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5 Non-Obvious Skills Product Managers Should Master

Over the years, I’ve read countless articles about essential skills for product managers. They all mention the usual suspects: strong communication skills, leadership ability, decision-making, and so on. Basically, the same skills we’ve been developing since childhood or college.

But what about the stuff they hardly taught us in school? Some soft skills, like the five I’ll discuss here, have the power to elevate your career. Master these, and it’ll get easier to deal with the ups and downs of this amazing (read: crazy) job.

1. Positive thinking and faith in your product

What do many great innovators and entrepreneurs have in common? A positive outlook and firm belief in what they are building. In one of my favorite books, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow,’ Daniel Kahneman talks about how optimism helps us live longer and find success sooner. He also calls it a ‘pervasive bias’ that causes entrepreneurs to overestimate the value of their business, pushing them to take crucial (potentially life-changing) risks.

Let’s apply the same theory to product managers (we share an entrepreneurial spirit, after all). Having faith in your product doesn’t guarantee its success, but it gives your work a sense of purpose. It injects life into your product pitches and helps rally your team around a shared goal.

Positive thinking also encourages you to take important risks, such as adopting new technology before it blows up, testing a new pricing model, or greenlighting the development of an exciting, yet expensive, feature.

Kahneman points out that the key is to “accentuate the positive without losing track of reality.” I have a positive mindset and fully believe in Coupler.io, but I still take a data-driven approach to decision-making. Regardless of my opinions or predictions, I value team and stakeholder input. With this skill, it’s all about striking a balance.

2. Public speaking

Not a fan of talking to crowds or giving solo presentations? Research shows that public speaking is one of the most common fears, so, you’re not alone. Yet, for the sake of your career and product success, it’s a fear worth conquering.

Last year, while attending Web Summit, I saw product managers who struggled to pitch their products and keep a small audience engaged. Some didn’t even have a prototype on hand, making it impossible to grasp the purpose or value of what they were selling. I imagine their potential customers felt the same way.

See, the ability to persuade, tell a great story, and keep an audience’s attention – it’s practically a superpower in this business. Persuasive speech topics can help you create great presentations, and great presentations have the potential to boost sales and propel product engagement. They can also help you connect with thought leaders and unlock new professional opportunities (e.g. mentorship, lecturing roles, etc).

So, what’s the secret to becoming a better public speaker? For most people, it’s practice. Before you head to a conference or external meetup, I’d highly recommend rehearsing your pitch with a trusted colleague. Use every product demo call, all-hands meeting, or investor pitch as an opportunity to refine your skills.

3. Empathy

Product management is the craft of translating customer needs and goals into a comprehensive solution. To do that well, we need to be able to see the problem through a customer’s eyes.

An empathetic approach to product development ensures customers feel understood, motivating them to recommend your product to their friends. It spurs you to make targeted, customer-centric decisions that lead to better business outcomes. And it even benefits the product team. A recent EY survey found that mutual empathy between leaders and employees increases efficiency, creativity, idea sharing, and innovation within the organization. A win-win-win for customers, product, and team.

But empathy isn’t something you can ‘master’ overnight. Take it slow and start with the basics. Aim to understand your ideal customer as deeply as a close friend. Grasp their frustrations and motivations, learn how they think, and make decisions. Care about their problems as if they were your own. The point is, you can’t do this halfheartedly – when it comes to empathizing with customers, you have to be all in.

4. Resilience

Remember, failure is part of the journey. You will miss a crucial target, prioritize the wrong issue, or bet on a feature that quickly flops, at least once in your career. And if you’re in the startup space like me, you’ll know the odds are stacked against us at the highest level. We’re dealing with the reality that 9 out of 10 products fail (here’s where those positive thinking skills come in handy!)

Mistakes and challenges are inevitable. But if you can stand up, dust yourself off, and keep going – without losing faith or momentum – you’ll grow into a confident and well-respected leader.

How do you build resilience? I guess the answer is complicated and different for everyone. However, developing your emotional intelligence, so you can better understand your emotions and how to cope with them, is a good place to start. I also find that taking calculated risks (in both my career and everyday work), nurturing my support network, and asking for constructive feedback at work is critical.

5. Compromise

As product managers, we always strive to build the best features, the best product, and the best team. It’s a natural impulse. But unfortunately, perfectionists make bad product managers. You can’t simultaneously chase perfection and success, at least, not in the fast-evolving world of tech.

Here’s a mantra of mine: If you spend ages trying to build the perfect plane, someone will fly over you eventually. Maybe they’re flying over in a tin can with stuck-on feathers, but it won’t matter, because they’ve got something that works.

Mastering compromise in product development is about knowing where to cut corners, without being sloppy. It’s about knowing which features to prioritize and how to start with an MVP. Perhaps most importantly, it’s about connecting with customers and creating feedback loops, so you can make improvements over time. I do that by initiating CustDev interviews, running product demo calls, and analyzing customer requests. In the end, those short-term compromises hardly made a splash.

Final thoughts

What’s the point of being a spreadsheet guru if you can’t relate to the customer’s struggle? What’s the use in being an expert in agile methodologies, if you can’t bring yourself to make crucial product compromises? Soft skills are just as important as hard skills. We shouldn’t underestimate the positive impact they can have on our careers.

I hope my list of non-obvious skills helps you pinpoint new areas of improvement. We’re all on a collective journey to become better decision-makers and leaders – even better friends or parents. It’s one of the reasons why I continue to share my insights with the product management community. So if you liked this article, keep an eye out for more!