What Distinguishes the Top 1%
Product Managers from the Top 10%?
I came across this question on Quora and it got me thinking.
It's useful to understand what distinguishes the top 1% from the top 10% in any field. The top 10% in any field are likely some of the top notch performers in that field. The margin of difference is quite small. Yet there must be that extra special “it” factor that separates the top 1% from the rest, that gives the top 1% a well-earned exalted status. That is why we speak of Michael Jordan, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and such people in a different breath from their peers in the game.
What is the special “it” factor?
A few things come to mind. I like to draw parallels from sports, and since building and launching a product is a team sport, this analogy might just work. Unlike sports, we don't have objective career rankings and "top seeds" in product management or career stats for PM performance. But let's carry on.
The top 1% athletes have been consistent performers at the top of their game for a very long period of time. Did they have bad days? Sure. Did they win all the time? Certainly not. The occasional failure notwithstanding these performers could be counted upon to consistently try their best and deliver the goods a very high percentage of the time.
What does consistency mean for the 1% PM?
One might be tempted to say that if you delivered one hit product after another in one awesome company after another, that you would be a highly consistent 1% PM. Not really. Consistency is about performance, not about the outcome. The outcome is dependent on a lot of other things.
For the 1% PM, it is about consistently excellent decision making and behavior that contributes to successful outcomes. The 1% PM earns the trust of the team and executive leadership. She can be counted upon to take solid judgements and actions over a long period of time.
Consistently solid decisions, for instance, about strategic direction, roadmap prioritization and tradeoffs, investment cases, etc. The quality of such decisions is reflected in revenue, usage and market share growth.
Consistent behaviors that form the basis of those solid decisions, for instance, staying intimately connected with customers, users and the market at large, meeting deadlines and expectations for deliverables, always keeping a strategic perspective and clarity about what success means, communicating effectively and frequently, building strong relationships with all stakeholders, staying up to date with the technology stack and trends, to name a few.
Therefore, consistent decision making and behavior is critical to the 1% PM building credibility and trust within her organization.
In a team sport like basketball, the top 1% players on the team emerge as the de-facto leaders. The team looks up to them. They lead by example. They provide the mentoring and coaching to the junior members of the team. They want everyone in the team to be successful. They do not let their egos come in the way of the goals of the team. If the team wins, they celebrate the team effort. If the team loses, the buck stops with them.
Phil Jackson writes about Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in his book “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success” (bold emphasis mine) :
"One of the biggest differences between the two stars from my perspective was Michael's superior skills as a leader," Jackson said. "Though at times he could be hard on his teammates, Michael was masterful at controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence. Kobe had a long way to go before he could make that claim.”
The 1% PM is looked upon as a leader in the organization. Some of the behaviors mentioned above contribute to this. In addition, the 1% PM has a very strong understanding of her product, technology and the financials. She is intimately familiar with the KPIs and metrics of success. As a result, she can represent the product team effectively in executive discussions. She has a seat at the table and frequently leads the conversations when important decisions about the product line are made.
She communicates effectively across the team, but also with individuals, akin to shaking hands and kissing babies on the campaign trail, as they say. She does this genuinely and does not fake it. She negotiates, cajoles, resolves conflicts, and builds relationships, while ensuring everyone knows what ultimate success really means. The 1% PM demonstrates servant leadership because she knows that she will be successful when everyone around her is successful. Personal glory and decoration is less important to her for it’s own sake.
The top 1% players have supreme confidence in their ability to deliver and perform at the highest level, regardless of the high pressure stakes. When the team is down by 3 points with just a few seconds left on the clock, they want the ball in their hands. It does not mean they will win every game from that situation, but when the chips are down, they want to step up to the plate, soak the pressure and lead by action.
The 1% PM exudes similar confidence. She is confident of holding her own in deep technical discussions with architects. She is confident of standing in front of a room of executives and articulating the product strategy, or making an investment case to help drive the strategy. When she visits upset and irate customers, she assures them confidently that the team has a plan in place to move the needle in the right direction. She knows she won’t be right all the time and doesn’t have to be. So her confidence is not one of arrogance. Rather, it comes from having the passion to make a difference to customers and to the organization.
Confidence of the 1% PM comes from having a strong work ethic. Success is not guaranteed, but confidence eliminates fear of failure.
When the game is over, we realize that the top 1% of the players made their impact felt in all aspects of the game - offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, assists, high free throw shooting percentage, 3-point shots, steals, etc. They are all over the court, in fact they try and own the court.
The 1% PM is also an all-rounder. In startups, in addition to being the product manager, if needed she can hack together some demo code, she goes on sales calls as the sales engineer and installs the product, she writes the datasheet and the whitepaper, and she holds the attention of 300 people on a webinar.
In large companies, there are dedicated people in various functional roles. However, the 1% PM very much plays up and down the court. She meets regularly with sales engineers to understand insights from the field. She listens in on support calls. She works with marketing to understand the performance of lead generation campaigns and sales funnel analysis. She positions the value proposition and unique differentiators which form the basis of marketing messaging. She presents her product strategy and roadmap to industry analysts. She works with sales and channel teams to enable them to position and sell the product.
The 1% PM plays an important role across the entire product lifecycle, way before the first line of code is written, all the way to launch, driving awareness and sales, and supporting customers.
We may be tempted to say that this is fundamental for any product manager, but so many product managers are not able to cover the court, either due to lack of time, or due to lack of skills. The 1% PM knows how and where to spend her time and energy most effectively.
The top 1% players have a strong work ethic. They don't shirk. They practice hard. They don't rest on their laurels, and they don't rely on their natural talents. They don't wing it. They are perfectionists. They work on all aspects of their game.
The top 1% PM also has a strong work ethic and attention to detail. She does not make compromises. She puts in the necessary amount of practice before important presentations. She stays late with the team when needed. She gives equal attention to staff engineers and executives. She is always looking for learning opportunities and seeks mentors inside and outside the organization.
Alignment of Vision
The 1% athletes are not self made. They are coachable. Even Michael Jordan has a coach, and he is aligned with the coach's vision for the team.
The 1% PM is similarly aligned with the company vision. Her product strategy is aligned with the strategic direction and initiatives of the company. She leverages and extends the core competencies of the organization. She takes the effort to communicate and ensure understanding of the vision and strategy by everyone in the team.
So in summary:
Consistent solid decision making and behavior that earns credibility and trust
Leadership and selflessness in the interest of the team
Confidence in one's own abilities
All-rounder with impact across end to end product lifecycle
Strong work ethic and no-compromise attitude
Coachable and aligned with a higher vision
What do you think? Go ahead, be like Mike!