So you are a Product Manager. Have you thought what skills do you need to succeed at your career though? Shobhit Chugh – Ex-Google Product Manager helping PMs fast-track their career – says it’s time to treat your career like a product!
He gave us advice on product manager skills that are needed to achieve success + his personal story, ups and downs of building a successful product team in Google.
How did you end up becoming a product manager? Tell us a few words about your path to product, your career, and your current position as a mentor of product panagers.
My path to Product Manager was Engineering -> Sales Engineering -> MBA -> Startup -> Management Consulting -> Product Management. It was long. But see, that’s the thing. There is no typical path to becoming a product manager. Everyone gets there on a different approach.
What I have observed as a product manager is that there is such a strong need for mentorship. It’s a hands-on profession where I cannot teach you to tackle the day-to-day challenges in a class. You need coaching and mentorship. This realization led me to launch Intentional Product Manager so that I could mentor product managers at scale.
What was/were the biggest challenge(s) for you in building your first product team? What mistakes did you make and what mistakes do you see PMs make most often?
The first mistakes were hiring mistakes 🙂
When I built my first team, I realized that I had not hired for the company environment.
The company was a hot new startup, but in some sense, still discovering product-market fit.
I hired folks that were either recent graduates or those that had worked in corporate environments. I needed someone to come in and build credibility fast. The PMs who did not work out either acted as order takers or claimed complete ownership without establishing credibility. They didn’t have the right qualities to succeed at a PM role in a startup.
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Speaking of PM qualities – What qualities do you think one needs to be a successful Product Manager?
I subscribe to professor Mohanbir Sawhney’s view of the definition of the role of a product manager. You are three things:
- An orchestrator who ensures the entire team and company works towards making the product successful
- Voice of the customer who shows genuine empathy and understands customer needs deeply.
- A business owner who manages the product as a business
Interesting. Moving up the ranks a bit – What qualities do you need specifically to be a great leader in product, as you become more senior?
There are lots. But the following would be the main ones in my opinion. I wrote these in my blog on military ownership and product management:
Product Manager Skill #1: True ownership above all
The leader is ultimately responsible for everything.
If something went wrong, it is your fault. If the team did not test the software, it is your fault. If the product leaked your user’s data, it is your fault. If the team over-engineered the product, it is your fault.
While this point of view might seem disheartening and discouraging at first, it can empower you. Once you start to take real ownership, you begin to understand there are more facets of the product than you considered at first. And it means you now start to empower the people who will be executing them fully.
But it goes beyond that.
When you take on this attitude, your team feels it. Your team gets inspired by the approach — and by the knowledge they have a leader who will not blame them, but instead, support them, motivate them, and help them achieve what is right by the product.
You must stay loyal to the team and the mission.
I remember one empowering conversation I had with a leader at my company. After a phase where things did not go well, we were debriefing. After some discussion, they told me, “Shobhit, you decide what you want to take responsibility for.”
The conversation was empowering, but also a wake-up call. By not taking full ownership, I was letting my team down.
As a product manager and leader, you must take full ownership.
Product Manager Skill #2: Believe in the mission
You must believe in the mission. And if you don’t, you must keep questioning your boss, their boss, all stakeholders until you either believe in the task or you change their mind.
Product Manager Skill #3: Decisiveness amid uncertainty
Leaders must stay decisive amid uncertainty. They must make decisions with logic, even when emotion threatens to override all logic.
Some of the best moments I have experienced in my product management career have been when I said:
“Hi team. This decision is difficult. I might not be 100% right, but it’s time to make the decision. Here is the decision, and here is why I made it. Thank you, now let’s make it happen!”
That’s interesting. Do you teach these product management skills in your programs? Tell us more about the education and mentorship you’re providing for product managers.
My programs are all based on a combination of coaching, mentorship and best practices, all supported by an amazing community. 300+ PMs have benefitted by now!
I run four programs:
- The Intentional Product Experience program enables both aspiring product managers and product managers with mainly execution-focused experience to learn product management skills – focused on discovery and strategy – in a practical manner while working with a company
- Product Leader Blueprint is a ten-week mentorship program that helps you become a highly respected visible product leader with a crystal clear career path, even if you feel invisible today
- Intentional job search enables you to land that dream product management role and make more money even if you feel unqualified today
- My one on one coaching helps you achieve the peak of your potential as a product leader with a crystal clear career path, even if you feel there is a gap today
What would you advise someone who wants to break into the Product Management field? Is a specific background required to be a good product manager?
What you need to position yourself as a PM is ideally:
- Some experience building and shipping products e.g., as an engineer
- Experiences where you displayed huge amounts of customer empathy
- Some business and strategy knowledge
I recommend that you do two things:
- Leverage side projects as much as possible to get practical experience. Whatever you can.
- Position yourself strategically. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you need a few years of product management experience to be a product manager. That does not make any sense! Believe you can.
- Get the best help you can.
- What would you advise PMs who want to become better at their work?
I can write a book on this (P.S.: that might have been a hint).
But the most significant two things would be:
Product Management Skill #4: Run your job, and don’t let the job run you.
Most product managers are overwhelmed by the day-to-day, tactical things they must do to stay afloat rather than working on the strategic initiatives that move your company and career forward.
Yet they keep adding more stuff.
Most people will tell you that you need to be there for your team all the time. Immediately answer any questions they have, make sure engineers are never blocked, all items are squared away right away.
My clients have time clocked for strategic work, where they focus and work ALONE on strategic initiatives even if I manage a large engineering team.
How the hell is that possible?
It’s possible when you take control of the job and not just do things because someone thought of a good idea.
It’s possible when you work on your mindset and get the courage to say no to people.
It’s possible when you empower your team to make those decisions.
You have limited time. You can continue to waste it in email and messages and customer service calls and useless meetings, or you can decide now that you are going to make the impact that you want to drive.
Product Management Skill #5: You must treat your career like a product.
Most product managers do everything asked of them, in the hope that they will be given recognition.
They don’t have a promotion roadmap.
They don’t have a career strategy.
They don’t have stakeholder alignment on their career strategy.
They don’t even communicate their achievements in a way that they get credit for it.
Would you have been proud of such a product? One with no clearly defined narrative, a strategy, and with no stakeholder buy-in?
It’s time to treat your career as a product.
Because once you do, You get PROMOTED as a by-product of doing the excellent work, and you don’t have to fight for it.
You have stakeholders looking out to get your promoted as they themselves rise to the next level.
You get recruiters noticing you and reaching out to you for amazing roles outside your company.
Wow. This is so insightful, thank you Shobhit. To wrap things up: What do you think is the future of product management? Cross-functional product teams? AI taking over PM’s jobs? 😉 What product Management Skills will matter in 2050?
AI will never take over PM’s jobs! I believe that coaching product management skill sets will become even more important, and PMs will start to act as coaches working with many many teams. You might even have one PM to like 50 engineers, as long as the PM can train the 10 squads of engineers to think like product managers.
Shobhit worked as a Product Manager at Google, Tamr, Lattice_Engines, and Adaptly, before moving on to embark on a career as a professional coach for product managers. You can contact him on LinkedIn.