Matt wrote the book he wishes he would have had starting out as a product manager.
To be a successful product manager you need several competencies. We tend to be “T-Shaped” people with capabilities in several areas and much more depth in one area, such as development, design, research, etc.
Product managers early in their career focus on learning the skills to get the job done — the technical skills of product management. Only later you might realize those skills are not enough and that the so-called “soft skills” are what really make the difference. Learning those skills sooner results in faster career growth, which is why I invited product manager and author Matt LeMay to join us. He recently wrote the book, Product Management in Practice: A Real-World Guide to the Key Connective Role of the 21st Century. Matt has helped build and scale product management practices at companies ranging from early-stage startups to Fortune 50 enterprises.
In the interview, he explains the CORE connectivity skills successful product managers need. CORE is an acronym for:
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[0:42] Why did you write the book?
When I started working as a product manager, I looked for resources to be successful in that role. The picture that books and articles painted was different than what I was experiencing on the ground. It’s very process and framework-driven, and working with real people is often messier than that. I’ve found that the designation between hard skills and soft skills doesn’t really exist when you’re trying to solve a problem. This is the book I wish I would have had when my career started, and the one I’m happy to have now.
[5:12] How do soft skills translate into opportunities for product managers?
Books that were written in the 1980s and 90s were all about soft skills, but that went away with the technology boom that came after it. We’re now seeing soft skills making a comeback and people are re-learning things they might have first heard 20 years ago.
[6:47] How do you describe product management?
The mandate is to connect and align the resources around you with the needs and goals of your users. How that happens depends on who you are working with and what product you are working on. If you’re doing it right, the work will be pretty inconsistent, which I don’t think is true in a lot of other areas.
[8:51] The book covers CORE skills (Communication, Organization, Research, and Execution). What role does communication play?
Everyone who has worked in product management will say that communication is the most important thing they do. If you can’t communicate clearly, you can’t really do your job well. My personal motto is “clarity over comfort.” The work of communication can be very uncomfortable to get beyond transitional conversations to what’s happening behind them. A product manager’s job is to be relentless about asking questions and having conversations, no matter how uncomfortable they might be. It’s not easy work.
[14:02] What about organization?
If someone asks you what they should be working on, then you probably are not as organized as you should be. No one should have to ask a product manager what to do; the product manager’s job is to create a system where they don’t have to intervene. My guiding principle here is “change the rules, don’t break the rules.” If the only way to get things done is to go around the system, then you’re penalizing the people who are trying to follow the rules. If your team can’t function without you, it’s a signal that you don’t have a good organizational system in place. Product managers must also make senior leaders aware of the downstream implications of their decisions and how they relate to the organizational system.
[22:11] Tell us about research.
Research is all about proactively seeking out and synthesizing different perspectives, including those of your users. It’s easy to become so caught up in organizational politics that you stop taking that broader view and lose sight of what’s important to your users. My motto here is “live in your user’s reality.” For most people, your product is a very small portion of their life. You need to take the perspective of seeing how it fits into other things rather than being hyper-focused. Knowing what’s happening on a broader scale will help you detect changes and stay ahead of them.
[26:42] Finally, what about execution?
Product managers need to be willing to do whatever it takes to make their products successful. You might have to get coffee for people or step down and do other tasks that you feel might be below your pay grade in order to make your team successful. However, you might also have to do work that might feel like it’s above you, like having a conversation with a senior leader. You need to be prepared to make an argument and defend it, using a combination of all the CORE skills. My mantra here is “no work beneath, no work above.” Product managers should be prepared to step into whatever roles they might be needed in, especially things that can help connect you to users.
- Find out more about Matt or connect with him at his website, mattlemay.com
- Matt’s book, Product Management in Practice: A Real-World Guide to the Key Connective Role of the 21st Century
“The menu is not the meal.” – Alan Wilson Watts
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it on social media.