Product Managers: Doing nothing is a lot of work

It’s a question every product manager faces: What do you do, exactly? I got it from a newly appointed Executive Vice President of Marketing, to whom all the Product Managers reported, about eight years ago. After a short reflection, my answer was simple. Sort of. They do nothing—but it’s a lot of work.

It was certainly not the answer he was expecting, and I somehow felt compelled to provide a further explanation to my boss’s boss if, for no other reason, than to keep my job.

But at least I got his attention.

Before I offer the explanation I passed along to him, it’s important to recognize that there are many different types of product managers. Some are focussed on the technical side of things, defining specifications and feature requirements. On the other side of the spectrum, PMs are sometime called the “mini-CEOs” of their products. That is, they drive the business of that specific offering for the company.

As with many things, the truth often resides in the gray area somewhere in between—and product managers tend to evolve, anyway, often starting with a technical focus and moving to a more business-like focus as their career progresses.

So, if they do nothing, how can it be a lot of work?

I’ve come to use the acronym “CPoC” over time to best summarize the PM’s work. It stands for “central point of communication.” Although they don’t produce anything that the end-user will ever touch—except for the infamous MRD and, if I had my way, the media release—the product manager’s priority is to make sure everyone works toward delivering products that delight the customers, on time and budget. It is a leadership position through influence—with no actual authority.

Every great product manager I’ve worked with offers a mix of strong project-management skills and excellent interpersonal skills. They are also able to build relationships with everyone involved. Similar to an orchestra conductor, they know every note of the score and use that knowledge to enable the whole orchestra to be much more than the sum of the individual musicians. They bring along their passion, expertise and attention so the organization can deliver products—in their case, music—crafted with care.

In his article, Black Box of Product Management, Brandon Chu wrote “PMs know just enough of each discipline to be responsible for the entire product development system”. While I agree that overall, they need to be generalists and not specialists, product managers need to understand the big picture, yet be able to drill down into the details and leverage the expertise of individual team members.

The best product managers can connect the dots and quickly understand the implications of a potential decision. More importantly, they are not afraid to take decisions and move the whole product forward, even when faced with too little information.

As quoted in the Ken Yueng article titled Product Managers: Who are these ‘mini-CEOs’ and what do they do?, Wealthfront’s Adam Nash states that “. . .besides the obvious ones where you need to focus on the customer, have design-based thinking, and knowing what is and isn’t possible, . . .PMs need to have an appreciation for leading while also understanding that it’s about solving the holistic problem.”

In addition, the CPoC designation implies that the product manager is also going to be the top evangelist, both internally and externally. As well as being the voice of the product for the outside world, as he is usually the key speaker during press tours, trade shows and sometimes customer presentations, the PM must also preach to internal teams such as sales and customer support. The PM is also the voice of the users inside the organization, hopefully working closely with the user-experience (UX) team.

Product managers know the best way to bring solutions to the market that customers will love is to understand their needs, pain points and aspirations. As such, they tend to spend a significant amount of their time (often outside normal work hours) speaking directly with potential users, both online and in the real world. Staying in touch also means keeping up-to-date with the latest topics related to the specific industries and target segments for their products as well as general business, economic and technology trends.

Great product managers have a passion for customer delight. As the central point of communication, they spend a lot of time getting teams aligned toward one common goal: working closely with customers and being involved in all aspects of a product’s life. It really is about “we” and not “me.” In other words, it’s the whole team and not the individual contributor who make it possible to deliver products that people want and love to use.

At the same time, product management is a very challenging and rewarding career. Knowing that your passion, care, attention to detail and focus on delivering products and services that address people needs is highly motivating. You get involved with almost all teams within the organization and you will be in regular contact with users who love your product and wouldn’t use anything else but who, in the same sentence, will tell you everything that is wrong with it.

If you are trying to hire a great product manager for your organization, good luck. If you are working with PMs, don’t be afraid to talk to them, share your insights, ask questions or just stop by for a chat. Product managers are creatures who thrive on information and on linking different perspectives. Plus, they care deeply about customer delight.

If you are a product manager, do you have examples of what makes your job challenging, rewarding and fun, all at the same time?

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