10 Necessary Traits of PMs that Can’t be Taught

And how I hire for them.

I “read” (listened to) The Sales Acceleration Formula recently, and aside from being a great book about growth, the author had some really interesting hiring strategies for sales people. His hiring team would score candidates based on 10 primary criteria, each weighted according to a regression analysis of how influential those criteria were on the candidate’s ultimate success at the company.

HubSpot sales hiring criteria example, from the book.

Not only that, but the author identified key traits of new hires that were not teachable or coachable, and focused heavily on those criteria, primarily for candidates without much prior experience. I recall hearing somewhere that at PayPal, Peter Thiel would focus on finding really strong people without experience because they come at a much higher ROI; and most startups can’t even get really strong people with a long history of experience.

So when it came to building out the product team at Granify (a startup by one of Peter Thiel’s funds!), I was tasked with how to hire PMs. And given that it doesn’t have the resources of a Google, Facebook, or LinkedIn yet, we’ll have to find really strong PMs (or associate PMs) without relying on their past experience as a signal.

The Top 10 Traits to look for in great PMs

The most important qualities in a great PM we have to screen for are things that can’t be trained. We’re in a position at this stage to afford the time and effort of an internal training program to bring out the killer product manager in newbies (perhaps the topic of a future post!). So, what qualities necessary to being a great PM, cannot easily be trained?

To suss this out, I looked back over a few of my favorite PM resources: Ian McAllister’s definition on Quora (and subsequent comments), Let’s Talk About Product Management by Josh Elman, Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager by Ben Horowitz, and Zero to One by Peter Thiel. As you might imagine, there are an overwhelming amount of skills required to be a top PM ; if it was easy, every product ever made would be a huge success.

There were about 30 possibilities for traits & skills that I found that comprises the ultimate product manager. However, you can’t interview for 30 traits, and many of them could be coached and learned. Here are the 10 qualities I extracted that I don’t think can be taught very easily:

  1. Integrity — highest weight; shamelessly borrowed from Warren Buffet.
  2. Curiosityhighest weight; shamelessly borrowed from Brian Grazer.
  3. Coachabilityhighest weight; how quickly they adjust after feedback
  4. Intellecthighest weight; book smarts
  5. Imaginationhigh weight; ability to create things that aren’t observable
  6. Passionhigh weight; amount of enthusiasm for the product/company
  7. Leadershiphigh weight; amount of influence without authority
  8. Detail Orientationmedium weight; notices the little things, inside & out
  9. Competitivenessmedium weight; winning spirit vs. competitors
  10. X-Factormedium weight; magnetism

Not every hire has to score perfect along all of these axes; instead, each candidate is given a 1–10 score on each one. These scores are multiplied by a numeric weight value to generate a total score for each candidate. Candidates’ total scores are compared to each other, rather than each individual characteristic.

What didn’t make the cut

There are so many other important skills for PMs to have of course, and for any experienced PM candidate it’s important to evaluate them for it. However, I think they can all be taught with effective coaching. Here’s the list of other skills I extracted from my PM resources, in no particular order:

  1. Prior Successes
  2. Management
  3. Brevity
  4. Strategy/Timing
  5. Relentless Prioritization
  6. UI/UX/VizD
  7. User Orientation
  8. Zooming out & in
  9. Ability to teach others
  10. Confidence
  11. Courage
  12. Intuition
  13. Ownership
  14. Effective Writing
  15. Negotiation
  16. Time Management
  17. Technical Ability
  18. Selling

The final assessment template

To make life easier for everyone, here’s a Google Spreadsheet template I give to each interviewer of a potential new-hire: Matt Moore’s Associate Product Manager Candidate Assessment Template.

Preview of Associate PM Template available as a Google Spreadsheet

I hope you find the spreadsheet useful. Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions, or add a comment to this Medium page! Next time, I’ll be writing about what kinds of questions to ask in order to score the primary criteria.

by Matthew Moore in Palo Alto, CA on Sunday November 15, 2015
Thanks to Jennifer Moore and Marcin Mizianty for feedback.