Like many basketball fans, March Madness is our favorite holiday of the year, when 68 of the best women’s and men’s college basketball teams compete for the national title. Millions of people fill out brackets, low-ranked teams are chosen as “this year’s Cinderella,” and some people take time off work to watch the games.
But as we look forward to this year’s tournament, we — two former point guards who are now Product Managers here at Postlight — came to a realization. The basketball and business teams that are left standing at the end, whether a scrappy upstart or a powerhouse that everyone is counting on, will find success thanks in large part to the contributions of a key player in a key role. So with that, here are our top six skills that make point guards and PMs the best in the game.
#1 Strong vision
A great point guard has many skills that translate to being a great Product Manager. Point guards are often called the “floor general,” leading the team, seeing things before they happen, and calling them out to team members to respond. Great product leaders do the same, understanding the roadmap and the risks, and surfacing those to the team so they can be mitigated together. They have long-term vision, helping see where the product and industry is moving, which is mirrored in the scouting reports of point guards who possess great “court vision.”
#2 Constant communication
My dad used to tell me that great point guard play is an art, not a science. No two PMs or point guards are perfectly alike, and there are many ways to do the job well. But one thing all PMs and point guards have in common is that they are constantly communicating. Whether they’re giving full-team directions, holding a sidebar conversation to understand why a teammate’s body language is off, or translating a conversation with leadership into a practical next step for the group, the PM or point guard is always listening and communicating. In evaluating the success of PMs, communication skills are one of the most important indicators.
#3 Helping your team shine
But being able to see what is going to happen is only a piece of it! Whether you’re a point guard or a Product Manager, you aren’t expected to solve the problems yourself. Point guards that look to score first like Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose, and Steph Curry are rare. When we think about the traditional role of the point guard, we think about someone like Chris Paul. Throughout college and the NBA, Paul has never been his team’s primary scorer, but he finds openings in the defense to set his teammates up for success better than almost anyone who has ever played the game. He knows when to bring in different team members, who is great at what, and how to put them in a position to succeed.
Setting a teammate up for success might mean delivering a fast-break alley oop, or it might mean understanding that an engineer on your team is a subject matter expert, and you can defer to their expertise. Chris Paul has remarkably led the NBA in assists five different times (on three different teams no less!), which is a testament to the kind of leader he is. PMs operate the same way. They look to elevate those around them to success, putting the outcome of the product above personal gain.
#4 Being a generalist
This quote from NBA veteran Mike Miller always stood out to me: “The point guard has so many duties on the floor. He’s got to keep [everyone] happy, which is tough to do, but he’s also got to command leadership.” And PMs are exactly the same way, as their team’s generalist. Your role is to lead without managing anyone, to ensure everyone is doing well and moving things forward, and ideally, keeping the team happy. You’re leading standups, presenting to leadership, and getting stakeholders involved — all of which require different skill sets. With understanding in all of these different areas, PMs are able to mitigate risks, support teammates in their specific domains of expertise, and move the product forward.
#5 Setting the pace
A good point guard knows how each play is supposed to be run and can get the team into the right play at the right time. But a great point guard’s command of pacing and environment is, paradoxically, both finely calculated and instinctive. They might play a slow and steady floor game in the first half, carefully getting their teammates involved before turning on the jets and playing fast and aggressive in the second half when they sense it’s their turn to take command of the offense.
A point guard who can’t control pace and tempo can sink their team’s effectiveness, and the same is true of a PM. A Product Manager who ratchets up the level of urgency on a project too early can cause burnout across the team and reduce the chances of success when true crunch time arrives and everyone needs to be syncing perfectly. It’s the PM’s job to know the calendar and project milestones inside and out (calculated), and also understand their team well enough to sense when to push and when to pull back (instinctive).
#6 Cool under pressure
An outstanding PM needs to see and synthesize a variety of inputs: scope and timeline, team resources and dynamics, risks and dependencies, and stakeholder priorities. The melding of all those inputs, which can change by the day, can be overwhelming. But it’s precisely the ability to synthesize information under pressure and turn around decisive recommendations and plans of action that can make a PM great. Have you ever seen Sue Bird — one of the unquestioned GOAT’s of basketball — look overwhelmed on the court in the last two minutes of a game? Of course not. The best point guards, like the best PMs, are calm and decisive even in the most high-pressure environments, and confidently lead their teams on the best path to success.
Tyler Maland (he/him) is a Product Manager, and Eli Stein (he/him) is a Senior Product Manager. Want to talk technology or basketball? Say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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Story published on Mar 9, 2022.