Mastering communication: a product manager’s superpower

There are a lot of hard skills required on your path to becoming a great product manager such as coding, data analytics, user experience design and digital marketing. But developing your soft skills is just as important, especially as you grow into senior product management roles.

Carlos González de Villaumbrosia

Founder and CEO of Product School

Stakeholder communication is at the heart of any product manager’s day-to-day life. Mastering this soft skill is one of the most important keys to success. Put it differently, you’ll never be able to lead a team if you can’t communicate effectively.

Why communication is vital for product managers

As a product manager, you should spend more time communicating than executing. Communication doesn’t mean filling up your calendar with different types of meetings just to stick to a specific agile methodology. Communication means allocating enough time to prepare for meetings, and to follow up after so your team can get the most out of it during those interactions.

Here are some examples: spend time thinking, talk with customers, analyze metrics, analyze market trends, do competitive research, review your backlog and roadmap, attend conferences, talk to other product managers, prepare presentations, etc. Another benefit of not packing your calendar is to have time to proactively communicate with stakeholders on an as-needed basis.

It’s hard to prove the business value in spending time communicating, especially because the people you work with (engineers, data analysts, designers and marketers) spend more time executing than communicating, as they should. The quality of your job is not measured by the number of user stories done during a specific sprint. Your job is to make your team ship the right product at the right time, which will make your users succeed ultimately.


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Developing internal and external communication skills

Great communicators are made, not born. Enough practice, experience and conditioning can help you be a success. As a product manager, there are two main audiences you’re constantly communicating with: your team (internal communication) and your users (external communication):

Communicating with your team

You’re not expected to have the best ideas. You’re expected to encourage a creative, collaborative and data-driven environment to identify the ideas that contribute the most your company goals, break them down into actionable items and prioritize them into a product roadmap.

Once you’re clear on what to build next, you’ll need to get the buy-in from your team. If your team doesn’t understand what they need to build and why, they’ll never do it right. Product managers work cross-functionally with engineers, data scientists, designers, and marketers. Here’s an image from the book I wrote called The Product Book:

The Product Triangle, showing product management at the intersection of three core domains.

Product management is a generalist role that sits at the intersection of engineering, design and marketing. It’s almost like being a translator between teams because you have to be thoughtful about their personality, preferred communication style and motivations in order to adjust your communication style while keeping the same high-level goal in mind.

Things are even more complicated when working with a distributed team, so be prepared to over-communicate and write down what was discussed to make sure everyone is on the same page.

As a big sports fan, I like to compare product managers to team coaches:

  • Coordination: Your primary role is planning and organizing, not “playing the game.”
  • Empathy: Understanding strengths and personalities of the team is key.
  • Motivation: It’s all about keeping everyone in sync, pushing in the same direction.
  • Balance: You need to both cultivate your stars and support the entire team.
  • Inspiration: Invest in building a strong culture – team with the best culture wins.


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Communicating with your stakeholders

Communicating with members outside of your immediate department is equally important for fostering success. Clearly defining your story to executives, senior level colleagues, and end users is often the determining factor on whether a product (or even a business) will be successful.

While communication for each stakeholder should be approached in specific ways (i.e. communication with an engineer vs. communicating with a C-level executive), there are several overlapping themes:

  • Evidence on why something needs to be done is essential. People who are not involved in the day-to-day need to know why and what is happening, rather than instructions on what needs to be done.
  • PMA or a Positive Mental Attitude can go a long way when it comes to dealing stakeholders. This does not mean blind optimism, but instead can be seen as motivational enthusiasm.
  • Be complimentary when dealing with their work. Executives and senior level colleagues are real people too, so being a bit more human with them can determine whether a PM comes off as influential or problematic.

Adapting your communication strategy for each type of stakeholder will take work. However, this set of general principles will keep creative focus on track, while also ensuring that external and internal team members are on the same page.

Conclusion

Communication isn’t something you ever stop practicing or improving. Throughout your career as a product manager, you keep encountering new scenarios and learning from them. Over time, you begin to recognize patterns, and that helps you understand how to respond. But at the same time, each scenario is slightly different.

Being a good communicator will also help you develop other soft skills such as leadership. It’s important to communicate with trust and empathy because a lot of people are going to be looking at you to know what’s next. They need to know that everything’s happening for a good reason, and to be bought in to your vision.

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