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Book review: “Hiring Product Managers”

Hiring good product people can be a challenge, particularly because I feel that no product management role is exactly the same, with the needs and expectations of a product role varying per organisation (largely dependent on the product or the incumbent view of product management within an organisation).

I was therefore excited to come across “Hiring Product Managers: Using Product EQ to go beyond culture and skills”, a book by product management consultant Kate Leto. Having hired for many product roles – at all experience levels – Leto shares valuable insights and tips with respect to hiring product people.

Human and technical skills

In the book, Leto makes a clear distinction between human and technical skills, and how to best hire for both skill sets. She describes technical skills as the tools and techniques to solve a customer problem; what work is done. Human skills are all about how a product person works (see Fig. 1 below). Leto talks about working towards a balanced product practice, ideally consisting of 50% human skills and 50% technical skills.

Fig. 1 – Example technical and human skills – Taken from: Kate Leto, Hiring Product Managers, p. 18:

Technical skills: what work is done

  • Product roadmaps
  • Vision statements
  • OKRs and KPIs
  • Design sprints
  • Product prototypes
  • Testing with customers
  • A/B and multivariate testing
  • MVPs

Human skills: how the work is done

  • Influence
  • Leadership
  • Active learning
  • Resilience
  • Adaptability
  • Creativity
  • Dealing with conflict
  • Emotional intelligence (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship management)

Very helpfully, Leto shares an exercise we can all do to reflect on our own product practice and discover our breakdown of human and technical skills (see Fig. 2 below).

Fig. 2 – Activity: self-reflection on your own product practice – Taken from: Kate Leto, Hiring Product Managers, p. 21:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you characterise your focus on technical skills and human skills in your own product practice? Start by identifying a number from 1 to 10 for technical skills and also for human skills. For example, a recent client scored themselves an 8 out of 10 for technical and 6 out of 10 on human skills. This initial score should be a general representation of where you think you are. It’s just a place to start, so don’t overthink it.
  • What is holding you back from bringing the two dimensions more into balance? For example, what is your own awareness of or comfort level with human skills? Does your team or product organisation encourage development in technical skills but not human skills?
  • What small changes could you make, or experiments could you put in place, to improve your score by one point? How can you get that 6 on human skills up to 7? For example, if you’d like to focus on increasing self-awareness, can you challenge yourself to ask five colleagues for feedback in the next two weeks? If you’d like to work on your ability to influence, can you push yourself to set up meetings with two tricky stakeholders to understand their own challenges or concerns on a recent project?

Understanding EQ and human skills

Leto focuses on emotional intelligence and emotional quotient (‘EQ’) and how both underpin human skills. She lists the basic dimensions of emotional intelligence, as defined by psychologist and author Daniel Goleman in his book titled “Emotional Intelligence” (see Fig. 3 below).

Fig. 3 – Basic dimensions of emotional intelligence and EQ – Taken from: Kate Leto, Hiring Product Managers, pp. 23 – 24:

  • Self-awareness: The ability to know what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it; self-awareness is the basis of good intuition and decision-making.
  • Self-management: The ability to handle distressing emotions so that they don’t cripple us while also being able to connect with positive emotions to get involved with and enthused about what we’re doing.
  • Social awareness: The ability to handle relationships and awareness of others’ feelings, needs and concerns.
  • Relationship management: The convergence of the other three competencies; relationship management is more than ensuring relationships are maintained, but they are also positive and beneficial for both parties.

Deciphering the job description

Once you’ve identified the human and technical skills that you want to hire for, the next step is to reflect these skills accurately in the job description. I agree with Leto’s point that human or ‘soft’ skills are often listed as ‘nice to haves’ in job descriptions. She shares the “Role Canvas” that you can use to create a job description (see Fig. 4 below).

Fig. 4 – Kate Leto’s Role Canvas – Taken from: https://kleto.medium.com/the-role-canvas-4-questions-to-help-you-re-think-how-you-hire-ae3332ba83ba

The Role Canvas is based on four fundamental questions. Leto explains how by answering each question, the new role becomes clearer for the hiring manager, team members, stakeholders and recruiters involved:

  1. What’s the purpose of this role? This isn’t simply restating the job title, but goes to the core of why the role really exists and what the role will be working toward every day.
  2. What’s the role accountable for? What outcomes and goals will the role be working toward to deliver on its purpose?
  3. What human skills will the role need to display to achieve outcomes? For example, if this role is going to be part of a team that has experienced a lot of tension or conflict recently, the person who takes the role needs to have strong conflict resolution skills.
  4. What technical skills will the role need to execute in order to meet the outcomes and achieve success? For example, will this role need to create a product vision or strategy? Use A/B testing or lead a design sprint?

In addition, Leto points out the collaborative nature of shaping these job specs (and the product organisation values that underpin them).

Main learning point: “Hiring Product Managers” is a really helpful and practical book, aimed at anyone involved in hiring product people. By breaking down the human and technical skills involved, Leto offers valuable guidance on the different qualities to structure the hiring process around.

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