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Hone Your Most Important Skill as a Product Manager

Two practices that emphasize listening help me grow as a product manager.

A couple months ago, on a Track Changes podcast episode, Paul and Rich put me on the spot when they asked what most helps me grow as a product manager. Two things immediately came to mind: improv and meditation. 

In fact, both improv and meditation help for the same reason. They shift my default toward listening more to myself and others, and they train my brain to keep listening under pressure, and therefore to be more resilient and focused.

Improv 

Although improv comedy looks like it’s all about quick wit, one-off lines will quickly bomb a scene. All improvisers have keenly-honed interpersonal awareness and are listening intently to those around them. In an improv scene, players must be acutely aware of what their fellow players are saying and how they are saying it and what that might imply. The audience is watching closely and picking up on every little comment and intonation. If a player in the scene misses something someone says, or doesn’t catch how it was said, the scene will quickly fall apart. If someone says, “Oh yeah? And exactly how do you expect that to work?” There are many ways they could say it, each of which merit a very different response. 

As a product manager, everything I do is about people and listening. The people who use the product, the team of cross-functional collaborators who work together to make the product, and the stakeholders who are invested in the product—they all have important things to say. If I miss what they say or how they say it, the product and the team will suffer. And when stress rises around deadlines, I’m glad I learned to remain calm on stage when all eyes were on me and I wanted nothing more than to step offstage into the galley or try to go for a slick one-liner. As a product manager, it helps when I remain calm and listen to my scene players instead. 

For improv classes here in New York City, there are a wealth of options. In my experience, some classes focus on having fun together while others focus on kick-starting acting careers. The former kind of class was most helpful for me. 

Improv companies often offer one free class for first-timers. I was very uncomfortable when I first went to a class but in every class I took, the teachers were extremely kind and welcoming, and didn’t encourage anyone to do anything that truly fell outside their comfort zone. Classes are fun and supportive spaces and well worth the few hundred dollars they cost for each course after the first free one. If you are in Orlando where I lived a few years ago, I highly recommend SAK, and if you’re in NYC, you can’t go wrong with the PIT or Magnet Theater. If you live in any city, you will probably be able to find improv classes near you. 

Meditation 

Meditation helps me learn a different but equally important kind of listening: listening to myself. I keep a simple practice, often described as mindfulness meditation. I sit in a comfortable position, close my eyes, and center my attention on deep, regular breaths. I focus on my breath and do my best to stay focused on it, which rarely works for more than a few seconds. When my mind wanders I gently guide my thoughts back to my breath. Sometimes, after sitting for a while, I find I am staying focused on my breath longer. That often comes with a delightful feeling. 

When I sit regularly and for long enough, I feel the difference at work. I pause before reacting. When the client or stakeholder asks, once more, if we could just make the logo a little bigger, I might think all kinds of things, but instead I pause. I don’t have fewer intrusive thoughts—they’re definitely still there. I just observe them, think “huh, that’s an odd thought,” let it pass, and patiently suggest we consider an alternative. When I meditate regularly, I’m a more empathetic collaborator and a sharper critical thinker, less influenced by emotions or unhelpful thoughts trying to sneak their way into my unruly brain.

Personally, I like to use an app to track my meditation. There are so many out there—Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer, 10% Happier. As a product person, I like Insight Timer because the charts visualize the length and regularity of my sits, and the guided meditation library offers lots of options when I don’t want to sit silently.

What helps you?

I’m a long way from professional acting or enlightenment, but both improv and meditation have helped me hone what I see as the most important skill in product management: listening. 

What has helped you grow most as a product manager? I would love to hear from you! Reach out to me on Twitter @PeterCroce and let me know. If you’re in NYC, I’m always more than happy to meet up for a chat. Thanks for reading. 

Peter Croce is a lead product manager at Postlight, a full-service digital product studio in New York City dedicated to building great products. Email him at peter.croce@postlight.com.