Growing Well-Rounded Product People

Toby Delamore

Product Manager at Xero



Unlike engineering skills, product skills are not tangible and are much harder to teach. Many managers who are helping product people grow in their careers have a hard time differentiating between great and not-great. Lack of an exhaustive list of skills, let alone their assessment, make any coaching fairly demanding.

Product management is a multifaceted area and product managers need to have a wide range of skills. My approach is to identify a super skill in my reports (known as product owners) and build around that skill to make them well-rounded product professionals.

Actions taken

First off, I would make sure to identify my report’s super skill. It is one particular skill they are exceptionally strong at. When you look at the Venn diagram of product management that showcases the intersection of technology, business, and customers, their super skill would fall under one of those three areas. Depending on their background -- design, engineering, or business, for example -- they would come with more pronounced competencies falling under one of those areas.

I would encourage them to further build out their super skill because it would become their anchoring expertise. Then, I would assess the level of their super skill, along with assessing their other skills that need to be improved in order for them to be successful in product management. I use a framework that lists key PM skills detailing the level of accomplishment ranging from early learning to the expert stage. I would ask them to map out together with me their skills; usually, they would have two or three skills they do well, one that should be their growth area and their super skill they should continue to invest in.

Once you identified the areas your reports should focus on, you should build a strong growth plan and provide them with training options and opportunities to grow those skills. I prefer them to focus on one skill at a time without scattering their focus only to scratch the surface. Over time, with diligent effort, they could build multiple skills that would enable them to become stronger across the entirety of product management.

Some of the product skills I find particularly important to acquire are product prioritization; delivery effectiveness; analysis and data; vision, storytelling and strategy; influence; and relationships. The level of accomplishment furthermore defines each of these skills.

For example, for product prioritization, the beginner level should include some fundamental understanding of product prioritization, its key aspects, and how it should be used in a PM role. Then, a person evolves from understanding to growing, and then achieving, supporting, and teaching, to thought-leading. By the time they would reach a top-level -- acting as Head of Product or VP of Product -- they would become thought leaders who would attend meetups, present their skills and accomplishments, have mentees to coach on that skill, etc.

Lessons learned

  • Identify and foster a super skill your report has. It should serve as their anchoring expertise, something that will give them confidence and help them stand out from the crowd.
  • Invest in creating a clear growth framework that itemizes key areas that your direct reports should focus on. You need to map your direct reports’ skills against the growth framework and use it as a reference point as they progress.
  • Encourage your direct reports to learn one skill at a time and not rush to do it all at once. Steady and continual improvement is important for choosing quality over quantity.

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Toby Delamore

Product Manager at Xero

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership TrainingMentorship ProgramsPerformance Reviews

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