“A great product manager has the brain of an engineer, the heart of a designer, and the speech of a diplomat.” – Deep Nishar
If you’ve ever considered becoming a product manager, let me start by saying you’re in great company. From Kevin Systrom, formerly at Instagram, to Erin Teague at Google, there’s no shortage of great business leaders that were once product managers.
And as a product manager myself, I can tell you this isn’t by default, but rather by design. You see, to be a great product manager in any organization, you’ve also gotta be a great leader. Or as I like to call it, leading with C.L.A.S.S. (and I’m not talking about dapper suits and shoes here.)
In fact, what I’m talking about is the very thing that catapulted my career in product management. Sure, I went to an outstanding college and even got a Masters, but I wouldn’t have gotten this far if I didn’t possess the following five traits, which are defined by the acronym, C.L.A.S.S.
Leadership with Authority
Once you take a closer look at the skills that make up the acronym, you can easily spot individuals that would make great product managers even if they don’t have the credentials on paper. The important thing is that these individuals never stop asking why, take initiative, and get people to listen to them.
In other words, it’s less about formal training and more about one’s curiosity and willingness to understand the business problem at hand and how you can best work with stakeholders, including external customers, internal stakeholders, designers, and engineers, to solve it. And that doesn’t mean telling product designers or engineers how they should do their job (although it’s a common misconception). Instead, it’s about understanding customer’s pain points and everyone’s role intimately enough to successfully lead a team and steer a product in the right direction to ultimately delight customers. Being able to negotiate between key stakeholders’ conflicting needs without stepping on their toes while building authentic relationships along the way is what makes a great product manager stand out from a mediocre one.
“You need to be curious about the other roles because you need to be aware enough about what those roles entail to figure out what type of language you should be used for those people, to help encourage them to do work that’s going to be successful for you.” – B. Pagels-Minor
I mean, take a closer look at my career journey as an example. I started in customer service and tech support in the marketing technology field before I ever had anything that closely resembled the title of a “Product Manager.” Yet, it was a combination of leveraging my C.L.A.S.S. and learnings from my marketing technology role that allowed me to position myself as a subject matter expert for my first product management role. Once I was able to position myself as that expert in the marketing technology space, I was able to get the attention of key stakeholders at marketing technology organizations looking for a product manager, and well, the rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, like most things in life, there isn’t just one path to product management. Suppose you have C.L.A.S.S. but are not a “subject matter expert” in your role yet. In that case, you can sharpen your skills by attending a formal certificate program or taking advantage of rotational programs at large organizations like Google or Apple, to name a few. Best of all, you can always put in the work to become a subject matter expert like I did by immersing yourself in the topic for which you truly want to be known.
Just remember to work smarter, not harder, and that goes for when you become a product manager, too, because the burnout can be r-e-a-l if you’re in a role that often lacks clarity and structure across organizations. Not to mention the fact that it can be thankless work, even when you’re the one putting in the extra work to launch a product successfully.
But if there is ONE thing I want you to take away about the path to product management, it is THIS – becoming a great product manager has less to do with any formal training and far more to do with how much C.L.A.S.S. you have in your tank and the ability to use your understanding of how key stakeholders provide value to the process to truly make something GREAT.