Unfiltered Conversations: What Product Management Job Descriptions Don’t Tell You

The many lives and roles a product manager gets to play, and the unexpected hats you need to wear if you want to succeed

If you are interested in getting a job as a product manager or have recently become one, you might already know, ideally, you need a combination of technical, design and business knowledge in order to fill the role.

What is less known, and what you are not likely to find written in a job description, is that, as a product manager, you will have to wear many more hats than the technician, designer and business ones if you want to succeed in the role.

In this second entry of the “Unfiltered Conversations,” I resume my interview with Aleksandra Piwowarek, Busra Al Nakhlani, Evelina Schubert and Luisa Goncalves, four extraordinary women and formidable, enthusiastic product managers, to talk about the unexpected hats a product manager wears on a daily basis — and that no one told us about. (If you are curious about the first part of the interview, about the joys and the struggles of a new product manager, you can find it here.)

“I have seen so many good PM job descriptions that, if you would combine them all, covered basically all I’ve experienced as a PM so far. But I’ve never seen a PM description covering all of the PMs jobs at once, maybe because the job is so versatile,” Evelina notes.

Per the Six Thinking Hats theory, you need to be able to wear all the hats and slip from one to the next upon request effortlessly — and sometimes even wear more than one at the same time.

Collectively, we were able to identify the seven most unexpected hats we have to wear and, as a bonus, include some resources to help you sharpen the tools in your toolbox.

Hat No. 1: Be a guru

The first hat you need to wear and should never take off, no matter the reason, is what I call “the guru hat,” as you need to be an inspiration for yourself and for others. The way I see it, the latter is dependent on the former: By taking care of yourself and finding your inner confidence, you will also be able to inspire others.

I created a very simple formula for myself, a reminder that rests upon what I call “hygiene factors”:

More on this in my next article. For now, suffice it to say that being a product manager is such a demanding job that working on yourself and your inner confidence becomes a survivor skill, as you are expected to make decisions and to lead others with your influence and credibility alone.

One useful tip Aleksandra shares is to remember you are your own worst critic and the majority of people won’t notice even half the things with which you are torturing yourself. This is because they are busy doing exactly the same thing.

“ A long time ago, I promised myself that I would not focus too closely on any single body part, like my eyes or my nose, for example, but only on myself as a whole. In the end, this is how most people will look at you. This can also be an analogy for the projects you work on: Always look at the big picture,” Aleksandra says.

In the guru toolbox:

Awareness by Anthony De Mello

Game Changers: What Leaders, Innovators, and Mavericks Do to Win at Life by Dave Asprey

Hat No. 2: Be a politician

Like a politician, remember you also have a mandate to represent the customer inside your company. As Evelina points out, “You are the customer representative, the advocate inside your company.” Your job is to make sure the voice of the customer is heard inside the house (I mean company), and when it is voting time, that you have the ability to raise enough votes to take your vision home.

“Lobbying and politics matter to get around tight resources,” Evelina adds.

As you are faced with the “Scarcity Dilemma” — how to raise enough attention, time and resources when those are limited inside any organization — the politician hat is the ability to influence and get enough votes to pass your “bill.”

This ultimately rests on two things: your communication skills and your ability to form meaningful relationships inside your company.

And as a politician, you also need to be able to say no when it’s needed.

“Sometimes I think the product manager is the one saying no to every idea you have,” Luisa jokes. “On a more serious note, while it is necessary sometimes to say no, the trick is to be sympathetic when you do so, and actually help people to really understand why you are saying it.”

In the politician toolbox:

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek

How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie

TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson

The Soulful Art of Persuasion by Jason Harris

Hat No. 3: Be a writer

Many people have written and talked about the importance of effective communication when you are a product manager (see “politician,” above).

What is less known, but just as important, is that you need to be a writer, as well.

How many words do you write, on average, per day as a product manager? Think about all the emails you send for official and unofficial communication, chats, press releases, FAQs, epics, user stories, etc. You need to know not only how to tell a story, but also how to write in a way that is compelling enough for people to actually read it.

In the writer toolbox:

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker

Hat No. 4: Be a journalist

Journalists spend their time asking questions, digging deep until they find what they are looking for. So does the product manager. Just like a journalist, you decide which angle you want to tell a story from, as the possibilities are endless.

But asking is only half of it. Like a journalist, you are faced with the same dilemma: How do I come up with the right questions? Because, let’s face it, the answers you get very much depend on the questions you ask. Are you really prepared to listen with an open mind, and are you ready to challenge your own ideas and convictions?

In the journalist toolbox:

The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup and William T. Fitzgerald

Talk to Me: How to Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers, and Interview Anyone Like a Pro by Dean Nelson

Hat No. 5: Be a psychologist

One of the key skills for a product manager is empathy. You not only need to listen attentively to what people are telling you, but you need to be able to understand what they are not telling you. What is really moving someone right beneath the surface? What are their deep pains and needs? It is your job to uncover this, and without the ability to understand people and put yourself in their shoes, it could be that much more difficult.

“One good method I try to apply when it comes to understanding my customers is the ‘root cause analysis’ method,” suggest both Luisa and Aleksandra.

In order to successfully wear the psychology hat, it is critical to learn how the mind works and how we formulate decisions.

In the psychologist toolbox:

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

Hat No. 6: Be an artist

Many job descriptions underline and praise an analytical and data-driven mindset. While I agree this is important, there is so much more lurking just beneath the surface, which most job descriptions ignore. Enter the artist hat!

Who says creativity is only for painters and musicians? Coming up with ideas and a vision for your product is also an artistic endeavor. And creativity doesn’t stop at ideation, as it can be applied to the way you set up a test and experiment with your product, or how you choose to “compose” a presentation.

In the artist toolbox:

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelley and David Kelley

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

Hat No. 7: Be a wedding planner

As a product manager, you have one job: Get your organization to “marry” your vision. And you do not only get to celebrate at the ceremony, you get to organize the entire thing. From the menu of the reception (main features), to the flowers (the nice to have), to the guests (your stakeholders, which, by the way, means it’s also your job to know who to sit next to whom and most importantly who does not sit next to whom!). And like a wedding planner, you need to coordinate a team and ensure all your planning comes to fruition.

On the topic, one important piece of advice as you start your career as a PM, shared by Busra, is to “create your curated repository right from the beginning. Take the time to scan through the material (either that you find online or that of your own organization), and decide what works for your specific case and your team.”

In case you find yourself dealing with a “nervous bride,” it might help “to have a clear common vision that is visible and known by the entire company, as well as clear prioritization in case of conflicts,’’ Evelina says.

Getting clear and organized right from the beginning will free your “decision-making” budget and will allow you to focus on what you have to do.

In the wedding planner toolbox:

The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen

So now that we have shared our experiences with you, consider sharing yours with us, as well. What are the unexpected hats you get to wear as a product manager? What are the resources in your toolbox? Leave a comment below!

Sara Tortoli

Sara Tortoli