Success in product management is a lot like success in enterprise sales. It depends as much on character as on hard skills.

I have had the good fortune to hire, work for, work with, or simply meet, many awesome PMs - and wanted to list down a few common "soft" traits I have seen.

Good PMs tend to:

  • Want to move the needle (are driven)
  • Overcome inertia (push people)
  • Think no job is too small
  • Think no job is too big
  • Stay humble
  • Stick their necks out
  • Be respectful and empathetic
  • Not be cynical

Want to move the needle (are driven)

"Product manager" can be quite a stress-free job. Particularly in a larger setup. After all, there is perhaps no other role where it is easier to "let things be" and keep house (just write specs and project-manage the teams).

Nothing would fall apart, or it will take many quarters for the negatives to show up. Even then, the issues may be mis-attributed to other factors (dev team maturity, market, leadership decisions, etc.)

Lesson learnt: Hire PMs need to want to move the needle. Perfect mental models, blog posts :), and conference talks are good-to-haves, but get someone who really wants to make a difference.

Overcome inertia (push people)

From idea/market through research, specs, design, development, down to GTM, commercialization, analytics and iterative improvements, even a good product or feature is more likely to be killed rather than released.

So being driven isn't enough. We need to overcome plenty of inertia: Leadership, key customers, dev teams, designers, marketing, sales, legal, info-sec, you name it... I have personally seen a "driven" PM moved to frustration when he couldn't push people.

Lesson learnt: Hire PMs who can push people and get results.

Think no job is too small

Around 11.30pm last night, my wife was on the phone with her design team in India. I woke up and listened in to figure out what was so important: she was going through a mock-up line by line, correcting typos and standardizing language.

She isn't a product manager, but this applies to PMs quite well. It's a unique combination:

  • We own the product's entire lifecycle
  • We can't deliver any end-product of our own

This means there are times when the PM is best utilized doing "small" work, such as writing test cases, responding to irate customers, moderating focus groups, transcribing lookup tables, ordering pizza for the team, or even receiving Amazon deliveries while the developers are heads-down working a deadline.

Lesson learnt: Purists and "brilliant assholes" may not fit the role.

Think no job is too big

PMs can't be afraid to risk disapproval, skip the "proper channels", speak truth to power, etc.

Key customers, company leadership, investors, the public - PM’s may need to talk-to or present-to, convince, or maintain relationships with all of them. This is unlike most other jobs where you are able to call on your “line manager” to handle the big stuff. When PMs work in verticals or small teams, their horizontal manager may not even have enough context to help.

Lesson learnt: Hire for audacity.

Stay humble

Way too often, a costly late-stage change or rollback can be traced back to a PM who was too proud to admit s/he took the wrong road.

This is quite similar to software defects, so I won't waste your time detailing this.

Stick their necks out

I have also seen opportunities lost because the PM wasn't curious enough, or was too worried about being publicly wrong. Hard to diagnose the root cause here, though.

Seen another way: product management requires going "beyond the book" instead of just "by the book". Yes, it is important to understand all of, say, Marty Cagan's methods. But it is critical to internalize the belief that faithfully following said methods doesn't guarantee success.

Be respectful and empathetic

When interviewing entry-level APMs or PMs, I try to include a question where I ask them to identify companies whose business model doesn't make sense to them (say, DoorDash). I then ask them to comment on/explore their customers (say, the delivery folks).

If they show contempt, it's usually a red flag. We are contemptuous only when we are unwilling to understand someone. It has no place in product management. Even the poorest, stingiest, most disadvantaged customers will pay. It’s about respecting them and uncovering value they will pay for. We may not want to be in that business, but it is vital that we are respectful.

(I can't stand uninformed contempt. Sorry for the rant.)

Bonus: This respect for others irrespective of their station is good for getting things done internally as well.

Not be cynical

Cynics never build anything worthwhile. More important, they fail to inspire or help others build great things. Some child-like enthusiasm is vital. I'd take naivety (which can be "developed out") over cynicism any day.


Yup, that's my list. I hope this helps you somewhere.

If you feel different, or have something to add, please do write in to prashanth.mahadeva@gmail.com