What distinguishes the Top 1% of product managers from the Top 10%? [2022 Edition]
Updates and additions to my original answer, ten years later
Ten years ago, almost to the day, I wrote an answer to the question above on Quora. Since then, it has been viewed almost half a million times. To this day, many product managers know me either from that post, or another on Working Backwards, Amazon’s product development process.
Back in 2012, I’d managed a handful of product managers at Amazon. Since then, I’ve managed almost a hundred product managers at Amazon, Airbnb, and startups as well as senior managers and directors of product management. My sample size has grown. Now seems like a good time to think about what I may have missed or got wrong ten years ago and refresh my Top 1% product manager post.
These are the competencies in my original post - the ones that top 10% product managers excel at a few of and top 1% most or all. I’ve added some additional commentary in square brackets.
Think big - A 1% PM's thinking won't be constrained by the resources available to them today or today's market environment. They'll describe large disruptive opportunities, and develop concrete plans for how to take advantage of them. [They’ll avoid chasing after small opportunities, recognizing they need to hunt for bigger elephants.]
Communicate - A 1% PM can make a case that is impossible to refute or ignore. They'll use data appropriately, when available, but they'll also tap into other biases, beliefs, and triggers that can convince the powers that be to part with headcount, money, or other resources and then get out of the way.
Simplify - A 1% PM knows how to get 80% of the value out of any feature or project with 20% of the effort. They do so repeatedly, launching more and achieving compounding effects for the product or business. [They can recognize when designers or engineers are trying to build more than is necessary, and persuade them to simplify also.]
Prioritize - A 1% PM knows how to sequence projects. They balance quick wins vs. platform investments appropriately. They balance offense and defense projects appropriately. Offense projects are ones that grow the business. Defense projects are ones that protect and remove drag on the business (operations, reducing technical debt, fixing bugs, etc.).
Forecast and measure - A 1% PM is able to forecast the approximate benefit of a project, and can do so efficiently by applying past experience and leveraging comparable benchmarks. They also measure benefit once projects are launched, and factor those learnings into their future prioritization and forecasts. [They know that key metrics are part of the P0 product requirements, not an afterthought that can be gradually added after launch.]
Execute - A 1% PM grinds it out. They do whatever is necessary to ship. They recognize no specific bounds to the scope of their role. As necessary, they recruit, they produce buttons, they do bizdev, they escalate, they tussle with internal counsel, they *. [They are the master of the last mile, and don’t lose steam after a project gets approved and underway.]
Understand technical trade-offs - A 1% PM does not need to have a CS degree. They do need to be able to roughly understand the technical complexity of the features they put on the backlog, without any costing input from devs. They should partner with devs to make the right technical trade-offs (i.e. compromise).
Understand good design - A 1% PM doesn't have to be a designer, but they should appreciate great design and be able to distinguish it from good design. They should also be able to articulate the difference to their design counterparts, or at least articulate directions to pursue to go from good to great.
Write effective copy - A 1% PM should be able to write concise copy that gets the job done. They should understand that each additional word they write dilutes the value of the previous ones. They should spend time and energy trying to find the perfect words for key copy (button labels, nav, calls-to-action, etc.), not just words that will suffice.
Looking at these, I’m still pretty satisfied. They stand the test of time. I did miss out on a few though. Below are some additional competencies I’ve come to respect and recognize the importance of over the last decade:
Earn trust - A 1% PM understands people, and that the way to earn trust with one person may be completely different than for another. They figure out what makes an executive, peer, or important stakeholder tick and what their third rails are. They do what is necessary to earn each person’s trust and turn them into an ally, instead of just a colleague.
Dig for data - A 1% PM figures out the data they need, and goes and gets it. They don’t file a ticket and wait weeks or months for a BIE or analyst to produce it. Along with customer insights, data is the lifeblood of a 1% PM and they let nothing get in the way of getting the data they need to make the optimal decision.
Push back effectively - A 10% PM knows how to push back. A 1% PM knows how to push back and win, especially when they’re pushing back on someone whose opinion carries much more weight than their own. Winning requires putting more effort into their case, getting the right data that will be persuasive, and finding the right pressure points to open back up a decision and get it pointed the other way.
Adapt to change - A 1% PM isn’t destabilized by every change in leadership, strategy, resources, or every decision that doesn’t go their way. They don’t waste energy or get caught up in the drama. They assess how the change impacts them or their product, adapt, and get back to work.
Driven by impact, not promotion - A 1% PM wakes up each day thinking about how to maximize their impact for the good of the product and the company. Promotion isn’t the fuel that powers them and guides their decisions every day. They don’t do things “for visibility”. Their impact ends up generating the visibility and leads to promotion.
What competencies did I miss? I’ll have to fold those into another refresh in 2032.
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