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5 Essential Characteristics of Good Senior Product Managers

One of the best interview questions I have been hit with is “what are the key qualities of good product managers? How would you answer be different for senior product managers.” Even though I managed to scramble together a semi-coherent response at the time, I was convinced this question deserved deep consideration and a rich dialog within the broader community. This article is an attempt to spark and foster that dialog.

Without a doubt, product managers (PMs) are the prime value generators in modern firms. My first article on this topic highlighted 5 essential characteristics needed to succeed in this role. Senior Product Manager (SPM) is the next step in the career progression. How does one advance to this level? Is it just a matter of time or are there specific characteristics that define successful senior product managers? What should directors, founders and executives look for when hiring and promoting PMs to senior product managers?

In this article, I will share five characteristics that set apart great senior product managers. Interestingly, these characteristics are natural maturations of the characteristics that define great PMs as discussed in the first article.

Characteristic 1 — Courageously manage the portfolio: While PMs focus on pain points and features at a product level, SPMs are expected to manage a portfolio of products — often responsible for deciding whether a product lives or dies. What makes an exceptional SPM is in how she frames up the portfolio problem and nurtures the nuanced dialog of portfolio planning.

The best SPMs undertake portfolio management as a conversation founded on deep customer insight, rigorous scenario modelling and systematic documentation, and testing of assumptions. This exercise often begins with a blank slate — or zero products. Products are then added methodically one at a time, mapped to the TAM and customer needs, and measured for their incremental value to the firm. Undertaken properly, this method often leads to deeper insights about market needs and novel optimization points. I have had great results by combining this method with big data. By layering over purchase history, price history, propensity models, and market data onto scenario exercises, my team created a dynamic canvas for optimizing the portfolio. We studied Shell corporation’s pioneering work in scenario modeling (from the 1960s) and merged it with the abundance of data in modern firms. For greater insight and learning, I highly recommend Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation.

In contrast to scenario based planning, portfolio management that begin and end with a Pareto or tail chart is a recipe for mediocrity. These one-dimensional views of the portfolio are rife with confirmation and incumbency-bias. Highlighting only the most blatant portfolio inefficiencies, they often become ineffective after one or two iterations. Unfortunately, their simplistic nature is alluring, and the charts become fixtures of portfolio management — leaving significant untapped value on the table.

Characteristic 2 — Build relationships with key shareholders: While good PMs focus on the stakeholders involved in delivering their product, SPMs focus on the shareholderswhose funds and alignment are required to achieve results. Unfortunately, it is not always obvious who these shareholders are. As an example, one of my projects was suffering from weak sales despite having a good product, strong alignment with field sales teams and good market acceptance. Upon closer inspection of the problem, we learned that the country level incentives were not aligned to help grow the segment. We had been remiss in bringing along a critical set of shareholders whose commitment was critical to making our product successful.

Characteristic 3 — Embrace the creator mindset: Great SPMs accept their responsibility as authors and creators in their industry — not just as managers. To create differentiation, incremental TAM and delighting experiences, SPMs must identify the limits of today’s technology and work proactively with their key suppliers to unleash latent potential. I had the fortune of watching a master SPM do this in my first job out of college. At the time, low-cost CMOS imaging technology was quickly achieving functional parity with high-end CCD imagers — the market was ripe for disruption and a visionary partnership could uncover a gold mine opportunity. I saw first-hand how an SPM could change the course of entire industries when he takes on a creator’s mindset.

Characteristic 4 — Build partnerships, media strategy, thought leadership, and industry credibility: SPMs understand the value and effort involved in building shared context and alignment in the eco-system. They look beyond the zero-sum competition and envision industry partnerships that create incremental opportunity. They establish media presence to educate customers and create order and taxonomies for the industry. By being a consistent and impartial advocate for customers, they build theirs’ and their company’s credibility in the industry.

Characteristic 5 — Be a curator of dissent: Finally, exceptional SPMs have the confidence to foment dissenting ideas in their team and become master curators of the resulting tension. They begin by setting a culture of healthy debate, idea meritocracy and result orientation. They then encourage their team to establish a shared fact base, logical ground and risk ceiling. With clear boundaries of facts, logic and risk, the SPM is able drive rich, multi-faceted dialog from the team. Finally, they bring a strong streak of result-orientation to drive convergence and decisions.

Being a senior product manager is a profound responsibility. Not only are your decisions impacting your customers, product and portfolio, they also impact the livelihoods of the team with whom you are delivering the portfolio. As an SPM myself, I constantly measure and calibrate myself against these five attributes.

I hope these two articles motivate a debate about how product managers are selected and trained. I look forward to your feedback and insight.



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