05/02/2017 01:39 EDT | Updated 05/05/2017 11:11 EDT

What Makes A Top-Notch Product Manager?

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In any creative enterprise, product managers (PMs) play a vital role in development. They take projects from inception to execution, while acting as the point of contact between various departments. When the job is done right, it's much easier to achieve maximized benefits with minimal risks and costs. The question is: which qualities make for a top-notch product manager? I asked five PMs - Ali, Elana, Ishaq, John, and Nathan - to give their take.

Empathy And Nurture

Tech is tech, whether you're dealing in applications, audio equipment, or even e-cigarettes. But at the end of the day, it's all about providing a service. And services-based companies should be customer happiness companies. That means practicing empathy and nurturing relationships. Lots of Product Managers live in a tech bubble. Most clients do not. For those clients, the technology and the jargon associated with it is often intimidating, confusing and frustrating to deal with.

At the same time, they're afraid that if they show this vulnerability they'll lose their power to advocate for their needs and that they'll get gouged on price. Building trust makes it possible for the client to be vulnerable and communicate more authentically.

It's right that clients force companies to earn that trust -- especially in the world of outsourcing. There are a lot of bad actors out there. That's why practicing empathy, building relationship and making the complex simple and accessible is critical.

Listen, Learn, Act, And Adapt

Two key elements of product management are planning and execution. To take on each and every aspect of a given product, it's essential to suss out and implement the needs of both the client and your team.

Start by listening. Be aware of all requests, demands, and challenges before that first line of code is written. Will they have a positive or negative impact on cost, time, and quality? Once a clear picture presents itself, you're ready to delegate, relegate, and deviate.

That last one is important: be prepared to adapt and pivot when the situation calls for it. An initial game plan goes a long way, but it's impossible to predict every possible outcome ahead of time. "Make a call and stick with it no one likes a wishy-washy PM," Nathan explains. "That said, be prepared to course correct later if need be."

The Two Cs

Avoiding the "wishy-washy PM" label isn't just about assertiveness. Truly great product managers live by the two Cs: communication and clarity.

To create and implement attainable objectives, it's crucial to keep everyone on the same page.

"To truly understand [the project], you need clear and open communication with the client and engineers," Elana says. This starts with setting achievable timelines. Underpromise and overdeliver. Don't be afraid of uncomfortable questions, but always show a path for a good solution.

Above all, transparent communication is the best policy. "Answers to clients should either be a clear yes or a clear no," John adds. "Both contain the same amount of information. It's the "maybe" that gets projects into trouble."

Positivity Equals Motivation

Despite what some naysayers would have you believe, positivity works wonders. "Make sure you highlight the achievements of those who report to you," Ishaq says. "Make them feel good: it will help them trust you and stand behind you when you need them most."

This approach is not only effective, it's free. Praise (the genuine kind, not lip service) costs nothing, yet its impact on the project and those reporting to you can be immeasurable.

Positivity is also one of the easiest ways to keep the client on your side. Be their biggest cheerleader by making yourself available and following up even when you don't have to. "Don't be lukewarm; stay excited," John advises. "Make the client excited. You can do this by constantly talking to them about anything."

Just The Facts, Ma'am

Attitude, clarity, and execution are integral to any successful project, but at the end of the day it all comes down to the cold, hard data. In the business world, terms like "gut instinct" and "shooting from the hip" can get overly romanticized.

In reality, these approaches should be used ever so sparingly. "Be sure to back up any decisions or arguments with data, examples, and benchmarks rather than just subjective opinion," Ali stresses. "Especially when they are controversial to the client."

Facts and figures may seem boring compared to good old fashioned intuition, but there's nothing dull about successful projects and happy clients. Resist the urge to be a Maverick -- the even-keeled approach pays off far more often than not.

The Last Word

Effective product management is about common sense, something which ironically isn't always that common in the development world. The good news is that the path is deceptively simple. Think of it as building a stool, where one leg is the client, one is your team, and the third is the data that continues to pour in. Properly reinforce each leg and soon enough, everyone will have the perfect place to sit.

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