#1 Skill That A Product Manager Needs To Have

King Solomon Had The #1 Skill That Product Managers Need
King Solomon Had The #1 Skill That Product Managers Need

Yes, I will tell you what this skill is; however, do you think that you can guess it before I do? I’m sure that you can come up with the standard list of leadership skills that every product manager has (or at least should have): able to deal with pressure, able to lead people, vision, positive attitude, creativity, etc.

However, those would all be good to have, but none of them would be the #1 skill that a product manager needs to have. Give up? The answer is …

Good Judgment.

The ability to make good decisions is the #1 skill that any product manager needs to have because making decisions is such a large part of what we do each and every day. Two well known business thinkers / authors also agree with me: Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis.

Noel and Warren say that judgment can be broken up into three different sets of skills: picking who will be on your team (people), picking what challenges you take on (strategy), and picking what to do when tough times hit (crisis decisions).

People, people, people. Decisions about which people a product manger is going to interact with and have on his / her team are THE most important decisions that they will ever make.

Don’t believe me? Then maybe you’ll believe Jack Welsh who said that the thing that he failed at the most during his storied career was moving too slowly in making people judgments even when he had all of the data that he needed.

Tichy reports that when he’s giving speeches he’ll ask the audience what the worse judgment that they every made was and invariably about 75% of the people will say that they were about people. If a product manager can get the right people on his / her team, then they have solved more than half of the problem.

Next comes what product strategy a product manger wants to pursue. In our world, more often than not this comes down to picking what types of customers we want to go after with our products.

Our sales teams are all too often filled with salespeople who will happily go after every customer that they can get a meeting with. However, this is a great way to waste time until all of the money is gone. Picking the right customers from the get-go and going after them aggressively is what a good product manager makes happen.

Bad things happen and a product manager who is ready for them is a product manager who has real-world survival skills. When the whole world seems to have flipped upside down (like when the stock market drops 700 points in a single day!), a product manager who can remain calm and still make good decisions is worth his/her weight in gold.

Now this ability is probably as much an art as it is a science; however, at the end of the day it always requires that the product manger know all of the available facts about the situation. To put it simply, the ability to collect the facts is one of the simple secrets behind a product manager’s ability to make good judgments.

How good of a job of making judgments do you think that you do? Do you feel that people, strategy, or crisis decision making is your strongest skill? Have you ever made a bad people judgment? What was the result of this judgment? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.

17 thoughts on “#1 Skill That A Product Manager Needs To Have”

  1. Andrew: I hate to show my age, but when asked this question I always think back to the rock group Rush’s song “New World Man” in which they say “… He’s old enough to know what’s right, But young enough not to choose it.”

    I view wisdom as knowing what the correct answer is. I view judgment as knowing what the right thing to do is. Note that these are two completely different things!

  2. The question I have is without having years of experience, how do you establish proper judgement? I know that with me I had to make mistakes and errors before I learned the right way to do things.

  3. Abid: ah ha! That is the secret to being a good Product Manager. Look, if you don’t have years of experience to fall back on, then what you need to do is to come up with a backup plan. One easy way to handle judgment decisions is to ask another peer / mentor what they would do – use their years of experience. If that’s not possible, then make a decision and set up a “trip-point” where you will revisit the decision and make changes if it’s not going the way that you had expected it to go. Oh, and make sure that you learn from your experiences!

  4. Thanks Jim. I’m still relatively fresh as a Product Manager, only having managed 3-4 products at two companies over the past 3-4 years. I’ve have the benefit/detriment of being in a situation where I was the sole voice on PM decisions and thats been the biggest help to shaping my judgment ability.

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  6. Oh no, I have to disagree. I am 100% convinced that the number 1 skill a product manager needs is COMMUNICATION. The best product managers are lobbyists, sales man, purchasers, politicians, diplomats. Think: Ghandi+Alan Sugar+Koffi Annan+Barak Obama and you’re getting closer to the perfect product manager. The best product managers don’t need great judgement, they need the ability to collate evidence from their customers to prove or disprove their product roadmap meets their needs.

    • PPM: I think that we’re going to have to disagree on this one. In all honesty, a product manager who was a lousy communicator but who had great judgment would beat out one who had great communication but lousy judgment. With all that being said, I think that you’ve done a great job of capturing what makes the product manger job so madding: you need to have such a diverse mix of skills to do the job well…

      • I tend to agree with PPM: Product Management is all about making decisions, which require good judgement, but the prime skill of a product manager is facilitating those desicions and creating buy-in of all stakeholders.

        A product manager can never oversee all consequences by himself (unless you’re a very, very small company) so the prime skill is to bring all stakeholders together, get a desicion making proces in place and make sure the right decisions are made with buy-in of all stakeholders.

        A Product Manager that makes (dictatorial) judgment and choices all by himself is doomed to fail.

        • Leon: I think that you’ve hit it on the head – product mangers don’t “do” that much, rather they “make” things happen. Talk about a tough job!

  7. I think decision making comes from within, what common sense you have upstairs combined with aliitle analytical smarts can take you along way in the world of judgment and good decision making..

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