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Product Manager

How to Become a Great Product Manager: 5 Soft Skills to Develop to Lead

How do you succeed in what some workplace experts term the fourth most desirable career over the next decade? How do you excel in an essential role for some of the best tech companies to work for, such as Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google? The demand for product managers has doubled over the past five years3. It's one of the most complex roles in the business world, but you'll also have the chance to thrive in some of the most famous and desirable workplaces around. If you're looking for a career in product management, you may already have some of the technical skills. However, what truly sets you apart will be the soft, human skills needed to become a leader in the field. Our 20 years of experience developing those soft skills can give you the X-factor distinction you need to succeed.

Illustration of a woman with curly hair is showing how to become a great product manager to help aspirants succeed in this field

What do the most successful product managers do?

As a product manager, you'll oversee the development of digital products from initial user research to the creation and optimization of the product over time. The nuances of the role can change based on your employer and industry. For example, Amazon product managers are typically focused on technical development. Meanwhile, Google product managers focus more broadly on the strategic product roadmap and delegating the technical build.

But all product managers tend to have commonalities. You'll solve user problems through the products you create and manage. And, you'll build products to deliver value based on customer feedback.

Different companies set different expectations based on their needs and type of product. But generally speaking, a project manager has a few important roles:

  • Identifying a product need based on a deep understanding of potential customers.
  • Using user experience research to develop a product vision and product hypothesis.
  • Putting together a design team and engineering team to develop the minimum viable product (MVP).
  • Testing the MVP with the customer base to find a product-market fit.
  • Improving the MVP to develop high-quality products that match company objectives.

What is the difference between a good product manager and a great product manager?

Great product leaders understand the complexity of building and launching a product. You will need to synthesize customer research with the commercial needs of the business. You'll also need to keep engineering constraints in mind. Only excellent communication and organizational skills can help you manage these complexities.

No project manager can shoulder the entire project. You'll need to create product teams good enough to take on these tasks. You'll also need to keep track of the product strategy and keep everyone on the same page.

Great project managers excel in balancing the input, feedback, and needs of internal and external stakeholders. You'll need to build customer-centric products that still meet internal organizational goals, leveraging advanced tools such as customer management software to streamline interactions and enhance relationships.

Empathy for customers and continued customer feedback is key. Your products need to be well-received to meet business goals. Listening to your customers and communicating that input to your team will help to set you apart.

However, internal needs are just as important. Products have to align with the larger company vision. Product adoption depends as much on fulfilling customer pain points as it does on meeting internal expectations.

Prioritizing internal over external needs or vice versa is a flawed strategy. A brilliant idea won't go far if it cannot satisfy both sides of the equation.

Achieving that balance means focusing on outcomes rather than outputs. More products mean little if they don't satisfy core needs and goals. The benefits to customers mean more than the list of features of a given product.

What are some product manager specializations?

The craft of product management is complex. You'll enter this career path as a junior product manager. In some organizations, entry-level professionals will first enter a more specialized role that matches their experience and skillset. Examples include:

  • Technical product managers focus on managing the actual product build. You'll likely need an engineering or technical background such as software development and oversee steps such as research, MVP creation, and feature development.
  • Design product managers focus on the visual design of the product and how users will interact with it. User feedback becomes crucial to create a better user experience.
  • Growth product managers are driven by analytics and numbers. A more highly-adopted product is a successful product. Strong analytical skills are a must.

Success in one of these areas can lead to career advancement. Senior business product managers may oversee multiple specializations with a more holistic outlook on business success.

What are the key soft (human) skills needed to be a great product manager?

Being a product manager requires a baseline of technical skills including user research, analytics, and software development. To become a great product manager, you'll also need a few foundational soft skills to stand out from other candidates. Those skills include:

  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Big-picture thinking
  • Attention to detail
  • Time management and organizational skills.

Let's examine each of these skills in more detail.

Why are communication skills important?

To lead your own team, you'll need to communicate well. You'll need excellent communication skills when building relationships and trust with stakeholders.

There's an argument to be made that PMs communicate more than any other business role. On an average day, you might:

  • Hold a morning standup meeting with your product team
  • Conduct interviews and focus groups for user feedback
  • Provide written status reports to key stakeholders
  • Outline anticipated product features to company leadership
  • Justify product decisions to your team
  • Oversee and mentor junior product managers
  • Summarize tested product experiences for your team to make improvements.

You might need to become a mediator within your team. You might have to create visual reports of product progress and roadmaps. You might need to explain engineering concepts to your customer research team or research concepts to their engineering counterparts.

Successful business project managers need to know when to apply affective communication and when neutral communication is more appropriate. The most successful project leaders can adapt their communication style to suit the needs and motivations of key stakeholders to push toward successful outcomes. 

Invite your project team to each take the free F4S assessment. Then set up a team in the F4S platform to map individual motivations and communication styles. This will help you to excel and accelerate successful outcomes.

How can leadership skills accelerate success?

To become a great product manager, strong leadership skills are essential. You'll need to oversee the entire product development process and key stakeholders from business areas such as marketing, communications, sales, engineering, and finance. The project teams you'll oversee include:

  • Cross-functional teams
  • Development teams
  • Design teams
  • Engineering teams.

The best project managers excel at establishing high-performing cross-functional teams. For larger teams, each functional group may send a representative to a single product team. Strong leadership skills help the project manager ensure a successful product launch. That includes tasks such as:

  • Establishing a clear product strategy and roadmap
  • Defining clear business outcomes
  • Assigning and overseeing individual roles and responsibilities within the product team
  • Managing the product from vision to launch and beyond.

Product designers have different motivations compared to engineering managers. An engineer might have a high motivation for detail and problem-solving, while a product manager may focus on the big picture. You might not have direct authority over their work. But you'll need to know how to communicate with them depending on their motivations.

Managing your team, from product meetups to daily work, requires a high level of emotional intelligence (EQ) and its four core traits1:

  • Relationship management, building relationships with both internal and external stakeholders. The best relationships are based on mutual trust and a shared desire to achieve a mutual goal.
  • Self-awareness, which includes knowing your own cognitive biases. That way, you can remain objective and avoid projecting those biases onto others. Despite having expertise, you need to be able to defer to the needs and desires of an audience that might be less informed.
  • Self-starter. The product manager role is often stressful, especially considering potential conflicting priorities. Deadlines and budgets can be tight. Building a great product culture means not just knowing which priorities matter, but also when to step away and take a breath.
  • Social awareness. Customer feedback matters in building a more customer-centric product and business. So do your own team's thoughts and expertise. Being able to read your surroundings and support your team in the right areas can go a long way toward succeeding in a product management job.

A high EQ also means knowing when working independently makes sense and when your teams can benefit from belongingness.

Why are big-picture thinking skills important?

Product managers have to be visionaries. In addition to overseeing daily work, they need to connect product goals to larger business objectives.

Daily life is a constant balance between daily tasks and big-picture thinking. You cannot emphasize one over the other. Instead, both sides need to equally play into developing great products.

Exceptional product managers are able to keep that big-picture vision in mind at all times. They are able to connect even the smallest decision to their potential strategic ripple effects down the road.

This type of big-picture thinking and divergent thinking drives innovation. Without it, you cannot think outside of the box. Any improvements will likely be incremental, causing you to miss the opportunity for significant changes. Steve Jobs invented the iPhone not because customers wanted it, but because he anticipated the market trends that would cause customers to need it in the future. Those who are able to bring in fresh thoughts and rapidly turn customer feedback into products and features can develop new, innovative products centered around customer needs.

Why develop an attention to detail?

Big-picture thinking is only half of the equation. Awesome product managers never stop thinking about the day-to-day tactical development process. You'll need to be equally as detail-oriented as you are able to see the big picture.

Focusing too much on one or the other can be detrimental:

  • Emphasizing only strategy means missing small details and tweaks that could improve the product. It might be a small UI improvement or a change to make a process more efficient. The product, built with great intention, might not perform as well.
  • Focusing only on small tactics means building a potentially great product that doesn't help anyone. A lack of strategic oversight can cause the process to go off-track. It might be technically great, but it no longer achieves customer requirements or company objectives.

To be a product leader, you'll need a healthy mix of these vital soft skills. Your team will look to you for the strategic overview. But you'll also be able to see tactical improvements that can help the entire process.

Why are time management and organizational skills important?

Managing a product development cycle requires constant multitasking. The process is never linear. Planning, design, engineering, and testing will often overlap to happen concurrently to keep tight deadlines and budgets.

Consider the typical agile engineering process in product design:

  • Initial planning and brainstorming moves to a minimum viable product that can be quickly rolled out.
  • While the engineers build the products, designers already plan more complex versions.
  • The MVP receives initial testing and user feedback.
  • The feedback feeds back into brainstorming and making improvements.
  • Improvement suggestions move into new, iterative design and engineering phases.

At each stage, the MVP incrementally improves. But they all happen at the same time, turning the development process into a circle rather than a linear timeline.

For the product leader, that means constant decision-making on the tasks that matter most. Prioritizing tasks, making improvements, and adjusting budgets is a constant balancing act.

Closely connected to prioritization is the PM's time management skillset. You'll need to know how to prioritize your and your team's time to optimize product development. It's about developing your ability to stick to a schedule. You might even need to include shifting work from one team member to another to optimize everyone's time on the project.

How to develop great product manager skills

Strong analytical skills are vital to becoming a great product manager. So is communication, leadership, and effective team management. You'll need to develop the right traits for the profession.

Fortunately, you're not alone.

At Fingerprint for Success, we can help you develop these soft skills. We've studied the human skills of the world's top performers for more than 20 years, which allows us to help you improve your career opportunities.

We know what it takes to succeed in product management. Our assessment will identify your motivations and blind spots and help you develop the skills to become a great product manager.

Take our assessment today. Once you're done (it only takes 15 to 20 mins), you can set a goal for your personal development. During your coaching sessions with AI Coach Marlee, you'll receive personalized insights related to your goal and motivations. Those insights also help figure out your blindspots, and where you most need to improve. Our free F4S coaching is perfect to help you excel in a career in product management.


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How long does it take to become a great product manager?

Expect to take between four and six years to become a product manager. Becoming a great product manager likely takes six to eight years. That includes a general higher-education degree at the bachelor's level and a specialized master's degree or certification, and at least some work experience.

What higher education is required?

Product managers don't have a formal educational path. Instead, you'll need to earn a higher education degree in a general field such as business management or marketing.

These fields provide general knowledge of the soft skills mentioned above. But advancing from your current role will likely require advanced training.

For example, you can earn a master's degree in product management or take certification courses on the subject. Online courses are available for many of these programs. In the United States, nearly 50% of all product managers have a master's or doctoral degree.1

Globally, about 70% of product managers have a bachelor's degree, and 20% have a master's degree.2

What licenses, certifications, and registrations are needed?

There is no formal licensing requirement for product managers. A few organizations offer certifications that can enhance your prospects and demonstrate your qualifications at first glance:

  • Certificate in Product Ownership by the International Institute of Business Analysis
  • Certified Product Manager by the Association of International Product Marketing & Management
  • Product Manager Certificate by the Product School (United States)
  • Product Management Certificate by the UK Public College (Great Britain)

Certifications in technical skills such as data analysis or user experience can also be beneficial. None are required for your career. But they can set you apart from other candidates in your job search.

What internships and apprenticeships do aspiring product managers need?

Product managers do not need an apprenticeship to begin their careers. In most countries, including the US, many start as interns to gain initial experience before moving into a full-time junior role.

However, internships are not required to start a career in this field. The other common path is a general business management internship leading to a junior product manager role.

But ultimately, practical product management experience will be your most valuable asset. Getting into the industry as a junior product manager helps you better understand the processes involved. You can use that knowledge along with product management classes toward a certificate to advance in the profession.

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What are the career opportunities and outlook for the best product managers in the industry?

In the United States, the demand for product managers has doubled in the last five years. It's why Glassdoor puts this career path as the 4th most desirable job in the US.3

Globally, there are an estimated 20+ million job openings in product management-related roles. that demand is estimated to keep growing over the next five years.4

Product managers take on leadership roles in their organizations. You'll oversee the product team and move from junior to specialized and senior product leaders. However, you will encounter a ceiling as you do not advance above senior product managers in most cases.

In fact, 34% of product managers leave the profession because of a lack of advancement opportunities.3 In most cases, you'll move into more advanced roles such as COO or CMO that oversee more than just product development.

Where can the most effective product managers work?

Product managers are needed in every industry and in both the public and private sectors. Some of the top companies employing these professionals include:

  • Microsoft
  • Amazon
  • Uber
  • HBSC
  • Salesforce
  • Phillips
  • AirBNB

For example, Amazon alone employs hundreds of product managers around the globe.5

Succeeding in this role means finding a company that matches your priorities. Ensure an overlap in these factors:

  • The company's mission and vision
  • The company's organizational culture
  • The type of product, as it relates to your skill set
  • Potential advancement opportunities
  • Sufficient prioritization of product management as a distinct role in the development process.

How much can product managers earn?

The average salary for product managers in the US is USD$108,992. Globally, that number rises to just over USD$110,000.5

Pay differs dramatically by country. To list a few examples:

  • Product managers in India earn just over USD$21,000 per year.5
  • Product managers in Brazil earn around USD$33,000 per year.5
  • Product managers in the UK earn around USD$65,000 per year.5

However, these variables come with one constant. In most global industries, product managers earn significantly more than the average median income. In India, the average pay is about 250% above the median of Rs 23,000 per month.

Your pay will also depend on your industry. Product managers at tech companies such as Microsoft or Uber can easily earn more than USD$200,000 per year. At smaller startups, your initial salary may be lower.

Frequently asked questions

What makes a great product manager?

Great product managers share a few qualities:

  • They balance attention to tactical details with the ability to see the big strategic picture.
  • They focus on outcomes over outputs.
  • They never lose track of the product roadmap and overall goals.
  • They lead cross-functional product development teams, including members not reporting to them.
  • They leverage experts beyond themselves instead of trying to micro-manage the process.
  • They have the right mix of hard and soft skills to tackle unique and complex challenges.

What are the highest-paying product manager companies?

The highest paid product management jobs tend to be in the tech sector. Meta, Microsoft, Amazon, Uber, and Accenture are some examples. Engineering giants such as Boeing and Airbus also tend to be near the top of the list.

Who are the most famous product managers?

Some of the most famous product managers in history include:

  • Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple
  • Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft
  • Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon
  • Larry Page, co-founder of Google
  • Michael Dell, founder of Dell

Famous product managers typically achieve acclaim when they invent, build, and market a groundbreaking product. In all of these examples, the founders of now-iconic brands had to start with typical product management tasks and skills to get their products off the ground.

What books describe how to be a great product manager?

Some inspirational books for product managers include:

  • Inspired: How to Create Tech Products That Customers Love (2017)
  • The Product Book: How to Become a Great Product Manager (2017)
  • Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (2014)
  • The Lean Product Playbook (2015)
  • Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value (2020)

How do you become a group product manager?

To become a group product manager, you'll need at least seven to ten years of product management experience. That's because you'll oversee individual product managers. Knowing their roles and responsibility can help with management.

Group product managers typically manage the individual products that are part of a larger product brand or line. For example, Microsoft may have a group product manager for all of its Office 365 products. The group product manager oversees individual product managers who are responsible for products such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

How do I become a product manager with no experience?

You can become a junior product manager with no experience as long as you have the right soft skills. You'll need to prove that you have the communication, leadership, and organizational skills needed to succeed. Interest in the industry you're entering will also be helpful. Finally, you can interact and build relationships with professionals in networking groups such as LinkedIn's Project Manager Community (545k members) or the r/ProjectManagement subreddit (107k members).

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