Common Traits of Mediocre Product Managers and How to Avoid Them

Most of us like to think that it’s pretty obvious how to avoid being a terrible Product Manager. Some of us even know what it takes to be a great PM. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to find ourselves stuck somewhere in the middle. Not bad enough to be fired, not awesome enough to progress. Mediocre is, of course, subjective, and not everyone operates in the same way.

We asked our community of Product Managers on Facebook what are the characteristics/habits that make a really mediocre PM. The responses were numerous and very insightful, and can be broken down into the following themes:

1. Bad Attitude

Lack of dedication or missing the willingness to be creative and adventurous in innovating in developing the product. A combination of those two is even more detrimental.”

“I’d say some people are just not nice and difficult to work with. Arrogant. And no matter how brilliant they are, it’s going to be hard working with them and having them build trust with developers and clients.”

“Anyone who thinks it’s ok to say “not my job” and turn away from an issue or is full of excuses when things go wrong, but doesn’t identify and escalate when there is time to impact the outcome.”

“I would say someone who isn’t detail oriented overall. Also the attitude of “good enough” will make your product just good enough.”

Attitude is incredibly important for all employees, not just Product Managers. No one wants to be in a team with someone who has tunnel vision, and isn’t willing to help out where they can. A huge part of being a Product Manager is relationship management with your team. You don’t have to be the best of friends, but you do have to be able to coexist in the same office and get the job done. You can’t influence someone without finding the common ground between you.

If you find yourself butting heads with a certain team member often enough to be a problem, take action! Schedule a one-to-one with that person, giving them the opportunity to express their opinions on the matter. Ask them ‘how can we come up with a way to move forward together?’ and put the focus back on what you both care about: the work.

Angry emoji on phone

2. Poor Stakeholder Management

“He/She won’t have amicable relationships with the stakeholders, which causes unnecessary misunderstandings & escalations.”

“Unable to accept other perspectives. Not taking time to do the necessary communications with stakeholders to ensure that they are in the know, which may cause rude shocks leading to delays and last minute changes.”

Your relationships with your stakeholders can make or break your standing as a Product Manager. Not only is it important to the product lifecycle, but having a poor relationship with stakeholders can affect your future job prospects as well. Your priority when rebuilding a broken relationship with a stakeholder is to be communicative. Find a system that works for both of you. Some people may prefer to be updated only when something important happens. Some may prefer a weekly update, just to keep an eye on things. There’s no harm in asking what works best for them, in fact, they’ll probably appreciate it.

3. Lack of Customer/Market Knowledge

Assuming that you know your customer without taking the time to really know your customer.”

“When they don’t have “reference customers“, real people the team can talk to for input while working on a particular use case.”

“A PM is a person of insights… customer insights, business insights, technical insights, design insights, communication insights…. etc.. without which one will be just doing clerical work.”

“Not being humble enough to listen to market feedback.”

Yes, the Product Manager is the go-to person for customer knowledge. You know your users like the back of your hand. But unless that’s based on market insight and feedback…everything you’re doing is guesswork. This also links back to Attitude. You need to be the person with all the answers, but there’s a fine line between confidence and cockiness. If you know who your customer is because you’re basing it on research from your last product, or you’re running on instinct…then you don’t really know your customer.

4. Bad at Decision-Making

“Making Features for the sake of Features”

“If they plan a strategy and roadmap in a silo-ed manner, and see the fallout of that, but continue to do so.”

“If they read “The Mom Test” to learn to better do customer interviews, but then they don’t use any of the learnings, and continue to do interviews how they’ve been used to.”

“If they fail to back their strategy with internal/external qual/quant data, receive input from stakeholders to do so, and go back to their old ways that might not be beneficial for the wider company.”

Throws engineers under the bus. Comes up with additional work right before release and then makes it look like the development team was late or blames a bad tech decision on the developers.”

Some things can’t be Googled for answers. You need to pool your knowledge and experience to make a decision. Sometimes it’s the wrong one. It happens to us all! But continuously making the wrong choices isn’t exactly the hallmark of PM greatness. Things like repeatedly ignoring data, not taking on board other people’s opinions, and refusing to budge from your original ideas are things that you can’t pass off as ‘I made a mistake’. These are fatal flaws in how you make your decisions, but they can be rectified.

Just because you’re the person who has to make decisions, you don’t have to make them in a vacuum. Don’t be afraid to ask for second and even third opinions. Product Management is collaborative work!

Woman struggling at work

5. Poor Communicators & Listeners

“When they lack an overall view of the product’s life cycle. When they do not accept other points of view or advice.”

“Lack of discretion – starts and perpetuates gossip amongst their group which hinders the ability to establish transparency and trust.”

“Someone who cannot constantly communicate and lead with the vision, the mission and the strategy for the product.”

Not being able to say no is a bad characteristic because by not using those actual words what the people hear is yes.”

It’s impossible to overstate just how important communication is in product management. With your teams, with your stakeholders, with your customers…there’s hardly a single aspect of a PM’s day-to-day which doesn’t involve communication.

If you see some kind of communication breakdown, it’s absolutely you’re responsibility to find the root of the problem and fix it. The first step in this is to listen. Listen to the feedback your teams are giving you, and listen to what they need to thrive. When they give you advice, take it in and really think about it instead of throwing it out immediately. Breaking down silos where you see them will also help immensely in keeping operations running smoothly.

How You Can Improve

“I see this concept of a “mediocre PM” as a phase in all of our PM careers – we all start somewhere, we all have hurdles and mistakes of our own, and many times we learn to improve from experiments failing or product projections not going to plan.”

“I believe we are PMs-in-progress. That said, I think what would make a PM continue to be mediocre is if they did not absorb their learnings and optimise/take action for the future.”

Greatness doesn’t happen overnight! Nobody knows better than Product people that failure is part and parcel of the journey towards success. When you’re first starting out in product management, you’re going to make mistakes. The only way to be a truly mediocre PM is not to learn from them.

Even as a seasoned PM, you’ll run into hurdles. There will be a stakeholder who doesn’t particularly like you, there will be miscommunications and missed deadlines. But that’s all part of the fun! After all, our successes would be pretty pale without some struggle along the way.

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Also published on Medium.

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