?

  6. Sri – There is probably ways to find your customer if you try hard enough, but you might also be able to sit in on customer-service calls, look at which words are typed into the help area of the website, and analyze exit paths on your site (where people give an leave is usually detectable in application logs).

  7. Great suggestions, Patrick. Sri, here’s a few other ideas that came to mind as far as how to find customers to meet with:

    • Ask your customers if they’d be interested in providing feedback. Put a form on your web site that they can fill out, providing their contact information.
    • Use the product / social network to find people to talk with. Assuming you’re using your own product, you can build networks and use that as an opportunity to find people interested in providing feedback.
    • Place an ad on Craigslist or a similar site, offering people the opportunity to provide feedback on a new product.
    • Ask friends of friends and friends of colleagues to put you in touch with users or potential users to give feedback. In some cases, you may learn more from people who are currently not using your product.

    The important point to remember is that you need to understand your customers and the market. Whether you have a physical product, or a web application, or a piece of computer software, you have customers and users, and you should be spending as much time with them as possible, especially early on.

  8. fantastic way of data presenting.really good for a beginer in product management field.

  9. i would like to get some more basic reasons and ideas to why managers are made and not born

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