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Talents of Great Product Managers

The Responsibilities

Product managers lead the process of making strategic decisions about what should go in a product and how to market and sell it. Ideally, they base these decisions on in-depth knowledge of the market - prospective buyers and users, the problems they face, and the competition - and apply sound marketing principles to make the decisions. They build a shared understanding of the market, the business model, and the strategy among members of the team.

Talent, not Industry Experience

But how can a hiring manager identify a product manager that will excel at performing these duties?  As Buckingham and Coffman advise, the most successful managers select candidates based on talent, and not so much for experience.  Thus the typical product manager job posting that lists experience in the industry as a prerequisite is misguided.  Read more on the topic of industry experience and product management.

What Is Talent?

According to Buckingham and Coffman, a talent is “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied”.  Unlike a skill, a talent spans every aspect of a person's life and doesn't manifest itself merely in a particular field or professional environment.

The Talents

Acquisitive and emergent learner.  The primary talent of a great product manager is that she pro-actively acquires knowledge, learns without direction, and constructs new knowledge from the patterns she observes.  Researcher Martin Rayala distinguishes among four types of learning: transmission, acquisition, accretion, and emergence.  The most talented product managers don't rely on learning through instruction (transmission) or on learning through experience (accretion).

Principled.  Great product managers align activities and details with larger goals and principles.  Acquiring market knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for making sound product decisions.  A great product manager is relentless in applying timeless marketing principles (which are often counter-intuitive) and in asking how activities and decisions help the company and the customer.

Disciplined.  Great product managers impose structure on work and life.  They aren't satisfied with "unconnected dots" and, in their professional lives, are constantly striving to make sense of market data and synthesize it into a coherent overarching model and strategy.  This characteristic is closely tied to emergent learning.

Adaptable.  Great product managers adjust beliefs and actions in response to new information.  While relentless in adhering to principles, they know market realities determine product success, and they recognize that up-front hypotheses about the market require testing through build-measure-learn feedback loops.

Facilitative.  Great product managers recognize, cultivate, and activate talents and opportunities.  They exhibit leadership by identifying and activating the talents in team members.  They uncover challenges that prospects face, recognize opportunities, and facilitate the people and processes to nurture and pursue them.

How to Identify Talent

Resumes are a poor way of identifying and evaluating talent.  Instead, conduct brief interviews of product management candidates, probing into their passions and approaches to life, work, and solving problems.  As a general rule, you'll gain the most reliable and important insights into candidates' talents from what they say about everyday life situations, not how they describe their work-specific skills.  Using these methods and identifying these talents, a hiring manager can find a promising product manager candidate who hasn't even previously played the role.


Unknown said…
Thanks for the useful post. In addition, I think I would say that generating insights is key. Kenton Kivestu's recent blog post mentioned that element that I think is critically important, although I think I would emphasize the more intuitive aspects (like "the users are asking for X, but I think the deeper issue they are facing is Y so we're going to do Z").
Roger L. Cauvin said…
Good point, David. A great product manager tries to get to the root of the problems that prospects face.

I do think the emergent learning and discipline talents come into play there, however, as emergent knowledge often depends on digging deeply into the underlying explanations for more superficial observations.
Asti said…
Great post Cauvin,
A must read for managers who want to be successful in hiring the most promising candidate and not the most resembling one. Specially in a role like Product Manager's, where being creative, intuitive and communicative are the more important characteristics than having a lot of preconceived know-hows.
Samantha said…
Very interesting, Cauvin. What brought you to the list of talents you are mentioning? Is it a personal observation, or based on a research read?
Roger L. Cauvin said…
Samantha, the talents I listed are based on personal observations and don't come from formal research.

However, the general idea that talents - and not so much skills and experience - are key to great performance does come from the formal research reported in Buckingham and Coffman's First, Break All the Rules. The authors advise that managers consider the raw instincts that drive performance.

One way to determine the talents associated with great performance is to simply correlate performance with talents. E.g. identify the common talents of the best product managers you've observed and with whom you've worked.

Another way is to connect (conceptually) talents with the functions of product management. Much of the blog entry concentrates on explaining how the talents drive the activities and results needed for great product management.

The common mistake managers make is to focus on the experience and skills of employees and candidates. I'm not sure I've really nailed all the talents here, but it's a start!
RGD said…
Good post...
As someone who has tried to hire several people in product management function I have not seen previous experience or even education from top schools resulting in great product managers. Now I focus on qualified raw instincts and using role play how the product manager would perform in real life.
Unknown said…
Great post, Roger. I totally agree that industry experience or technical knowledge (things that so many hiring managers look for in a PM candidate) are less important than innate personal strengths.

And I really like your specific lists of talents. I would add that communications skill is key to success. A PM has to bridge so many different groups and ways of thinking. They have to be a therapist and a translator as well as a leader.

I've expanded on the traits I look for when hiring PMs in my Product Management 101 slides (Presented recently at Venture Cafe) here:

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