Product Management: The Personality Profession

Being a "good PM" may be more of a popularity contest than a measure of effectiveness.

Product Management: The Personality Profession

Articles covering product management remain a scare breed. We're familiar with the cliché “qualities of a good PM" articles which recycle themselves on the front page of HackerNews once every few weeks. These seem to provide great advice at first glance, mostly because they closely mimic much of our society's golden rules.

Consensus amongst vocal product managers is that being a good PM isn't too far off from simply being a good person. The mantra of leading by example and turning the other cheek has somehow made its way into my own professional psyche for the last 8 years.

After thoroughly testing this mindset in the field, I'd argue that this mindset under the following circumstances:

  1. You're a PM at Google
  2. Your company would rather keep you happy than extracting maximum work for minimal cost

Those odds don't feel great.

After nearly a decade, I've stuck to my guns as to what I believe it means to be a decent and rational human. Using success as a metric, the results have been lackluster to say the least. The paradox of being a "good person" is that this set of values is not only useless, but self-destructive when those around you may not be playing by the same rules.

Mr. Nice Guy

A real-world example of this can be found in the westernization of Asian cultures. Nations which traditionally hold the needs of society over their own are routinely strong-armed by western cultures into business negotiations which serve no benefit to them. As a result of World War II, Japan complied the terms of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan.

The treaty effectively disarmed the nation entirely, explicitly leaving Japan's foreign military conflicts to the United States. To this day, the United States routinely calls upon Japan to defy its own treaty to build a military, purchase decommissioned naval ships, and even develop nuclear weapons. This sadly works on occasion, demonstrating a horrible matchup in personalities: those who do good will succumb to the will of those who profit, under the curse of justified empathy.

What Makes a 'Good PM'?

According to the community, these are the “3 common traits of a good Product Manager”:

1. Deflect all Praise

This is a fantastic idea in the context of society, but quite horrible in competitive capitalism. We may wish upon a star that our efforts will someday become apparent to those curious enough to analyze our achievements. The truth is, they won't.

The syndrome here is comparable to the Yelp "1 star" conundrum. If an operation runs smoothly with no fanfare, who will be there to sing its praises? Success is invisible to those who do not benefit from it, but failure is an excellent opportunity to bask in schadenfreude and feign expertise via distant criticism.

2. Ditch the Ego

I truly believe that this remains a motto to live by. Yet, the relationship between a selfless subordinate and a selfish direct superior. An individual open to assuming fault will almost always fall victim to a personality looking to place it.

Losing an ego entirely can spiral into the catastrophe of diminished self-worth. Putting one's work over one's self is a perpetual path to career failure, as the impossible becomes expected. There is a huge perception difference between a 'valuable employee' and an 'asset,' yet 'assets' seem to be doing most of the work.

3. Data Drives Features

This is something PMs absolutely should do. That said, try explaining why the cost of Omniture, its implementation, and the hours spent analyzing numbers will return ROI.

In the presence of an arrogant personality, data is a stern challenger. Analytics provide quantifiable truths, and truths often deviate than the conclusions drawn from a minutes-long 'genius' brainstorming session. To the ego that never left, being wrong is a larger threat than missing out on revenue.

Doing your best

I've spent a majority of my time as a PM improving my tangible skills. I can customize a near-perfect workflow for any project type, I've channeled my internal dialogue, and the estimates I personally provide for projects have yet to be off.

These seem to be tangible skills, so do they equate to job security? Absolutely not. On the contrary, success in these fields are self inflicted invisibility.

"If a PM executes flawlessly, there is little need to engage or acknowledge that individual from a business or leadership role."

I'm not advocating against being a hero, but all heroes are invisible behind the mask. That is a life to be chosen, and it is not an easy one.

Taking it Personal

If being a good PM has nothing to do with, well, being a good PM, why is it that some PMs thrive?

PMs are NOT a skill-based position to most employers. Instead, PMs provide the beating heart of a team, and the pace of culture that Silicon Valley has aggressively preached. Naive enthusiasm is better for office culture and morale than the crushing gift of foresight.

That is the curse of the analytically minded.

It's not hard to see how human emotion (while subjective) is the deciding factor behind a PMs personal success. Think back to some interviews you had as a PM... how much did the vibe change after the first 30 seconds or so? Chances are, not much.

We are all humans. As humans, we realize that surrounding ourselves with people we like is valuable... perhaps more valuable than competence. If there is a silver lining here, it is that we humans may in fact value relationships over money, after all.

What do we do?

Stop working so hard- Heavy legwork is admirable but not sustainable. If you are suffering from your choice to succeed, with the best possible outcome of remaining invisible, it may be time to look at life differently.

A PM must always do what is best for the product. If the talented team at your disposal is not fully utilized, you are not doing what is best for the product.

Sure, everybody is busy. We're all in the middle of 'that thing' which we'd hate to have ruined by a Slack chat. Compare this short term frustration to the sense of involvement and meaning a human being receives simply by asking them the question, "what do you think?"

If PMs are leaders, it seems as though personality is secret sauce after all. As many skills as you may personally have, your overtime hours will never come close to the sum of the parts of an enthusiastic team.

Feel free to hone your skills, but never forget that your effort is nothing compared to the whole, which is of course greater than the sum of its parts.