The PM Guide

Product management skills - soft skills deep dive

Kenton Kivestu, ex-Google, ex-BCG, Founder at RocketBlocks
Updated: June 15, 2022

A critical aspect of the product management job that often goes overlooked is that PMs don't have official authority over the teams they work with. For example, functional reporting is typically in place meaning that the engineers report to engineering managers, the designers to design managers and so on.

Given that reporting structure, a product manager doesn't have an official organizational authority to make people do what he/she wants. Thus, the product manager must successfully gain influence on his/her team and effectively use it to guide the whole product team to the optimal result.

This is why product managers put such high emphasis on great soft skills - the best technical product manager is dead weight if they can't effectively get buy-in from their team.

The soft skills PM candidates are tested on

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Leadership

Product manager soft skills #1: Communication

Communication is a critical aspect of a PM's job. But in addition to the standard challenge of communicating clearly in a work environment, PMs need to have a solid understanding of how to communicate with all the different levels of stakeholders they engage with: from the CEO and executive team to customer support team.

Below John Gronberg, a Director of Product at Okta, the enterprise identity "unicorn," shares how he tailors communication for the different constituencies he works with: sales, engineering and executive teams.

In PM interviews, your communication skills will be on display the whole time as answering any question, regardless of the topic, will require demonstration of your communication skills. However, certain questions and exercises will come up that are designed specifically to test these skills. Some companies, like Google, will even require a written component to test non-verbal communication skills.

Sample communication questions (from an Uber PM interview)

  • How would you help your grandmother understand how Uber works?
  • A major bug impacted your product and all customers yesterday. Tell me how you'd explain what happened to the CEO. Tell me how you'd explain what happened to the customer support lead.

"I want to know if they speak in the right languages to the different constituencies. For example, the difference between talking about pop-up dialogs with a user interface designer and then a high-level conversation with the CEO about DAU (daily active users) and revenue metrics is massive. One way to test for this is asking: can you take a single feature and describe it to the customer, the CEO, the engineer, the designer and the support team? If they can tailor the message successfully, that is a great sign."
Preet Anand, PM at Lyft, ex-Zynga, Founder at Patreonus

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Product manager soft skills #2: Collaboration

Collaboration is another skill that's essential to a well functioning PM. While there are plenty of other jobs where minimal collaboration is necessary, PMs collaborate extensively on a day-to-day basis. Remember that the PM is essentially a "hub" role where they connect a team of different disciplines together.

As a result, the PM is rarely the expert in marketing, engineering, design, support, legal, etc. on the team. And furthermore, they're not primarily responsible for handling the tasks that each of those roles take on. The PMs job is to make everything work together seamlessly in order to deliver a great product. You could argue, quite convincingly, that the number one skill a PM must possess is the ability to effectively collaborate with all the critical stakeholders in an organization.

Sample collaboration questions (from an Uber PM interview)

  • How would you motivate an engineering team to complete a particularly challenging task on a tough timeline? What are the key motivational pillars you'd rely on? Why?
  • Tell me about a time when you and an engineering counterpart had a disagreement. Explain to me the positions on each side, the eventual resolution and the path to resolving the issue?
  • What is the best way for product managers to engage with designers? Please share what you think an ideal working relationship works like.

"Essentially, a PM needs to drive execution. And since a PM doesn't really produce anything themselves (e.g., they don't code or sell directly), that means they need to drive collaboration across the team. They need to be the connective tissue."
Paul Krakow, Principal PM at Amazon, ex-Yahoo

Product manager soft skills #3: Leadership

Product management requires a strong and unique blend of leadership skills. While many other leadership positions (e.g., VP of sales) have some direct reporting authority of their team members, PMs will often have to lead without any formal reporting structure authority (e.g., the engineers don't report to the PM).

As a result, PMs need to earn the respect of the team members they work with and earn influence through their actions that will enable them to successfully lead a team. While each PM will have a different leadership style, he/she will need to find some vector which will help him/her establish leadership. For example, it might be that they're great at mediating debates between the team and finding good compromises. It could be that they bring an excellent understanding of the customer to bear and thus they guide the team toward the right features, etc.

Ultimately, this leadership role that PMs assume is the reason many people say "PMs are the CEO of the product." Below Jonathan Lewis, a Group Product Manager at Twitter and ex-Facebook PM, talks about being the CEO of the product and the double-edged sword of accountability.

Sample leadership questions (from an Uber PM interview)

  • Please share with me one leadership lesson you've learned in your career and a second experience where you were able to apply that lesson.
  • Imagine that your engineering team is half way into the first 2-week tech debt sprint that it's done over the 3-year life of the product. The VP of Driver Operations pings you urgently and demands that you drop everything to add a new feature by the end of next week. How would you handle this situation?

"Influence is critical. We want to see if they can concisely tell a story to the other team members and executives and convince people their path is the right way forward. If you don't have an ability to do this, the job is really tough because you don't typically have the formal authority to force someone to take action."
Kris Narunatavich, PM at Facebook, former Director of Product at HotelTonight

P.S. Are you preparing for PM interviews?

Real interview questions. Sample answers from PM leaders at Google, Amazon and Facebook. Plus study sheets on key concepts.