June 2, 2022

Product Management Skills - a Competency Matrix

Product Management Skills - a Competency Matrix
Nicole Landgraff
Nicole Landgraff
Product Manager
9 min read

Developing people for the product manager role is hard. Often ambitious junior people come into a role that is a stretch for their current skills. It is important to create clarity on expectations for the role. This is complicated as the role requires many different and varied skills. As the role has limited hard authority, leadership becomes a central theme. All of the above also applies to another industry that has had more time to adapt to it: management consulting.

As a tool to handle a similar situation, McKinsey & Company has long worked with a detailed competency matrix. Across different leadership dimensions, it describes what skills and behaviours look like at different levels. Their competency matrix is called the Engagement Performance Review (EPR), and all consultants up to partner level are scored across the dimensions for every major project they are part of, i.e. several times per year.

Wouldn't it be useful with a detailed split of the different skills and behaviours required by product managers, with descriptions of what different levels of performance looks like?

We thought so, and so we set out to create a Competency Matrix for Product Managers. We did this as part of our work on professional development, the Delibr changemaker program. In the spirit of contributing to the community, we'd like to share our work on this.

Part of a Professional Development Program

A competency matrix as a stand-alone artefact does little impact, but if it is embedded into the way a company works with developing its people, it can have a lot of impact.

The road to success is to genuinely engage all team members. At Delibr we do this with trust-based autonomy, clarity and consistent iteration of our purpose, and not least by making sure that everyone on the team can achieve mastery.

As our mission at Delibr, we have set out to “Turn dreamers into changemakers” and in line with that we called our Professional Development Program the Changemaker Program.

The program as a whole has 11 building blocks, and the competency matrix is one of those blocks, one that many of the other blocks rely heavily on.

  • Competency matrix
  • 360 feedback compilation
  • Feedback memo from direct manager
  • Personal development goals
  • Action plan
  • Recurring internal coaching sessions
  • Mentorship
  • Coaching
  • Feedback development
  • Self-assessment
  • Courses

Both the program and the competency matrix has its foundation in our company values and context, but we believe it to be applicable for any product-led company.

Competency Matrix for Product Manager Skills

Before moving in to the competency matrix itself, we'd like to give a shout-out to three people who were immensely helpful as we developed it: Jens-Fabian Goetzmann (Head of Product at RevenueCat, and PM thought leader at jefago.com), Kina Liungman (former Chief People and Performance Officer at Hedvig), Dominic von Martens (Founder at SelfLeaders). Thanks to you, this became a lot better!

In fact the competency matrix is intended to cover pretty much all the skills needed to run a SaaS company, but since the PM plays such a central role, we find it works really well as a cheat sheet for PMs, and since PMs come from such varied backgrounds, this approach also allows PMs with adjacent strengths to shine.

The competency matrix is based on 8 leadership dimensions, with a couple of skills and behaviours in each dimension. For each skill, there are then a couple descriptions of what behaviour typically looks like across different levels. As you can imagine, this is quite comprehensive, let's dig into it.

The Leadership Dimensions

As the product manager has very limited hard power. Therefore to emphasize that leadership will have to be a central theme for a product manager, we have seen all dimensions as different aspects of leadership (this is also similar to the competency matrix used at McKinsey).

The leadership dimensions covered are: Customer, Marketing, Product, Design, Tech, Analytical, People, and Process leadership - below you can see a summary of the dimensions and the skills across each:

Competency Levels and Ways To Develop

High-level competency level descriptions

To get a way to align what different levels mean across widely varying skills and behaviours, it is worthwhile to have a somewhat unified yardstick. Inspired partly by the McKinsey model and partly by the Expert Roadmap by Luciano Passuello at Litemind, we created a scale from 1 to 7, with descriptions at levels 1, 3, 5, and 7.

Low - level 1

  • Either lacks basic skills or behaviour not in line with basic expectations. Would need close monitoring and coaching to be successful within this field.

Competent - level 3

  • Can deliver independently within the field with some initial guidance. Behavior is in line with expectations. Is willing to make decisions and accept responsibility as well as troubleshoot and escalate problems.

Proficient - level 5

  • Highly competent. Knows and can adapt and apply several different best practices. Self-reflects and adapts. Behavior is consistently above expectations. Able to coach others within this area.

Expert - level 7

  • Highly proficient. Can quickly identify patterns and intuitively solve problems based on vast knowledge. Behavior makes person a role model for the rest of the team. Able to train and coach individuals and teams within this area, as well as speak with confidence externally.

Ambition level

It may be almost apparent from the high-level descriptions above, but it could be worth stating clearly: Product Managers should aspire to reach at least level 3 across the board. This is a basic requirement to function as a solid PM, as otherwise mistakes, confusion, and frustration creates extra work for others in the team of PMs. On top of that, to truly bring something to the team of PMs, it is great if PMs can choose a "spike", and area where they go beyond level 3, to level 5 or even level 7.

Activities to develop across levels

The type of activity required to develop across the competency levels vary, as this illustration tries to show:

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Coaching, feedback, and mentoring are activities that tend to be rather effective across skill levels. During the early levels, activities such as courses and and exercises are particularly effective. When hiring a lot of new product managers / product owners, it can therefore be worthwhile investing in such activities.

Connection to the Product Management Process

Many of these skills are relevant across the product management process, while at the same, time there is a connection between some of the skills PMs need and some of the steps of the process. To indicate this connection, but without overemphasizing it, you can see the attempt to loosely link the eight skills to the eight parts of the process by matching the color.

Detailed Competency Matrix with Skills and Behaviours

For a detailed read, please find the 8 leadership dimensions with skills  and behaviours and with descriptions for each level.

Customer leadership

The customer is kind. Everything begins with the customer. This is true across all roles, and also for PMs.

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Marketing leadership

Product marketing is arguably the most important functional adjacency to product management next to design and tech, and so PMs need to know their way around.

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Product leadership

The core craft of being a product manager - understanding the domain and running the discovery and delivery processes.

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Design leadership

All good PMs embrace design thinking, interact well with users, and think in terms of the flows of the app.

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Tech leadership

PMs don't need to be able to code, but they need to understand the underlying concepts enough to understand tradeoffs.

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Analytical leadership

PMs need to be strong structured problem-solvers and be able to use data to inform their decisions.

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Process leadership

A product manager is not a project manager, but their work entails managing a lot of projects, and good PMs are able to execute well on those.

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People leadership

Since product management is such a fast growing field, with many that are new in their role as PMs, skills in leading and developing people are more important than for most.

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Example of how the Competency Matrix can be used

Let's  take the fictive example of Product Manager John to look at how working with the competency matrix can be a helpful part of a professional development program.

Reviewing skills and behaviours

The first thing is for John to do an own assessment of his own skills and behaviours, using the competency matrix as a base. Since there are detailed descriptions for what it means to be at level 1-3-5-7, John can look at those and pick the one he feels best describes his behaviour, and go for 2-4-6 if he feels he falls somewhere between two descriptions. This is much less arbitrary than just picking a number 1-7.

But, as is explained in to the Johari window theory, he will not have full knowledge of his own behaviour. Also, he might have an inflated view of his performance, or feel that he has incentives to score on the higher side.

Therefore, it is valuable with a round of review, discussion and adjustment of scores with John's manager Jane. After this, they agree on a set of scores across all dimensions. A spider diagram is a good way to visualize the scores across the different dimensions.

In this example it is clear that John needs to improve his work with discovery as well as his communication skills.

Translate into feedback memo

Next up Jane sits down to write a feedback memo for Joe. The feedback memo is another great tool to use as part of a professional development program. The memo should emphasize both strengths and development needs, with clear next steps to develop.

It is hard to write a feedback memo, but it is much easier to do when it is possible to use the competency matrix as a starting point. The scores across the matrix point out the strengths and development needs. And the detailed descriptions for the levels above the current scores can give good hints at what the person should do to develop to the next level.

Revisit in upcoming feedback discussions

Going forward, another important part of a professional development program, is for Joe and Jane have their recurring feedback sessions. In these, they can come back to the feedback memo. To make sure that Joe makes progress on his development needs, they can put extra emphasis on those. But for Joe to develop overall, it is at least as important to look at his strengths. The competence matrix can be helpful here, as level 7 across all skills is formulated to be inspirational, and so coming back to that can be a good way to set an inspirational goal.

If Joe wants to get the autonomy he craves, he needs to build trust in his discovery and communications skills to climb the ladder of PM autonomy.

Develop Your People with Our Competency Matrix

Did this seem like something you would want to apply in your own organization? If so, great, we'd love to help you in doing so!

We developed the competency matrix to fit like a cog into our professional development program, and so hopefully it will fit into yours as well. To make use of such a cog, all you need is a competency matrix slide presentation to show your team and competency matrix spreadsheet to practically work with. And if you come up with feedback for us as you use it, please don't hesitate to let us know, we are always looking to improve!

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At Delibr, want to be helpful. Both generally by sharing these templates and for three dimensions of the competency matrix specifically where the Delibr app can help PMs perform better.

  • We help PMs succeed in the Discovery skill (part of Product Leadership) by helping them get going with Opportunity Solution Trees, which helps them link business goals to customer problems and potential features and relevant experiments. It is also a great approach for PMs that want to gain autonomy by building trust with their leadership.
  • We make it easier for PMs to succeed in the Delivery skill (also part of Product Leadership) by making their Product Requirements Documents both better written (you'll be better at structured writing using an outliner) and stay as the single source of truth throughout the process (thanks to e.g. our real-time 2-way Jira integration).
  • We help PMs get the Problem-solving skill right (part of Analytical Leadership), by providing them with modular PRD templates that prompts them to begin with the problem, clarify the goal and the measure of success, consider alternative solutions, etc.
  • We help PMs with the Communications skill (part of Process Leadership), both by allowing them to facilitate structured decision-making through explicit questions, and also by helping them adopt and work with collaboration techniques such as user story mapping right within their.

If you want to help your PMs in any of those areas, please don't hesitate to try Delibr out.

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