Hiring Product Managers: Sourcing

Finding good Product Managers (and knowing where to look) is one of the most challenging and time consuming elements of the hiring process. It’s also one of the most important. Who cares if your interview skills are great and you can sell candidates on the opportunity; if everyone who comes in to meet you completely sucks (or you can’t find anyone to meet in the first place), it’s all for nought. Part of your job as hiring manager is to source lots of good candidates. But how?

You’re always sourcing (even when you’re not hiring)

The best way to source Product Managers is to not have to because you already have so many good people lined up it’s a non-issue. This takes a significant ongoing investment, but over time (if you’re in a fast-growth start-up) it’s less difficult than waiting until you have a role you have to fill on short notice.

It starts with building your own network, not something that HR or Recruiting departments do. If you know 50 great Product Managers, there’s a good chance at least 5 are available or willing to talk about a good job opportunity at any given time. I would take 5 candidates whom I know are solid over 100 (or even 500) random resumes, every time. Remember, most Product Managers suck.

Here are some actions you can take to maintain and boost your network for the sake of recruiting:

  • Use your existing network as a pool of advisors. Get their feedback on new products you’re building or testing. It makes them familiar with your product, reminds them of the excellent work you do, and gets them talking your company up with friends.
  • Make yourself and your ideas known more broadly. Blog about your out-of-the-box solutions. Speak at conferences. Offer to meet friends of friends to give them feedback on a new startup.
  • Keep it fresh. Introduce new 1st degree connections to your network constantly to prevent your network from becoming stale. So, meet with friends of friends directly and give them something (advice, information, etc.) they can use.
  • Earn a reputation for finding jobs for good people. Connect the folks in your network with open roles elsewhere. Then, a few years later, when a job on your team becomes available, they’ll know to trust you.

But so far this is all advice on how to make it easier to source candidates multiple years down the road. What if you haven’t been doing that for the past few years, but you need results now?

Your network is an indirect sourcing tool

Even if you can’t hire the right person out of your existing network, it’s still a useful tool for finding the candidate elsewhere. Attract 2nd degree connections through the relationships you already have.

DO NOT send a note through LinkedIn or some ridiculous tweet-a-job saying your company is hiring; here’s a bit.ly link. That is an utter waste. Honestly, have you ever seen a tweet like that and thought, “Oh wow, I had no idea they were hiring but now that I’ve seen this, I should absolutely apply”? Give me a break! Notes like that do nothing but abuse your network, give you a reputation as a spammer, and call into question your motives for future contact. It’s the rough equivalent of a guy walking into a bar and announcing, “I’m horny. Go to #bed with me. $60+ of drinks. Great opportunity!” (Notice doing so would be less than 140 characters. It would also be stupid, desperate, embarrassing, and ineffective. Or maybe not… Hmm. Anyway.)

INSTEAD, reach out to people 1:1. Quickly establish or re-establish a direct personal relationship. See how they’re doing personally and professionally, ask what their biggest pain points are, and give them something they can work with: a link to a relavant paper or blog post, the name of a friend they should seek advice from, etc. Then, when it’s contextually relevant (as part of the obligatory “how are things going at XYZ company?”), let them know that it’s great, but your biggest pain point is hiring, and then ask them for help. It’s amazing how much more “action” you’ll get!

Since you’ll be looking for 2nd degree connections, don’t just reach out to other Product Managers. Reach out to great salespeople, engineers, accountants, whatever… anyone you trust who might know strong Product Management candidates.

The other nice thing about finding candidates this way is if/when it comes to checking references on them, you’ll have plenty of backdoor references as well.

If all this still doesn’t work, you can blame your network or yourself for not having enough of one. However, all hope is not lost!

Going outside your network means going outside the box

Finally,go ahead and evaluate Product Management candidates responding to your job posts. Just know that your success rate will be pretty low. You’ll do a lot of interviewing without producing a lot offers, and half the offers you will give you’ll wish you hadn’t. My strong advice: if you can’t work with someone whose already proven themselves to you or someone you trust, then look for someone outside of Product all together. Some of the best Product Managers I ever worked with, managed, or even worked for didn’t come from Product Management, and since hardly anyone graduates saying, “Great, now I can pursue my life ambition of being a PM”, nearly all Product Managers migrate to the profession from some adjacent role. Be the one to migrate them; be willing to take a chance.

More specifically, if you work for a reasonably large company of 100+, consider hiring from within. For example, every 20+ engineering team I’ve worked with has at least one person who’s really more of a Product Manager than an Engineer, but just happened to major in CS and fell into Engineering by default. Often, those people have never really thought about being a Product Manager, but are excited about it once you mention the idea to them. Engineers, Architects, and ocassionally QA Engineers can make strong Product Managers. Sometimes, you’ll find the same thing on “the other side of the house” in Marketing or Sales, though I think it’s a bit less common.

If you can’t hire from within, look out people in companies known for giving a hard interview. You may even want to interview with them yourself to see if it’s tough, then use that as a basis for determining whether to poach from that company. (I’ve actually done that before.)

Also, look in academia. Successful Product Management is much more about talent than about experience, so I recent grads can make fine Product Managers. I prefer to accept the rookie mistakes in order to get the attitude and drive of someone fresh who’s trying to prove himself/herself and the willingness to listen and learn and be coached into a great Product Manager.

In the next post, I’ll cover how to assess the quality of candidates in an interview process structured to tease out their brilliance (or lack thereof).