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Soft skills to accelerate your PM career

This is the second of a five part series about breaking into product management:

  1. How to become a product manager: Four routes into product management 
  2. Soft skills to accelerate your PM career <- this article
  3. Hard skills to accelerate your PM career 
  4. How to write an awesome PM resume
  5. Building a network to break into product management

None of the routes into product management is predictable or certain, but if you invest in the fundamental skills you need to succeed in product, then you are continually improving your chances. This is why perseverance is key – even if initially you aren’t a strong candidate, as you strengthen your skills and network you load the dice to the point that it’s just a matter of time before you land your first role. 

five soft skills to break into product management

The skills that you need to break into product management are also the ones you need to advance in it, so time invested here is going to serve you well in the long run. There are five  soft skills to develop:

  1. Strategic thinking
  2. Communication
  3. Leadership
  4. Decision making
  5. Execution

Soft skills for product managers: Strategic thinking

Product managers should be able to come up with an effective plan of action to solve any problem. They create order from chaos. When a team is given an objective, it’s common for them to be overwhelmed and not know where to start. PMs synthesize the insights, generate options with the team, and prioritize the options with the best chances of success. Strategy tells you what to work on and why, based on a logical argument. As a result, PMs are also skilled at putting top-down feature requests into context, knowing when to run with them, and when to graciously push back.

Strategy is choosing where to focus, based on insights

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas”.

– Steve Jobs

Tips and resources:

  • Read our article on How to Write a Great Product Strategy
  • Listen to members of your team and individuals from other departments in order to establish a more rounded perspective on a problem.
  • Get into the habit of summarizing back to people what they’ve said to check your understanding and ensure that your understanding aligns with theirs.
  • Become familiar with the pyramid principle as a way of organizing your thoughts, synthesizing and grouping supporting arguments under a single key takeaway.
  • Practice mapping out problem spaces and potential solutions in a structured hierarchy like an opportunity solution tree.
  • Read Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy on diagnosing problems, developing a guiding policy on how the problem will be solved, and creating a set of focused actions to deliver a solution.
  • Read Bandan Jot Singh’s case study All The Product Frameworks You’ll Ever Need to get even more ideas on how to structure your thoughts.

Soft skills for product managers: Communication

Whilst engineers and designers often have swaths of time to themselves for deep work, look at any PM’s calendar and you’ll see lots of meetings, interspersed with time for prepping meetings, writing emails and documenting insights and decisions. The core activity of product management is communication, and PMs do it on two levels all the time. Internally, to coordinate your team towards a common goal, and externally, with other teams and stakeholders.

Tips and resources:

  • E-mails – BLUF (bottom line up front). Be clear on the purpose of your email and make this clear in the first sentence. Most of the time you will be asking someone for something, or telling them something without needing a response. Be very clear about which you are doing. Add summarized supporting information after the main message. Always reread and edit down for conciseness and clarity. More great tips on writing with military precision here.
  • Docs – write like an Amazonian: be specific about metrics, remove adjectives, be concise and to the point. Use plain language that anyone could understand. Get someone to proofread it if circulation is broad or to senior stakeholders. Think about why you’re writing this document, and who it’s for.
  • Meetings – Use the 4P’s framework to make them effective. Purpose: why are we having this meeting? People: who should attend? Product: what is the output of this meeting? Process: how do we get to the desired output? Always have an agenda, invite as few people as possible, and leave with clear actions assigned to named individuals. McKinsey has some more great thoughts on this, and if you want to go really deep then read The Art of Gathering.
  • Presentations – Follow all the rules for meetings, prep your deck early and practice, practice, practice. Work out how to phrase any difficult messages, and check your timing. If possible, get someone to watch you present and give you some tips on your delivery. Breath. Smile. Pretend you are speaking to a small group in a loud bar. 
  • Read Boz’s article Communication Is The Job
  • Michael Dearing’s presentation on Executive Communication provides a more detailed look at the framework and explores other models, and tips on presenting effectively.

Soft skills for product managers: Leadership

Product managers lead cross-functional development teams, but have to do this with influence rather than authority. Great leadership involves setting a compelling vision, making sure everyone knows what they should be doing, removing ambiguity and doing whatever it takes to get the job done. More than anything great leaders stretch the individuals around them, helping them do work which is better than they could do alone. This is difficult, but hugely rewarding. To do it well, you need to have high levels of empathy and be able to challenge colleagues in a positive, non-confrontational way.

“The job of leadership is to foster alignment and enthusiasm toward the right goal.”

– Ev Williams, CEO Medium

Tips and resources:

  • Go organize things. Almost any social activity (e.g. meetups, sports, social events) will give you an opportunity to practice leadership skills. If you’re going to organize dinner parties then become the best dinner party host ever, by treating your role as host seriously and striving to get better at it.
  • Watch leaders around you, and take note of what they do well. Practice using their tactics yourself and see if it fits your style. 
  • Practice challenging peers and friends in a positive, non confrontational way to achieve their best. Being able to have hard conversations in an agreeable way is crucial. Check out Radical Candor and read more thoughts on giving feedback here.
  • Read Sachin Rekhi’s article The Most Underrated Product Management Skill: Influence Without Authority.
  • Read Ev William’s short post on The Job of Leadership
  • Read these tips on Quora on becoming a better leader.

Soft skills for product managers: Decision making

PMs help the team and stakeholders take decisions at all levels, and throughout the product development lifecycle. At one end of the spectrum you’ll be working with stakeholders to define your strategic focus, which might have multi-million dollar implications, whilst at the other you’ll be discussing designs to pixel perfection with the team. You don’t need to make every decision yourself, but you need to make sure fast, high quality decisions get made, and the team isn’t blocked by indecision. 

Tips and resources:

  • When things get stuck, get in the habit of clarifying the decision that needs to be made, and identifying who is the decision maker. You can do this even as a junior member on a team.
  • Ask decision makers you work with how they make decisions, and especially take note of how they communicate decisions that are controversial or not unanimous. 
  • Practice making reversible or unimportant decisions quickly. Give decisions the time they need and not a moment more.
  • Practice closing out discussions where you are the decision maker gracefully, whether or not you’ve achieved consensus. Get comfortable with the weight of accountability, and the fact that you can rarely please everyone.
  • Read our guide to High Velocity Decision Making, which covers the difference between Type1 (irreversible) and Type 2 (reversible) decisions, and habits for deciding quickly.
  • Read our guide to D.E.C.I.D.E., the effective decision making framework for tough choices
  • Read Brandon Chu’s thoughts on weighing the amount of information you need to make a decision with making fast decisions. 
  • Read Scalable Decision Making, which covers the various roles people can take in a decision making process, and levels of agreement they can have.
  • Read Sachin Rekhi’s article The Art Of Decision Making As A Product Manager

Soft skills for product managers: Execution

Straightforwardly, you get the job done. You are always prepared, versatile, and pragmatic. This is such a spike for you, that your team can be relied on to deliver as well, as you drive them towards successful outcomes. This isn’t specific to product management. People who are conscientious by preparing, acting and following up diligently are the most successful in any sphere.

Tips and resources:

  • Find a productivity system that works for you. That could be as simple as a to-do list on paper or putting everything in your calendar, and there are plenty of more sophisticated solutions. What is important is the outcome: the things you are responsible for get done.
  • End every day by prioritizing your to-do list for tomorrow, so you can hit the ground running.
  • Make sure you prep and follow up on every meeting. Get used to assigning tasks to yourself and others. 
  • Check out our templates for backlogs and OKRs, so you understand the fundamentals of shipping consistent value
  • Read up on the Eisenhower Matrix if you feel constantly short of time to do things to the quality you aspire to.
  • Read Atomic Habits by James Clear for a wealth of psychological tricks to establish good habits. Make a habit of getting things done to a high quality.
  • Read Extreme Ownership to understand what ownership really means, and how to apply principles from Navy SEALs to your own life.
  • Read 4DX by FranklinCovey for an alternate take on OKRs based on singular focus and accountability.

Soft skills for product managers: Summary

PMs are typically fairly generalist leaders who make things happen, which means that your soft skills are more important than specific hard skills. You need to understand the technical skills in your team to be able to credibly stretch them, but your own superpower is focusing and amplifying their capabilities to create the most impact. 

Next in this series: Hard skills to accelerate your PM career


What skills does a product manager need?

Product managers need to master five soft skills. They need to be good strategic thinkers, and able to create an effective plan of action to solve any problem. They need to be great communicators, and able to clearly tell everyone what is going on, and why. PMs are leaders, and should be able to generate enthusiasm around a goal and create momentum in a team towards it. PMs are also good decision makers, and can stop the team getting blocked by indecision. Finally, product managers need to be good at execution, and making sure their teams actually deliver impact, and not just features.

What is the hardest bit of product management?

Developing the soft skills necessary to be a successful product manager is often the hardest part of the job. Soft skills are difficult to learn, and require on-the-job experience combined with honest, constructive feedback from the people you are working with to develop. You should ask for feedback from your line manager and peers on a regular basis to help understand where you can improve, and look out for others around you that are great at these skills and you can learn from.

What are transferable skills as a product manager?

Product managers have lots of transferable skills, as they are generalists working in cross-functional teams of specialists like engineering and design. Product managers usually pick up enough technical knowledge in design, engineering and analysis to be dangerous in any adjacent field. The soft skills that PMs need – leadership, communication, execution, decision making and strategic thinking – are also critical to advancing in any discipline and are highly transferable.

What is the greatest strength of a product manager?

Product managers act as force multipliers for their teams, helping them work out the most important problems to be working on, design the best solutions to those problems, and deliver those solutions in the most effective way. Good product managers can also act as thought partners to individuals in their teams, and stretch them to deliver their best work.

How do you answer interview questions about your strengths and weaknesses as  a product manager?

Product management is such a broad role that no one is an expert at everything. You’ll want to understand where your spikes are – the areas where you are particularly strong, and can add exceptional value to a team. You should also be ready to admit the areas where you aren’t as strong – humility and self awareness is something that many companies test for – and discuss how you make allowances for these weaknesses. Good answers typically involve discussing the personal work you are doing to get stronger in these areas, as well as how you collaborate with the rest of your team to be effective as a group, and not just an individual.

How do you manage product feedback?

Product managers need to handle feedback on their products from both users and internal stakeholders. This feedback is invaluable to creating better products, so whilst it can be difficult to hear, it’s important to embrace it. Typically you’ll want to ask follow up questions to ensure you understand the feedback in full, and then work the feedback into your customer journey map, or world view of how the product performs. In this overall context you can then see if the feedback is important enough to act on immediately, or whether they are more pressing problems to address.

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