Recently I gave a keynote address to the Mind The Product Conference in London, and in that talk I wanted to illustrate, by example, the essential role that very strong product managers play for their team and their company. Most people noticed that all six of my examples were female. I didn’t call that out explicitly during my talk because my view is their performance speaks for itself. But many people did ask me about the gender aspect afterwards (If you haven’t yet read that article, I hope you read it first as this article will make much more sense if you know just what traits are necessary for strong product managers).
When I first started working on the keynote, I realized I had a unique perspective having had the opportunity to work with such a large number of technology product teams for over 35 years. So I wrote a list of all the “rock star” caliber product managers I knew, and I immediately noticed that more than half my list was female. While females are 50% of the general population, it is not at all representative of the technology product manager population, or of corporate America in general.
My observation was in no way statistically significant, but it did beg the question if women tend to be so under-represented as product managers, why are so many of them exceptional at the job? Is there something bigger to learn from these women? And ultimately, should more product teams work harder to actively bring in women product managers?
I have long held opinions on this topic, but this is the first time I’m sharing my thoughts publicly. Let me state upfront that what follows are my personal theories about why women so often make the best product managers. Let me also say this entire article is based on generalizations, and I personally know exceptions to each point I make below. But I’m putting these theories out there in the hope that people find the points worth considering and discussing.
As a final disclaimer for those that don’t know me, I’m male. But I think that makes it easier for me to have this discussion because if a women said the exact same things, it might appear self-serving.
So I hope people of all genders take this in the spirit it is given. While I am focusing here on the advantages women bring, I strongly believe that every product manager benefits from these traits.
Just to be clear, I believe strongly that for any product manager, male or female, to be competent, they must be smart, creative and persistent. This is admittedly a high bar (and far too many teams suffer from the lack of a competent product manager), but I don’t see differences across gender in these aspects.
In this article I’m not talking about what makes a competent product manager; I’m talking about what distinguishes the competent ones from the best.
PLEASE NOTE: I am not arguing here that these traits below make someone a better human being; I am just arguing that the product manager job in a tech company is extremely difficult, and that these skills substantially improve your ability to succeed. It’s also important to acknowledge that sometimes the way we acquire these skills or traits is not through positive and constructive coaching from a skilled manager or mentor, but rather through very painful lessons learned.
In my view, the absolute biggest advantage women have stems from having a well-balanced ego. I’ll define that as someone being confident yet modest. It is the rare woman who is over-confident. Even someone as famously accomplished as Sheryl Sandberg didn’t assume she was the smartest person in the room (even when she clearly was). Confidence is a necessary ingredient for success, but it is most effective when it doesn’t drift towards arrogance, or an over-inflated belief in one’s point-of-view.
One of the main reasons I see otherwise capable product managers fail is due to ego. So much depends on the relationship of the product manager with the other members of the team, and especially with the alpha leaders of the company. It is essential for product managers to not take disagreement as a personal affront.
The balanced egos many women possess let them hear what’s being said without it reflecting as a challenge to themselves. This lets them work effectively with even the alpha males. This balanced sense of self also shows up as women being much more likely to give credit to the team when things go well, yet take the blame on themselves when things go poorly.
As an example of what I mean here, for each of the six women I highlighted, in every case, their only real hesitation was that readers of my article might not give enough credit to their team.
In a recent article about Lady Catherine Ashton’s crucial role in negotiating Iran halting development of its nuclear program, emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to both identify and manage one’s own emotions, pick up on the emotions of others, manage them and, in so doing, build trust, grow influence and achieve better outcomes all round.
It’s not one skill, as much as many skills deployed to navigate people and situations of all types, from brilliant but sometimes dogmatic engineers, to passionate designers, to executives that might be genuinely fearful of, or threatened by, technology, to angry customers, and the many people that just don’t like change.
This emotional intelligence allows the product manager to engage constructively with each of these people, actually listening closely enough to identify the underlying issues and constraints the person is trying to express, and working creatively to find solutions that work for the various parties involved.
So much about the product role boils down to navigating the complexities of people and constraints to come up solutions that work for customers and work for your company. It’s hard to do this consistently without serious emotional intelligence skills.
You could argue that being humble is a consequence of having a balanced ego, but I think it goes further than that. I would argue that to be a strong product manager, you need to consistently question yourself and your decisions. The truth is we’re all very often wrong. Good product managers get that, and are comfortable with that. They even embrace it.
So often with males, I find them taking it personally when they’re wrong on something. Women seem to be much better at separating their personal self-worth, from whether or not particular ideas turn out to work well with customers. This mindset and attitude rubs off on the whole product team, and I believe is a necessary ingredient for consistent innovation.
Related to this, or maybe because of this, I find that women product managers take self-improvement seriously. Women more naturally bring a growth mindset. In my coaching sessions with women, they tend to be so much more productive because we can talk openly about weaknesses and how to tackle them. All too often I struggle to convince the male product manager that they have a weakness we need to work on.
Anyone that has ever been involved in technology product efforts, especially in larger companies, knows that they are their own sort of marathons.
To be able to persist for months and usually years, constantly evangelizing, inspiring, problem solving, handling people with difficult personalities at every level of the company, dealing with those that resist change; this takes a special level of stamina. It requires a form of patience, but definitely not acquiescence. Male product managers very often get so frustrated with the sheer duration of the struggle that they eventually lose their composure. Don’t get me wrong, it’s frustrating for all of us, it’s just that I find that women can typically persist much longer.
So this is my theory as to why I see a disproportionate number of very successful technology product managers that are female. A balanced ego, strong emotional intelligence, humility, and extraordinary stamina.
Hiring Women Product Managers
If you agree with my reasoning, then there’s one very important consequence of all this that you’ll need to be cognizant of: you need to find ways to encourage more women to apply to product management jobs, even if they haven’t done it before.
I can’t tell you how many companies complain to me that they want more women as product managers, but simply not enough women apply for the product jobs.
Here’s the thing: if you post a job for a product manager, many exceptionally qualified women will not actually think they’re qualified, and they won’t apply.
For example, if your job description asks for 4 years of technology industry experience, then as a general rule, a man will apply if he has at least 1 year, but a woman will only apply if she has at least 5 years. You may think I’m exaggerating on this but I’m really not.
Part of the problem is the job description itself. Many people have obsolete or overly simplistic beliefs about what is required. A degree in computer science is not required. Good understanding of technology and how to apply it to solve problems is required. An MBA is not required. Good understanding of the workings of business is required. Go take a look at the LinkedIn profiles of the six women I highlighted.
I’ve found that I have to actually go and personally approach the women I think are especially well-suited for the product manager job, and explain to them that they really need to apply, and that they should please trust me, that I’m really good at spotting talent, and the fact that they are not sure they’re prepared for the job, is part of what makes them so good.
The best women product managers are often those who never thought about doing the job, but are natural fits by how they think, work and act. Find them. Actively recruit them into the discipline. Train and invest in them. Your product teams, your company, and ultimately the entire tech industry will be the better for it.