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What makes a great product manager: a guide for top-performing teams
A product manager (PM) advocates for users, effortlessly collaborates across teams, and puts out metaphorical fires—all before lunch.
Overseeing a product development cycle is no easy feat. But with the right combination of skills, a good product manager juggles their responsibilities with ease and ensures their product’s success.
Learning how to be an effective product manager takes time and experience. You have to excel at four main responsibilities:
Define the product vision and roadmap to align teams and release products and features on time
Understand what users want and need through market research to ensure that your product hits the mark
Prioritize product features to ensure you deliver a product that makes customers and stakeholders happy
Analyze and report on your team’s and product’s progress to drive continuous improvement
These responsibilities are much easier when a PM has five essential skills:
User empathy to ask thoughtful questions about—and listen carefully to—what people want in a product
Communication to facilitate product team meetings and converse with cross-functional teams
Flexibility to pivot as the market or business changes or as hurdles arise
Leadership to inspire action, including from other team members
Strategic and analytical thinking to understand how to optimize your product to reach long-term goals
What does a product manager do?
A PM oversees a product through its entire lifecycle, shaping the product strategy and development. To do this, a good PM must strike a balance between building a business case, championing user needs, and communicating with the engineering team.
1. Define the product vision and roadmap
Product managers research the competitive landscape, customer needs, and development requirements to create a vision that articulates a product’s direction and aligns with the company’s business objectives.
Then, PMs create a product roadmap that lays out a plan on how they’re going to bring this vision to life. The product roadmap aligns and inspires internal teams—and helps them get buy-in from executives.
An argument for how the product helps the business achieve its goals
Required features for the product
A step-by-step development plan with delivery dates and milestones
Product success metrics
2. Understand what users want and need
Product managers are dedicated to understanding their customers, so they can create a product and develop new features to solve their problems. Not content to simply guess what they might want in a product, PMs dive deep into quantitative and qualitative data by
Gathering product feedback from surveys and on-site feedback widgets
Interviewing users or conducting focus groups
Reading customer reviews online
Analyzing support tickets
PMs use these inputs to understand customer pain points, learn how to continue to improve the product, and tweak their strategy to develop a better user experience (UX). This helps boost customer satisfaction and product success in the marketplace.
3. Prioritize product features
Product managers have to decide which features customers need and when to roll them out. This requires a rock-solid understanding of user needs, but it’s not quite as simple as fulfilling every request of customers or sales reps.
PMs have to weigh which features
Fit with the company’s strategic goals
Align with the product’s vision
Are technically feasible to develop
Are viable based on conversations with sales, marketing, and legal teams
Provide the most delightful UX
Offer the greatest trade-off of cost to return on investment (ROI)
Ideally, a product manager won’t decide how to prioritize features alone. Instead, they guide a team through a product prioritization framework like story mapping or the RICE scoring model, which gauges reach, impact, confidence, and effort.
4. Analyze and report
Excellent product managers go beyond following their gut instincts when making product changes. They keep a close eye on key performance indicators (KPIs) to
Track financial progress with metrics like monthly recurring revenue (MRR)
Learn which features are most popular
Gauge customer satisfaction with metrics like Net Promoter Score® (NPS)
Report progress to stakeholders
If the product doesn’t meet its performance goals, it’s the PM’s job to make adjustments to the vision or plan. This is especially key for PMs leaning into a product-led growth (PLG) strategy, which focuses on having an optimum UX to delight users and generate sales through word of mouth.
💡 Pro tip: use a comprehensive product experience insights suite like Hotjar to easily gather and analyze UX data. With tools like Heatmaps to see what users engage with and ignore on your website and Surveys to let users weigh in on product features, you gain even more insights to supplement other analytics tools in your tech stack.
5 essential skills of a product manager
To carry out their daily tasks, a product manager needs to have a unique assortment of technical and soft skills—personal attributes that influence their work style and habits. The difference between a typical product manager and an outstanding one often comes down to these competencies.
1. User empathy
PMs are laser-focused on meeting users’ needs, so empathy for their experience is a must. Exceptional product managers look closely at user behavior, unpacking what it might convey (often before a user can even articulate their own needs). They genuinely care for their customers, and collect and analyze user feedback to drive empathy-driven design.
PMs have to be able to communicate clearly across functions. They use business talk with executives, tech-speak with devs, and popular metrics with sales and customer support teams. They know how to use language to motivate team members in daily or weekly meetings or via written communication. With all stakeholders, they convey the product narrative through creative storytelling and use their understanding of audience needs to articulate the product vision in a compelling way.
Product storytelling is important for PMs to do on their own, but it's also an excellent activity to include others in. When you share why you're building something with stakeholders who have diverse interests, product story mapping is a great way to capture everyone's opinions and get product consensus. The more product managers can include stakeholders in the product narrative, the stronger product consensus will be.
Agile product management is popular for a reason: it’s an iterative approach to software development that allows for flexibility in roadmapping and incorporating customer feedback. Whether or not a PM follows this methodology, adaptability is the name of the game in product management. PMs may have to change roll-out strategies in response to market shifts, or find ways around obstacles like software bugs that delay release dates. When faced with challenges, they find outside-the-box ways to achieve their product vision and goals.
PMs have a keen ability to delegate, empowering others to make decisions on their own to contribute to the product’s progress. They motivate the product team to ensure high morale and coordinate dependencies with other teams. Instead of maintaining a top-down mentality, an exceptional project manager leads from within the team. They’re always ready to jump in to secure approvals or write call-to-action (CTA) button copy to ensure a feature ships on time.
5. Strategic and analytical thinking
A product manager excels at thinking strategically as they create high-level, big-picture plans for a launch and beyond. At the same time, they need analytical thinking skills—the ability to break down data to learn how to improve and optimize the product. While some people shine at one skill or the other, a stellar PM zooms in and out between the two effortlessly in their role.
Become an outstanding product manager
With the right skills and competencies—and a capacity for creativity and curiosity—a product manager transforms from good to exceptional. They elevate the product team and help create a product that delights users. While a typical PM’s daily workflow consists of planning → launching → reporting → optimizing (in that order), an exceptional PM prioritizes their tasks differently. We’ve structured the rest of this guide to follow this hierarchy. Keep reading for more on how to become a successful product manager.
Optimizing: how do great product managers improve and optimize what's already working?
Reporting: how do great product managers create insightful and actionable reports?
Fixing issues: how do great product managers spot bugs and UX issues and fix them?
Planning: how do great product managers prioritize new initiatives to unlock more growth?