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Your Product Manager Superpower
Episode 1013th September 2022 • Trying to Product • Parv Sondhi and Alex Cox
00:00:00 00:28:29

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Your Product Manager Superpower

In this episode, Parv and Alex discuss how to find your superpower as a PM. Every PM has specific attributes that kind of mesh together to give them a sense of the PM product. 

This time, Parv and Alex discuss the comparability, various characteristics they've observed over the years, PM skill set, among other intriguing topics. As two experienced PMs, it's quite easy for Alex and Parv to spot the various key factors that make someone successful in the PM role.

Tune in to learn this and more!

Key Highlights

[00:54] Alex's thoughts on his qualities as a PM in comparison to other PMs he has seen

[05:08] It's hard to measure soft skills in a PM. 

[06:150] The toolset, skill chart, or armory of a PM 

[08:06] Why Communication and storytelling skills are important for PMs 

[11:35] Ideation and innovation PMS.

[14:04] Proactive PMs who gets things done.

[15:26] Management and motivating a team as PM Skillset

[17:36] Managing up and down

[19:18] Mentoring as a PM Skillset

[20:13] Being insightful by asking the right questions

[21:32]How to identify the base problem 

[23:02] How to reach the mountain's summit be an excellent communicator, insightful, and all-around great PM.

[25:44] How to find your superpower as a PM

[27:46] Comparison between the life of a PM and RPG game

Notable Quotes

  • “We’re prone to comparison. And we're always trying to figure out if who's the best pm and who's the worst and hoping that you're not the worst.” [02:56]
  • “It’s so easy to compare. But it's also so hard to measure for such like a metric-driven roll.”[03:54]
  • I don't think like any of these skills that we talked about are necessarily ones that can't be learned.”[22:21]
  • “And sometimes it's also identifying which ones you don't give a shit about. And don't care if you are that good at them.” [24:53]
  • “Comparison doesn't really lead to anything fruitful. But focusing on finding your superpower does.” [28:11]

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This week on trying to product we're gonna go ahead and talk about finding your superpower as a PM. So I think every pm has different attributes that kind of come together to kind of give them that pm product sense. And so this time we're going to talk through about more of like the comparison and different attributes we've seen during the years. So far, what do you think about kind of maybe your attributes or as compared to other PMS that you've seen?


Yeah, I mean, I think that's a great topic to talk about. Because as a PM, when we go in, not only are you working with so many different people who are experts in their own field, but you're also talking to, and working with other PMS. And it's not inevitable that you might end up comparing yourself with others, you're working with your manager, his manager, other PMs on the team, and each of them have such a different skill set. And they're doing the job that essentially mimics the type of job that you're doing as well. And then it becomes easy to see where your flaws are, and start comparing yourself against these other PMS to start feeling as if you aren't that good. I know I go through a lot I across the last few organization that I've been working at, even though I feel and I've been told that I'm doing a good job, it still creeps in you still look at everyone else around you. And it's human nature to compare. And when you see PMS, other PMS kind of doing their work, it makes you wonder if are you doing a good job. You see their strengths. And sometimes I feel like, oh, man, I wish I could be as good as them in convincing my stakeholders, or I wish I could be as good as them and kind of bringing the team together. And it happens. I start comparing and it can go down that path. But I don't know. Do you face that same problem to Alex?


Oh, yeah, absolutely. Especially I think product is such a, like a nebulous thing. As we've kind of talked about throughout the podcast, it's just, you see other PMS, and everyone has such a different path to get there. And so everyone has these different attributes. And you kind of see like the people above you, right? So if you're kind of a mid level pm or just starting out? What's the difference between you? And like, senior pm or staff, pm or director, like a product director? So, yeah, you start to like, compare yourself and see like how your skills match up with theirs. How are you better? How are you worse? And you just kind of go down this rabbit hole to try to

figure out I think it's partly just see how you can get at that level and kind of what's that shortcut? But it's also partly just, I think we all Yeah, we're prone to comparison. And we're always trying to figure out if who's the best pm and who's the worst and hoping that you're not the worst? At least in your mind.


Yeah, I mean, there's always the comparison aspect when you're thinking about or if you're being reviewed, or there's a review cycle, coming up compensation that steak or promotion and things like that. And then you'll obviously be thinking about if you're good or not. And sometimes that comparison, and that sort of point of reference isn't always just yourself, it could be others on the team. And so that's definitely one way that he started going down that rabbit hole of comparison. But then I also feel it's just the work sometimes, it's so similar. And it's so easy to see yourself in their shoes or see them in your shoes, because you're doing some of the same tasks that you end up sort of comparing yourself with them across all skill sets. And it's just too easy to start comparing in such a role like pm.


Yeah, it's so easy to compare. But it's also so hard to measure it for such like a metric driven role. We're always trying to compare everything, we're always trying to see which one is performing, which thing is performing better. But for PMS, like there's not really a good metric. I mean, one metric could be just do you get stuff out? Are you able to ship. But shipping is such a hard metric, because everything like the products vary so much. So you can't have like a one to one comparison between pm products. So it's not really a good way to compare PMS. And I think part of what makes a good pm team good is having lots of pianos with different backgrounds, who are very different, who have different strengths. So they all complement each other.


Yeah, I mean, I think the one line you said, I think that's such a great insight, it's comparison, but without the ability to measure, which makes it hard. And I think that's such a big issue here of why comparison can end up being so detrimental is a we aren't able to measure some of these attributes and soft skills yet we end up comparing ourselves on them. And that's so different than maybe you're comparing yourself at someone else across code commits, or line of code or design components created. Not saying that those roles don't involve soft skills they do. And there's a slew of problems there as well. But as a PM, I think one of the hardest things to do is measuring the soft skills that you have to be on top of and then yet still going down the comparison path that can be just super painful.


Yeah, totally. It's actually you look at design, you look at engineering, all of these have like very clear deliverables by PM, we have PRDs. But like very few PR Ds are the same. So there's really no single metric. So then you start relying on secondary things like, Well, what do people do in

meetings? How old? Do they drive consensus, and then you have all these soft skills that you kind of just kind of start comparing. But yeah, there's no single metric there.


As you were talking about this, I think the big thing here is that there are just so many different strengths and attributes and skill sets that one is working towards as a PM. And I think it's important to start looking at all of those and being able to find your superpower as a PM, you might not be good at one or the other. But then definitely, there are a couple of those attributes that that you are the best at. I don't know like what all attributes come to mind. Like, when you think of this kind of like skill chart of a pm or their armory or like toolset.


Yeah, I think it's varies. I think as you'd meet, or PMS, you kind of find new skills that you didn't think would be valuable. Negotiation is one that I've been super impressed with in some PMS, because so much of it, especially at larger orgs is just negotiating with stakeholders, making sure that everyone feels like they made a decision, even though somehow this Pm was able to like convince all these people that whatever their idea was, was actually the stakeholders idea. Somehow, they're able to do these like Jedi mind tricks. And you get out of a meeting, or watching this person, you're like, wow, that's this is like a whole nother level of something you didn't even know as possible. And these people were able to thread that needle. So effectively. So I think that's one thing I've always been, I've been very impressed with by a couple of VMs. I've


worked with no, that's so true. I think stakeholder management is such a big one. I mean, a you're working with so many different people as a PM like it's insane the type of different function that they're leading and coming in and being able to negotiate priorities or like roadmaps or just requirements and making everyone feel heard and, and is that entire cross functional collaboration is, that is definitely a great skill set. As a fear.


Yeah, one of my top like recommended books for PMS is actually never split the difference, because you have to know how to negotiate. But it just Yeah, it's something that even like, deliberately practicing it. I don't feel like I've gotten much better at it. Like I think some people were maybe just born with this. It's like one of those, like when you're playing a video game was like one of those attributes that someone just went really heavy into? Yeah.


Just used all their coins to uplevel them in negotiation and stakeholder management.


But what about you any skills that come to mind in PMS that you've worked with? Yeah, I


think for me, when I think about the soft skills or attributes, I think a big one that I also noticed is communication and storytelling, I think that's also a big one, it kind of ties in with stakeholder management, as you're trying to sort of share and tell that story across. But communication is a key one for me, when I think about some of the PMs that I've worked with, is just being able to take all the information that you're looking at as a PM, or you're trying to look at work with and creating a story around it, and being able to distill the right things and bring it in front of an audience. And it's such an important skill set, especially because as a PM, your audience vary so much. Sometimes you might be talking to an engineer, sometimes you might be talking to design, sometimes you're taking it to another PM, or the CEO or other folks at the organization like maybe lawyers or the privacy people, and being able to be concise and tell a good story with the information that you have. And communicate your thoughts, your ideas. I think that's just a really important skill set to have.


Yeah, absolutely. I think especially in a larger orgs. I've seen a the people like the managers who really rise quickly are the ones who were able to storytel. So definitely agree with that. I think that's something that's critical. That's just getting projects done.


Yeah. I mean, we say don't judge a book by its cover. But sometimes, you're so good at selling that cover through your story that


it just works. Yeah. And then like, someone starts working on the project, and they're just not understand why that's being done. But they didn't hear the master storyteller at work. Yeah.


And I'm not condoning that you just become good at storytelling and sell non appropriate ideas up the funnel. But storytelling and communication is, I think, definitely a skill set, or a soft skill that you need as a PM.


Oh, yeah. I mean, it's always within reason. I think if you're a PM, who's working on a specific

Oh, yeah. I mean, it's always within reason. I think if you're a PM, who's working on a specific area, and you want something done, should be done. Regardless, it just made me want to get as much attention if you weren't as good at storytelling as you were. That's kind of often where you see it. Yeah.


And I think there's also that aspect of just communication in general, right? If we take that piece out from storytelling, as you're talking to engineers, designers, and again, other folks at the organization, just being able to be really good with your words, being able to get your thoughts across being able to phrase certain pieces of information in the right way. I think that skill set also combined with storytelling is really important.


Yeah. Absolutely, I think communication is critical that every pm and to be able to spend more time focusing on improving their communication, because it's just so everything's so crisp as if they rehearsed everything at a time. But


yeah, I that is so insane, right? Like I see PMS who walk in and it's like they had the script ready before the meeting and they've like rehearsed it 25,000 times, but then you talk to them later. And they're like, oh, yeah, it was just came up ad hoc in the conversation. I thought this would be a good topic to talk about or like good points. And I'm like, that did not sound ad hoc or impromptu.


Yeah, I literally just had a meeting today. We're like everyone was like, going through what their priorities are. And then I kind of like have this rambling mess. And then this other pm just comes in, like, bop, bop, bop, bop up goes through, like five points off the top of their head. And I was just like, well, they said, what I said in like, two minutes and 20 seconds, and I feel like they conveyed more information. So yeah, definitely agree. Communication is critical. And when you see like a master communicator, it's just so clear.


100% How about others? Like, what else comes to mind?


I guess so. My favorite one is probably just the ideation and innovation, PMS, and definitely bias towards ideas and like crazy ideas. Make the person Yeah, blue sky. Yeah, crazy ideas off the wall. I consulted. Yeah, it is I saw the client. So stakeholders on what we can do, and then over

wall. I consulted. Yeah, it is I saw the client. So stakeholders on what we can do, and then over promise and under deliver. So I'm definitely partial. I mean, that's kind of my attribute. If I had to pick any, it's probably just like ideas and innovation. And that's, yeah, I think the main thing that I like about it, it's just that I get to use the iOS sensor like to read a lot. And like, all the pm

news and all the tech news, and essentially just kind of everything comes together in different ideas. I've met a few other idea PMS, and I think we're not that effective. I think we're good at selling a big vision. But we're not so good at executing on that vision. We do all the storytelling part. But we don't do well with the actually getting it done. Or especially because a lot of the ideas, especially nowadays are like ML or blockchain, like using some of the buzzwords, and then you get into the nitty gritty of those technologies, you're like us isn't actually where we thought it was. But we can kind of do this hacky roundabout way of getting the main thing done. So I think it's it attributes are kind of a double edged sword. I think it's good at shooting for the stars and ending on the moon, trying to like push the envelope of what can be done, but normally not quite landing, where it was initially conveyed.


Yeah, I mean, that's such a great example, right? Like, I could see myself, seriously getting down the rabbit hole of comparing myself with the pm who comes in and just shares this great idea or like, a completely innovative way of approaching a problem, but might not have the necessary skill sets to actually get it done. But when I walk into a room with that person, and I hear their ideas around how they're trying to solve the problem, I walk out, I feel like, Whoa, that's a great pm, I wish I could be that good with ideation or innovation. I wish like I had the skills to be able to come up with all of that and get it done and build those kinds of product features. But you said like, you don't know, maybe they aren't as good as they are with ideation or innovation or other skill set proactiveness or getting things done? And I think I would say, in fact, like, No, I think about getting things done, and proactiveness is another attribute or a skill set, right?


Oh, yeah, absolutely. If you're gonna say shipping products is like the core metric of a PM, that's pretty arguable, but are debatable. But if that's like a core thing, like proactiveness, and the ones who like to be able to do


ship to get things done, out there, just pushing and getting the stuff to happen. And, again, that's another skill set, like you might not be as good at the innovation piece. But maybe that doesn't matter. Because once an idea has been formed, consensus has been reached, like there's no one better in the organization to actually get it done as you can. And I think that's such a core skill set. And I mean, imagine the strength, or the superpowers that you would have if you were both getting things done, and ideating. Now that's a killer combo.


And that's why like you have a pm team that has all these has like many different attributes of different PMS, like it's not everybody, it's just ideation or everyone's just proactive, everyone

different PMS, like it's not everybody, it's just ideation or everyone's just proactive, everyone just communication you have normally a nice mix. And so like the ideation person will come up with a crazy idea, then the proactive person, and the communicational person will figure out how to actually get that done communicated to stakeholders, and now you have like this broader plan. So everything essentially complements. So that's why you have like a team with lots of different attributes, as opposed to being too concentrated in one area.


100% Yeah, I mean, yeah, I think proactiveness and getting things done is definitely a core one there, along with the others that we have said the ones that you've talked about so far, I think have been a lot with individual skills as a PM. I do think that there is another side of this that might be related to management and sort of motivating and building a team Do you think that counts as a skill set or an attribute as


well? Yeah, absolutely. I think oftentimes as PMS, we kind of essentially siloed away. But to get anything done, like we have this idea that we sell it to leadership, but we're not selling it to just pm or product leadership, we're selling it to engineering to UX did marketing to everyone who's involved in building that, especially motivating those execs. And then when you start actually building something, you go down to the engineers, you go to the designers, and you're motivating them on why this is an impactful project, why they should be excited about this, why they should stay up late at night, working on this project, so that we can help customers do whatever, I think a big part of getting products down and kind of going above and beyond for customers is actually having a super motivated team that's executing on it.


Yeah. And I think there's also this idea of like, motivation, and then building that team morale, like building a team, getting everyone, as you said, excited and filling in the gaps, where there are the famous court slash websites last just letter name by Ken Norton, which is bring the doughnuts. And as a PM sometimes like, that's your skill set. You know, when the team needs doughnuts, and you bring them then not just when you're asked to or when you think someone wants them. But it's being able to guess and being able to know, when's the right time? When do you need to get doughnuts, and maybe when you need to get them something else? Like maybe they want brownies? And that's what's going to get the team running. And so how do you know that you want to bring them brownies instead of donuts today,


or scotch scotch on the project's not going? To get the team, get the team and the project over the finish line and excited to work with you again. Because the oftentimes we think about just finishing our shipping, that's one project, but it's a marathon, it's not a sprint. So yeah, making sure that the team morale is high. And they know what they're doing that they feel like they aren't just like a robot, but they're actually a person is yeah, something that these PMS totally

accelerate. So totally agree. I think another thing that kind of goes along with just like communication and motivating the team is also just managing up and down. So I think a key part of building a team and kind of building that morale is that they're managing down very effectively, they're helping the individual contributors, the individual, like designers, marketer creative on that team, and working with them to make sure that vision is done, as well as communicating upwards to UX leadership or engineering leadership about what's happening, how the projects going, why they should be excited about the project, what are the updates, I think that's like an incredible skill set, because it also allows you to do so much more and gives you a lot more leeway. Some VMs are essentially get a lot more resources, they kind of take the back door when resources are constrained, because they've helped kind of set expectations and made sure that leadership is on board with all their decisions. But what I mean, what do you think about that kind of attribute?


Yeah, I mean, I think that's a great one. And we talked about managing up and down within different organizations. But I think it also applies to managing up and down within the product. Org, right, like, being able to manage your manager and their manager, effectively being able to bubble up the things that the right people on the team, and then even going down, which is if you're a manager to other PMS, how do you mentor them the right way? How do you manage that relationship with other PMs on your team? I think that aspect of this is also so important. And you see that as being someone who has a manager, you look up and everyone's had their fair share of good and bad managers. Now, you don't want to be that bad manager for someone else. Right. And this skill might be broader, like not just relate to PMS, but managing up and down. I think that within your org can be super, super helpful as a skill. Yeah,


totally agree. And also mentoring. I think that's a great point, that we often think of just talking to managers communicate with managers, but mentoring, like the next generation of management, essentially are PM, senior pm and everybody and making sure that they're getting the past downs from leadership. That's super important.


Yeah, you're not only motivating the scrum team, or the agile team that you're working with. We're also motivating the pm team, like how do you get the other product managers excited about the work that they're doing? How do we make sure that they're driving the right metrics, the right KPIs, being able to effectively distill information from higher up and disseminate the right context and right amount of information for the team below? I think those Yeah, definitely. A really, really important skill that sometimes can actually be the hallmarks of How to Become a great manager. Yeah, absolutely. There's another one that I think we kind of, I wouldn't say, God, but through our conversation, I feel like it came up a little bit in the early skill set that we were talking about. I think there's this aspect of being insightful. I think that's also a really key one, right when you think about skill sets.


Oh, yeah, I think there's like some PMS, they just ask the right questions. I think it's kind of similar to like a good communicator. You instantly know when you're within insightful Yeah, who's just kind of on a whole nother level like there asking all the right questions that you

would never think to ask. They strip away all kinds of assumptions, all the things that we just kind of go in with all this baggage and they just strip away all that baggage, and then get to a really nice core kind of problem area to start focusing on and then start additional ideation on when if some of your experiences with insightful PMS,


I remember being on meetings when I'm sitting like with the analytics group, and we've been talking about it for a couple of weeks, and we've looked at some data and like, sliced it in a couple of different ways. And then we walked through that same kind of analytics and data insights with another PM, and they just come in with these questions that is destroy all the hypotheses that the team had, and just kind of ask such great questions. And like, have you looked at the data this way? Or what about if you do X, Y, and Z? Like, have you tried looking at it like this? And they just start like asking that why? And just going down that question and assumption identification that I think it's a great skill set, like, how do you identify the base problem? Like, what is the thing that we're trying to solve? How do we strip away, as you said, all the assumptions, or all the paraphernalia attached to our thinking, and some of the questions that we're trying to answer and find out what's at root, like the root cause? Yeah, I've been in those conversations. And I've seen those PMs in action. And I'm not kidding you. It's insane watching that. And


especially, I think a lot of the attributes are also some things that like, it feels like people are just born with, like, I don't know how you become an insightful pm all of a sudden, and just like, become like a Zen pm monk. And just get to this clarity, that I don't know how they do it.


It's funny, though, like, I think about all of these, and they seem so innate abilities or skills, but I think there is a neatness factor to it. And I think there is something that you may be born with. But I think that only brings you up to a certain level. I don't think like any of these skills that we talked about, are necessarily ones that can't be learned, I think with the right sort of practice and approach and being open minded, I think. I mean, I hope so I'm trying myself to sort of build my skill set within these different attributes. And I think you can, I think there is a way to sort of jump in, and part of it is trying to practice it and do it again and again, and get feedback and build yourself slowly up. And some of this, I mean, I'm trying, that's a


good growth mindset to have some of these, I don't know that I'll ever get to that level.


Yeah, maybe we don't get to their level. But me Oh, no, no, I


feel like I've said in a few:


I don't know. Yep. Maybe? Yeah. What you said right now, I think that was really clear and concise, and deliberate?


Oh, yeah. I'm just gonna put more pauses between everything. It makes it really hard to talk.


Yeah, but no, I get what you're saying. And I think it's like, there is some of it that definitely you can learn. I mean, there are different ways. And I think, definitely, experience does help. I mean, I, myself have seen myself grow in some of these areas, just by putting in the reps. I mean, that's our entire motto of this podcast is like everyone's trying to product we just have to put in the reps.


Yeah, totally agree. I think also, some of us gravitate towards some areas versus others. And so we kind of just almost accidentally kind of get better at some of these, I think. But if you kind of know what these different attributes are proactiveness ideation negotiating all these different attributes. And I think it's easier to kind of pivot and nudge yourself, towards the places that you think are going to be more valuable for you or where you're weaker.


Yeah, it's such a good point you brought up right like it's a identifying how you are in these different skill sets, then identifying which ones through that identifying which ones you're good

different skill sets, then identifying which ones through that identifying which ones you're good at already, which ones you aren't that good at and which ones you want to get good at. And sometimes it's also identifying which ones you don't give a shit about. And don't care if you are that good at them or not.


I think that's a good summary of how to like kind of practice because you're never going to have time to get better at all these especially because you'd have to put so many reps in each of these. And there's only so many hours in the day and so many meetings and so many places to kind of deliberately practice. So focusing on the areas that you're weaker that you think would be the most effective storytelling. If you're in a bigger org and you want to get more funding, or if you're having trouble motivating teams or the team is has a lot of kind of angst within itself. Maybe a bit too. mainly designers and engineering, then trying to figure out how you can kind of solve all these political issues. And that's a really good way to learn and see what worked, what didn't work. And then use the kind of the typical pm practice of retrospectives. And getting better.


Yeah. And then the other part is like, find your superpower as a PM, like, which ones of these? Are you the strongest tag? Which ones work for you? And which one would you say is your superpower? I think that's also really key to know. Like, if you look back at your experience, or if you look at yourself as an individual, and you're trying to be a PM, like, which one of these do you think like, if it comes to your repertoire you excel at? And find that superpower? And also own it, like, build within that and make sure that when it comes to that skill set, like you're the person for it? Yeah, actually, I


think that's great advice, especially because it's like depth versus breadth. You could be decent at all of these. Or you could be incredible, like, top 10 in the world, at least one of these. And if your top 10 is like one of the bests in like one specific area, you're going to do well, if you're kind of mediocre at everything you're going to do fine. So I think it's also like one of those jack of all trades, master of none, or just focusing on specific thing.


Yeah. And there is also an aspect of always adapting to the environment. No, it sounds like a cop out. But I think that's the thing about BMW is adapting to the environment around you. Sometimes it's bringing a superpower forefront and always using that versus sometimes trying to like, work across the other skill sets.


Oh, yeah. I think also, if you focus on one, like you end up just I think being a consultant at

Oh, yeah. I think also, if you focus on one, like you end up just I think being a consultant at some point.


Yeah, I've been thinking about this for a while. And I don't know if I spoke about it. But when I think about these attributes and skill sets, and when I think about finding a superpower as a PM, I kind of compare this to an RPG game, where you're the main character. And I think it's

just it's so like that it's, you have all these different attributes that you can focus on your entire pm journey is your game. And it's an RPG game and you're trying to get to the end, which is go through your Pm journey. And then all of these are just different skills. And it's about like figuring out where you want to spend your experience points or skill points that you gain. Where do you want to put them in which bucket which attributes you want to grow? Do you want to take some away from some attributes at some point of time? I don't think life as a pm is that different from an RPG game?


Yeah, I like that analogy. I think it's spot on. There's no like set way to become a pm all the PMs that you meet, all come from different backgrounds. So being able to like choose where you put your experience points, where you focus your attention. Yeah, RPG game. I think that's like the best possible analogy.


Yeah. Find your superpower as a pm on this RPG game off your BM journey.


And don't worry about the attributes that other people have. I think comparison doesn't really lead to anything fruitful. But focusing on finding your superpower does Yeah.