Hiring Product Managers: Overview

Hiring good Product Managers is ridiculously hard. It’s also ridiculously important. Almost everyone I know looking for Product Managers does it the same (wrong) way. They post their jobs, review candidates, maybe take referrals from their friends and colleagues, they conduct a boring and useless interview that a trained monkey could pass (and frequently does pass), and then give a take-it-or-leave-it offer focused primarily on compensation for services rendered.

Wow! And yuck! In fact, barf! No wonder they still have a hiring problem.

Now, there are about a thousand blogs out there about hiring Product Managers, but few of them go into enough depth and most are so obvious they’re not worth . You’re probably tired of reading the same old stuff, so I promise to provide something different: a real five-step process with specific and tangible, yet novel recommendations for finding and closing the best Product Managers. I’ll address each step in its own post over the next 5 weeks.

I’ve built this model up over more than a decade and having conducted over 1500 interviews. Here’s a sneak peak into this five-step hiring plan.

Step 1: Identify what you’re looking for

This is the one that’s most often overlooked. What are you looking for in the first place? I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t all the stuff that gets put into job descriptions, like “MBA from top tier school”, or “proven track record”. What you’re really looking for is talent — someone who will make your product successful. There are four critical attributes:

  • Ability & skills
  • Context & learning
  • Values & decision-making
  • Drive & attitude

Experience helps in showcasing these, but notice it’s not a necessary attribute in its own right.

Read more about what to look for.

Step 2: Source strong candidates

Posting a resume and hoping to get bites is lame, time consuming, and hardly ever works. Recruiting events? Even worse (other than the free cocktails). Word-of-mouth sourcing can work well, but smart networking is how to get the job done. The best people are almost never “on the market”. This takes time and patience, and most importantly, being open yet selective in your ongoing networking activities. Ideally, you’ll have a list of strong candidates before you even have an open spot to fill.

Read more about sourcing candidates.

Step 3: Conduct a kick-ass interview

Weak interviews yield weak performers. Tough interviews yield strong performers (and help to sell the candidate once you give an offer). Focus on their ability, not their experience. If more than 10% of your interview questions begin with, “tell me about a time when you…”, then I’ll be that more than 90% of your interview sucks. Make people solve problems — on the whiteboard — right in front of you. Make them show you how they think and demonstrate both their structure and their creativity. Make them uncomfortable and uncertain and see how they respond. If they can’t deal with uncertainty and problems outside their comfort zone, they won’t push their own limits (or anyone else’s) as a Product Manager. You’ll land a mediocre performer, at best.

Read more about how to conduct a great interview.

Step 4: Make your decision

This is the most difficult step because it’s dependent on your own raw judgment. It’s especially difficult to apply your own judgment as you incorporate the feedback of the other interviewers. But, plenty of otherwise good hiring processes fail at this critical step because of bad judgment in making a final decision. Think long-term. Find a champion on the existing team. Dig out skeletons from their closet. Look for “upside option value”. Then, finally, rely on your gut instinct.

Read more about “pulling the trigger”.

Step 5: Sell the winning candidate

You should never lose a candidate you give an offer to. If the candidate is excited enough to want to receive an offer, he/she should be excited enough to take it. Every hiring manager is a salesman. He is selling the job, but more than the job, as well. He’s selling the company, the role, the work, the fun, the culture, the potential, and the growth opportunity. Sell the entire package, and sell it in a tangible way. Want to show off the awesome team spirit? Have someone on the team take the candidate out for drinks. Want to show the potential value? Draft up a spreadsheet showing the equity value the candidate would lose out on by not joining. This takes real effort — you’ll be going to into too much trouble all the way until the point that you realize you didn’t go to enough trouble.

Read more about selling the candidate