Critical Skills to Develop as a New Product Manager in Your First 6 Months

In the PMHQ Slack community, we regularly get thought-provoking questions that we feel should be explored in-depth and documented for future reference. We’re starting a new set of Q&A posts called Highlights to dive into these kinds of questions, and enable everyone in the community to revisit the answers and contribute further!


“If you could learn anything from anyone in your first 6 months as a PM, what single thing would you want them to teach you?” 

Our community tackled this question with gusto! Interestingly, few people shared the same perspective on what one thing they wish they knew as a new PM.

The answers revolved around the following themes:

  • Mental frameworks
  • Scope of responsibilities
  • Focus
  • Metrics
  • Confidence
  • Communication

1) Mental Frameworks

One of our PMs found that frameworks would have enabled him to be much more effective in his early days.

He wish he knew how to internalize popular mental frameworks, and how to modify them to fit his environment.

That is, he wanted to have the habit of starting each thought exercise with the following process:

  1. Identify the most relevant framework
  2. Modify it to fit the situation
  3. Use the framework to set a high-level direction before diving into details

To learn more about mental frameworks, check out this article on developing mental models for effective thinking (Farnam Street Blog).

2) Scope of Responsibilities

One PM found that he was being asked to do too much, and wished that someone had taught him what the job is vs. what it isn’t.

For example, he found that he was being asked to tackle design and marketing on top of his product responsibilities, even though he didn’t have the training, the background, or the bandwidth to do so.

He was frustrated that his stakeholders labeled him as a failure for being unable to meet their unrealistically high expectations, even though it was not his responsibility to do so.

Curious to learn what a PM should do versus what they should not? Check out these resources on PMHQ:

3) Focus

Another PM mentioned that as a new PM, he wished he knew how to focus.

At his organization, he was the only product manager. This situation was problematic because they had multiple simultaneous fires, all of which he was expected to resolve with limited resources and time.

He wish he knew which single item to focus on at a particular point in time, and which items made the most sense to ignore.

4) Metrics

One product manager wished that he had more guidance on how to create and wield metrics.

He felt that if he had stronger metrics, he would have been able to better prioritize features and to better communicate progress on initiatives.

On PMHQ, we’ve covered a couple of critical metrics; you can find these links below. Let us know (e.g. through email, Slack, comments) whether there are others you’d like us to cover!

5.) Confidence

Multiple product managers wished that they had more confidence in their first 9 months on the job.

One product manager wished that he had more confidence in making decisions and in negotiating with stakeholders. He felt that he had been a pushover, and that his lack of force had wound up taking the product down paths that he disagreed with.

A second product manager wished that he had the confidence to fail. In his view, failure is the cost of learning, and learning is how one succeeds. He felt that he hadn’t failed enough times to succeed, and that he had been too passive in driving new initiatives due to his fear of failure.

6.) Communication

One product manager struggled with the politics in her organization.

She wished that she knew how to build up relationships and political capital, as well as how to spend it well.

Her particular problem was that the executive team would bicker over the product direction and hijack her roadmap, without deferring to her. She had multiple problematic stakeholders who refused to cooperate with her, which led to strain on her engineering team.

Summary

As a product manager, you’ll be asked to tackle tasks that you may not be familiar with, and you’ll be asked to leverage skill sets that you don’t yet possess.

It’s important to have this baseline expectation as you enter the product management world for the first time.

In other words: there is no single magical set of skills that will guarantee your success. The skills that you’ll need are heavily context-dependent, based on what industry you’re in, the position your company is in, and the position your product is in.

As you navigate your career, whether you’re a new PM or a seasoned veteran, be sure to proactively reach out for help, whether it’s within your own organization or through other communities such as our PMHQ Community. If there’s one thing to know about product managers, it’s that we love to help!

 


Have thoughts that you’d like to contribute around skills a new product manager should be developing in the first 6 months? Chat with other product managers around the world in our PMHQ Community!

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