Bulking Up Product Manager Skills

19 February 2012
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stand-outProduct Managers require a number of skills to succeed, but many have gaps in such critical areas as business savvy, market expertise, operational know-how, or entrepreneurial ability.  As a result, the leaders of product management groups have to spend a great deal of their time coaching individual product managers on day-to-day tasks, frequently at the expense of other strategic priorities with longer-term implications.

Many leaders of product management departments address the issue in one of two ways: either by trying to hire a product manager who brings the full set of needed skills to the job, or by re-assigning products around the strengths of their product managers. But both approaches carry their own sets of problems: first, it can be difficult and costly to find experienced product managers with all the skills and market expertise.  And second, moving people around doesn’t get rid of their weaknesses, it just masks them.

My View

There is, however, a third way to address this issue – one we’ve seen a number of astute product management leaders use.  It’s building up the competency of their Product Managers by tapping into the strengths of their own team members as well as others, both inside and outside the company, who have the expertise to mentor fellow PMs in overcoming their weaknesses.  In our view, this is a better approach.  PM department leaders gain precious time to address other growth priorities; product managers get the opportunity to develop their own abilities to develop talent; and the organization benefits from new ideas and shared experiences.

Actions for Product Management Dept. Leaders:

For each Product Manager, use a total solution approach with formal as well as informal learning opportunities to make sure they have the knowledge and skills needed to execute the business strategy.  Here are some proven techniques used by product management executives:

  1. Work with each PM to set measurable, time-bound goals, create a personal action plan and schedule periodic reviews.
  2. Schedule brown bag lunches or breakfast briefings where one PM discusses a short case study review of what they’ve done, how they did it, and why. Socializing knowledge across your PM team is a key activity to building a strong team.
  3. Record those discussions and make the recordings available on your intranet for new hires and future reference. There are several affordable and easy to use technologies available today.
  4. Look for outside speakers who can provide an independent perspective on challenging issues.  If you’re looking for speakers, ask me to recommend potential speakers or to present what I’ve discovered.
  5. Encourage the use of the resources provided by the Product Strategy Network which gives your product managers access to the external know-how of their peers.  If you can’t find what you need, let me know and I’ll search my resources or ask my network of practitioners.
  6. Assign one PM to work with another PM on your team to coach them in the skills they are missing.  If your PM’s don’t have that specific skill, look elsewhere in your organization. For example, a business development manager can share how he or she estimates the market size for a new opportunity.  You can even use Linked In to search for people in your own organization who have the necessary expertise.
  7. When you don’t have the resources on staff, look outside to hire a coach who can provide a product manager with individualized training, advice and feedback.
  8. Commit to formal training. It’s a part of the total solution to improving your team’s skills. The average annual training expenditure for companies is around $1,200 to $1,500 per person.  That works out to only 12 – 16 training hours a year.
  9. Standardize the PM tools, practices and language used in your organization to facilitate faster learning across the team.

Actions for Product Managers:

Your growth and development as a product manager requires constant learning.  Although your job is demanding, you will need to seek out opportunities to expand your skills and value to your company, both from resources within your current employer and from those outside.

  1. Ask your manager and colleagues for their honest thoughts about the areas in which you can improve.
  2. Make a commitment to spending a certain amount of time learning something new and important. Work with your manager to set measurable, time-bound goals and a personal action plan to increase your know-how.
  3. Your plan should include reading blogs and books, enrolling in training classes, securing a personal coach, and attending or replaying webcasts and podcasts, and participating in a membership organization.  I can often provide specific recommendations of such resources; just ask me.
  4. Develop your peer network and put it to use for addressing your specific know-how gaps. I can try to connect you to your peers to address specific needs.
  5. Use your peer network to socialize what you’ve learned with others. I’ve found that sharing often leads to discussions from which you take away even more than you contributed.