How to Be a Well-Rounded Product Manager

Alaska Airlines used to have an unofficial policy of temporarily rotating employees into different areas of the company every couple of years, to give people in the organization as complete an understanding as possible of both Alaska Airlines itself and the larger aviation ecosystem.

That’s a smart strategy. It’s easy to become hyper-focused on your own role within your company—or even to spend most of your time and energy on just a small portion of your role. This can give you tunnel vision, create blind spots, and cause you to miss valuable insights that you gain only by exposing yourself to different areas of the business.

Unfortunately, this is very common among product managers, many of whom have not learned to strike the appropriate balance among all of the different aspects of their roles.

Any chance you’ve fallen into this trap? Is it possible that by hyper-focusing on your preferred aspects of being a product manager—your PM comfort zone—you’re missing some insights that could benefit your products, your company, and even your career? Let’s look at a few common ways PMs become too narrowly focused, and then discuss some tips for becoming a more well-rounded product manager.

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You Might Be Too Narrowly Focused as a Product Manager if…

  1. You spend most of your time talking about long-term strategic plans and outsource all discussion of tactical details to your product owners, project managers, or dev teams.
  2. You spend most of your time talking about coding specifics with your engineering department and leave the strategic thinking to your executive staff.
  3. You rarely venture out to speak with users and prefer instead to learn about their demands and preferences from talking to your sales reps.

These are understandable shortcomings. Product management encompasses a wide range of responsibilities, and few PMs enjoy them all. Some product managers, often those who come from technical backgrounds, prefer to roll up their sleeves and dig into the coding specifics and other details with their engineering teams. Others, who might have a business or marketing background, prefer spending as much of their time focusing on that side of the business—and prefer to think of the development details as a black box they can leave to others.

Problem is, when you stay in your PM comfort zone, you can miss lots of important insight and opportunities to build bonds with key people and teams across your organization—all of which can lead to a better product.

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“When you stay in your PM comfort zone, you miss lots of important insight that could help you build a better product.”

Exposure to New Aspects of Your Role or Your Company Leads to Light Bulb Moments

Have you ever gone to a trade-show or sat in on a sales rep presenting your products and walked away with an entirely new viewpoint about some aspect of your product or your target user? So that’s how our customers use that feature! So those are the types of people who actually have the decision-making authority in our target companies! So that’s why Sales is always asking me for a lower-priced version of the product!

Those light bulb moments support the notion that the more areas of your company you learn about and expose yourself to, the more you’ll be able to serve your products and your users.

So now let’s go over some ideas for getting out of your PM comfort zone and creating more of those light bulb moments.

3 Tips for Becoming a More Well-Rounded Product Manager

1. Set aside time to talk with any group in the organization you’ve had no interaction with before.

Maybe you’ve never sat down with your customer support reps and listened to how they actually handle a real customer call about your product. Maybe you’ve never talked with your accounting department and asked them how they decide the amount of budget to allocate to your projects. Maybe you’ve never learned how your company’s deal-desk team handles the specifics of a close with your sales reps.

Remember, your product’s success in the market is in some way dependent on every area and every employee of your company. So learning about any department can give you new insights into parts of your product’s journey you’ve never known about. And these conversations can all lead to light bulb moments.
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2. Learn the dialect of one of your company’s teams that you’ve always found to be gibberish.

For some product managers, particularly those with a business or marketing background and little or no technical training, developer-speak often sounds like a foreign language.

But to be a well-rounded PM, you can’t simply tune your developers out as soon as they start talking about coding details or other technical information relevant to building your product. You don’t need to become a full-blown engineer, but take some time to learn some of the language your engineering team uses and you’ll be in a better position to communicate exactly what you want to your technical teams.

An added bonus of this strategy is that when you learn a new department’s unique language—what marketing means by ‘CTR,’ or what your development lead means when he talks about the difference between Angular and React—you’ll strengthen your relationship with those teams, which will also benefit your product.

3. Spend some time honing your skills in the area of product management you hate or fear the most (you know the one).

Maybe you’re comfortable with every area of your role as a PM except public speaking. If you’ve given in to that fear and accepted you’re just not an effective public speaker, chances are your roadmap presentations to your executive stakeholders aren’t as persuasive as you could make them, which could be costing you the timely buy-in you need to move ahead with your product’s plan. This fear could also mean you miss out on chances to participate in panels at important industry functions—a setback for both your products and your own career.

So stretch yourself in this area. Look for opportunities to sit on those panels. Look for appropriate opportunities to call all-company meetings and update your organization on the progress of your products.

And you know what? Stretching yourself in this way will do more than just make you a more well-rounded product manager. It will also put you in situations that lead to those valuable insights you might never have had if you stayed in your PM comfort zone.