Hiring Product Managers: What To Look For

There are so many things you could look for when hiring Product Managers, it’s sometimes hard to know where to start. That’s why so many bad Product Managers still get hired: because hiring managers don’t zero in on the most important things.

There are so many things you could look for when hiring Product Managers, it’s sometimes hard to know where to start. That’s why so many bad Product Managers still get hired: because hiring managers don’t zero in on the most important things.

The first step of successful hiring is to take a step back. What are you hiring the person to do? If it’s a Product Manager role, you’re hiring them to make the product successful, which will require them to make smart decisions and execute on their plans. That’s quite a bit of trust to place in someone, and not just anyone can do the job. Either they need to have a proven track record of repeatedly crafting successful products or they need to demonstrate that they will make your products successful if you hire them.

A string of prior success shows a strong likelihood of being able to pull it off again, and if you can find those resumes, clearly these are good to invite to your office… or garage, cafe, whatever. Here’s the problem: 90% of new products fail, so Product Managers with proven track records are actually pretty rare. Don’t expect to land a bunch of these people. You’d probably have to go through 200–500 other Product Managers before you find even one like that.

Assuming lightning doesn’t strike the same resume twice, you’ll need the candidate to be able to show you they can be successful despite not having done it consistently. (Note that this is not “conceding” or “lowering the bar”. Assuming both are fully capable, I would honestly prefer a hungry Product Manager who has something to prove to the world over someone who’s been around the block and keeps saying, “back when I was at XYZ LLC we did blah, blah, blah.”)

So what do you look for? What attributes does someone have to show you they possess for you to feel comfortable that they can do the job. I’ve been listing these out and revising the list over the past decade, and they all basically boil down to four categories:

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

These apply to Product Managers at all levels: entry level all the way to the most senior. They all probably apply to many other roles outside Product Management. I’d be curios hear readers’ take on their applicability.

Ability & skills

You can’t just hire anyone off the street. 99% of people lack the necessary combination of skills.

Analytical ability: back-of-the-envelope estimation, statistics, breaking problems into independent problems, modularization, abstraction

Communication: listening, presenting, synthesizing input, reading between the lines, probing a level deeper, asking the right questions, interpretting answers

Design instinct: a sixth sense about what will resonate, aesthetic of cleanliness, ability to think in flows

Vision & leadership: ability to see the future, pragmatism, ability to motivate others, art of persuasion

Others: time management, software proficiency, effective documentation

Context & learning

Product Managers could have all the ability in the world, but without context, they’re operating in a vacuum. The ideal Product Manager will already be well versed in the market inefficiencies, customer expectations, existing business models, etc. More important than finding someone with knowledge, though, is finding someone with the ability to learn. It usually takes about 9–12 months for a Product Manager to get enough immersion to be fully efective. For those who can self-teach, it’s under 6 months. If you need someone to “hit the ground running”, too bad. There’s no such thing. Find someone who can learn on their own.

Markets: TAM analysis, competitive research and evaluation, business model determination, adjacencies, integration partners, online research, trade show research (?)

Users: customer interviewing, usability testing, web analytics reporting

Technologies: design/coding practices, studying open source projects, reverse-engineering

Values & decision-making

There are plenty of smart people who learn quickly and know a lot about your space, but would still make terrible Product Managers. That’s because they make poor decisions — or don’t make decisions at all. They don’t know when to gather more information and when to make a gut call. They don’t know how to trade off monetization and user experience. They don’t understand the value of the data their products collect. Look for someone who knows how to make business decisions in a fast-paced environment.

Data capture: identification of assumptions, known data, and risks; triangulation

“Just enough”: identification of gaps, leverage of new information sources, willingness to make a decision with insufficient/imperfect information, ability to change a decision later (within bounds)

Tradeoffs: prioritization, risk mitigation, recognition of the value of speed over accuracy — and vice versa

Values: empathy for the customer, simplicity, focus, integrity, transparency, willingness to admit “I don’t know”

Drive & attitude

Even if a Product Manager does everything else right, without the proper attitude and drive, they will fail. This is the stuff that can’t be taught. If it’s missing, not only will the Product Manager fail, but their apathy will wear off on the people they interact with, too. Look for someone to exhibit a passion for products in generaland your product in particular. Look for that person to be introspective. Find someone who is both confident and modest, someone who is both proud but dissatisfied.

Drive: high expectations for co-workers, even higher bar for self, dissatisfaction with the status quo, values reasons to do someone over reasons not to do something

Attitude: hates losing, wins/loses collectively as a team, unwavering realism about the present, unwavering optimism about the future

When you put it together, that’s quite a lot, but these are the minimum qualities you’re looking for. If you can get a person who possesses all four of these major qualities, they will likely make a strong Product Manager. Without any one of them, they’ll fail… and so will you as their manager.

In the next post, I’ll cover sourcing: how/where to find the kinds of people who will pass your interview and succeed at the job.