My product management toolkit (31): hiring product managers

More than 5 years ago now, I wrote about my first experiences with hiring product managers. In the piece I wrote about the key traits I look for in product managers and specific things to capture during the recruitment process. Since then, I’ve probably interviewed hundreds of product management candidates, compared notes with peers and read books about recruitment. All these inputs have made me realise the following:

Hiring good product managers is HARD!!!

There’s no set definition of what makes a good product manager – or what makes a product manager to start off with. Product managers tend to come in all shapes and sizes, and more often than not, they will have done a variety of different roles prior to turning to product management. Also, the demands of a product manager are likely to vary per organisation, based on size, maturity, type of product, culture, etc.

Over the years, however, I’ve developed a number of questions, though processes and tools which I use when recruiting product managers for my teams. Realising that recruitment is a very broad topic, I’m going to focus predominantly on the specific things to consider before you even kick off the hiring process.

What does good like?

Good (product management) recruitment starts with asking a few key questions first:

  • Why do we need this role? – Especially when your organisation hasn’t hired a product manager before, this is a critical question to ask before you set the recruitment process in motion. For example, is your startup big enough for a product person to drive ongoing product development, and is the founder ready to let go of some of this responsibility? Or: is an organisation which has built successful products without a product management function ready for product managers to join?
  • What are the specific gaps that the product manager needs to fill? – The specific problems – short and long term – that a product manager is expected to solve are far and few between. The nature of these problems is unique to factors such as the maturity of the organisation and the position of your product within its lifecycle (see Fig. 1 below). Be clear about the specific value you expect the product manager to add (see also “What do you need to hire a product person for?” below).
  • Which are “must have” attributes that you need in a product manager? – Naturally, the specific hard and soft skills you treat as “must have” when hiring are totally subjective. I’ve nevertheless found it very helpful to distinguish between “must haves” – i.e. non-negotiable skills – and “nice to haves”. To illustrate, I’ve outlined some key aspects that I don’t want to compromise on when hiring product managers (see Fig. 2 below).
  • What type of product manager are you looking for and why? – I recently read the High Growth Handbook by Elad Gil and his great book contains a section about “The four types of product managers” (see Fig. 3 below). Often companies will need a mix of the four types or require a person to be one type only.

When do I need to hire a product manager?

Figuring out when to hire your first product manager is the million dollar question. Some people will start looking for product people when:

  • The input of the founder(s) alone is no longer enough to create a great product.
  • Your business is starting to frustrate or lose customers.
  • You’ve reached the point where the product starts to scale.
  • You’ve reached the point where the business starts to scale.
  • Too many good ideas, but struggling to decide about which one to focus on next?

Once your product hits market-fit – i.e. you’re in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market – I recommend having a dedicated product person to drive further product iteration and market growth. Also, when you find that you’re losing touch with your (target) customers and their needs, it’s time to hire your first product person!

 

 

Let’s look at the flip side, and zoom in on those circumstances when you don’t need to hire a product manager just yet:

  • The founder is in a position to drive to product.
  • The product hasn’t achieved any form of market-fit yet.
  • You don’t have customers yet (and you just want to see whether the product has got legs instead).
  • or: is worried about letting go of the product.
  • You need someone to simply execute on your product requirements.
  • There’s a need to implement ‘Agile’ in the business.

I’m all for executing ideas, making them a reality, but I’d argue that you don’t necessarily need a product manager to make things happen. For example, if you’ve got a clear specification of what needs to be built, then a good project manager can help you execute agains this spec.

 

What do you need to hire a product person for?

I often come across companies which are on the lookout for a product manager without fully knowing what they expect from that person. Sometimes it will be down to the company’s investors telling them to recruit product managers or a strong desire to become more product centric. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with either motivation, it’s important to recognise that product managers come in all shapes and sizes, naturally excelling at certain aspects of product management and weaker in other areas.

As with any role, a number of characteristics make up a great product manager and unless you manage to find the perfect unicorn, you’ll have to decide upfront which characteristics are absolutely non-negotiable and which ones you consider to be a bonus.

 

 

Instead, I find the traditional product lifecycle model a useful guide when thinking about the specific problems that I’d like an incoming product manager to solve:

Market Development (Stage 1) – You’ll need a person who’s happy to start from scratch, unafraid of ambiguity and who is comfortable experimenting until the product achieves market-fit. Problems to solve here:

  • Creating a Minimum Viable Product in the truest sense of the word, demonstrating customer value and testing key business hypotheses.
  • Learning about customer needs and behaviours fast and translating these learnings in product iterations.
  • Developing a go-to market approach for the product, feed into initial product positioning and pricing.

Growth (Stage 2) – At this stage of the product lifecycle, I recommend looking for someone with experience of or appetite for scaling a product.

  • Continuously optimising the product based on data insights, both quantitative and qualitative.
  • Making tough tradeoff decisions and being able to say “no” to certain product requests.
  • Measuring performance of the product to ensure key goals are being met.
  • Localising or modifying the product, in case of new market entries or new customer segments respectively.

Maturity (Stage 3) – With a mature product, you’re unlikely to suddenly see a massive spike in your product’s customer base or usage. Problems to solve here:

  • Safeguard the product experience and value for existing customers.
  • Optimise the product and resolve any bugs or defects.

Decline (Stage 4) – Your product is at a crossroads as it’s declining. The customer base or usage are in decline. Problems to solve here:

  • Deciding whether to terminate a product or feature.
  • If you do decide to terminate, managing existing users of that product.
  • Transitioning customers to a new product.

By concentrating on different problems to solve at these product lifecycle stages, you can see how there’s no one size fits all solution with respects to the product manager skills required.

Fig. 1 – The Product Lifecycle by Theodor Levitt – Taken from: https://hbr.org/1965/11/exploit-the-product-life-cycle

 

Main learning point: Granted, recruiting great product management is by no means an easy task. However, by doing some careful thinking about the what and the why of a product manager role for your business, you can make a well-informed decision about whether you need a product person and if so, what that person should look like.

 

Fig. 2 – Non-negotiable requirements when I hire product people:

  • Having the customer at front of mind – Do you truly care about the customer and solving customer problems?
  • Curiosity being a crucial driver – How curious are you to learn new things, to simply try things and learn?
  • Focused on solving problems – Can you demonstrate an inner drive to discover and solve problems?
  • Comfortable communicating up and down – Especially when things have gone wrong, and you have to explain things to people across the business, customers, suppliers, etc.
  • Not afraid to make decisions, big or small – How do you prioritise? Demonstrate tough tradeoffs you’ve made? Which decisions did you get wrong and how did you come back from those?

Fig. 3 – The four types of product managers – Taken from: Elad Gil, High Growth Handbook, pp. 252 – 253:

  1. Business product manager – These product managers are strongest at synthesising external requests into an internal product roadmap. Business product managers tend ton thrive at enterprise software  companies, or working on the partner-facing portions of consumer applications.
  2. Technical product manager – Technical PMs are often (but not always) deeply technical people who can work with engineering on areas like infrastructure, search quality, machine learning, or other inward-facing work.
  3. Design product manager – Most commonly found working on consumer applications, design-centric product managers are more user experience-centric. Some companies will convert a designer to be the product manager for a consumer product, just like they will convert an engineer into a technical product manager.
  4. Growth product manager – Growth product managers tend to be quantitative, analytical, numbers-driven, and in the best cases wildly creative and aggressive. The focus of the growth product manager is to (1) determine the critical levers needed to drive product adoption and use, and then (2) to manipulate those levers.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://pmarchive.com/guide_to_startups_part4.html
  2. https://hbr.org/1965/11/exploit-the-product-life-cycle
  3. https://a16z.com/2012/06/15/good-product-managerbad-product-manager/
  4. http://growth.eladgil.com/book/chapter-7-product-management/characteristics-of-great-product-managers/
  5. https://stripe.com/atlas/guides/building-a-great-pm-org

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