How to hire a Product Manager

This is a step-by-step guide that I share with startup founders that need to hire a PM.

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

🎪 The hiring process

Evaluating a Product Manager’s skill set can be quite difficult — particularly for people outside of the field — as the role can entail such a wide variety of tasks and can differ widely from company to company. Below I outline the process that I typically recommend for our startups to use as a starting point. (If you need more context on how product fits in I’ve covered that before.)

After creating a job spec and screening the CV’s, I typically run through a process of 5 interviews: Screening, Skills Test, Team, Checks, and Offer. (Each links to the relevant heading in this post.) During these interviews, it’s often helpful to create a hiring rubric to standardize candidates but I generally prefer to check for basic skills and then filter into either a “Hell Yes” or a “no” with a justification. The justification is important as it forces you to articulate your biases and helps make the process more equitable.

While I’d highly recommend using a platform to run your processes, to be honest most of them are pretty frustrating to use. I’ve used most of the top ones and don’t recommend any of them. If you find one you love, let me know!

Using recruiters is also one of those things that is very hit and miss. Find a great one and they can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you, but in my experience most just flood you with low quality candidates. Personally, I prefer to not use recruiters at all unless it’s for a very senior role and I need a specialist headhunter. It takes up a bit more of my time, but they only really help with the first few steps and I usually find the fees that they charge is far too high for the value they bring (±15% annual salary).

Lastly, before we dive in, note that this is just the process that I’ve used to screen over 1000 applicants for product related roles. It’s what works for me but that doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. If you’re stuck you can use this as a starting point but ultimately you should craft a process that works for you best. And reply in the comments or find me on twitter to share your tips!

✏️ The Job Spec

When writing a job spec it definitely helps to not try to reinvent the wheel. There are plenty of examples out there, so start with what your candidates will see when they search. Find 3 to 4 similar roles that you can use as inspiration for phrases to use as well as to benchmark your salary ranges. I’ve generally found that a short and punchy paragraph or a set of bullet points are the most compelling for the following sections.

  • Why this is a great job
    Why are you hiring for this role and what has changed? Who are they going to be working with and what is the challenge that they can own? Remember great candidates are going to be drawn to interesting challenges and growth areas more than taking on things they already know how to do.
  • About YourCo
    Your big mission, where you’re going & the market opportunity. Why are you an interesting company to work for? What cool stuff have you achieved? This is typically a big draw card for startups and you should spend some time crafting this well.
  • About the Role
    Here you list some responsibilities and activities that they’ll be doing. It helps to borrow heavily from other job posts if you’re not sure of the right phrasing.
  • What we’re looking for
    Describe the experience or any that you need them to have. Explain what is a core requirement to apply for the role but leave the nice-to-haves for the next section.
  • Advantageous to have
    This is where you can add what your ideal preferences are to explain the type of experience that you’d hope they have. These can be quite varied and more aspirational than the requirements.
  • Why you’ll be a good fit for this role
    Similar to the above section, but focused on them and not you. What type of person will excel in this role?
  • What you can expect from us (optional)
    In some cases it helps to unpack the type of culture that you have and to outline a little more on what it’s like to work at your company.
  • Benefits
    Should be short and sweet. What are some perks or terms that they might get over and above their salary? Do you offer any share options, is medical included, travel or study budget, unlimited leave, etc.

Remember that anyone reading this is looking through a number of other roles and you need to sell them on why they should choose you. Also, be sure that the link on where to apply is clear.

Once you’ve written the job spec, you need to share it to as many relevant platforms as possible. LinkedIn is a no-brainer, but also try to find more niche job boards or groups that are specifically for people in product disciplines. I usually try Angel List, Mind the Product or Lenny’s job board for international candidates, and the People in Product or Product Manager Africa Slack groups for hiring PMs in Africa.

📑 CV Screening

As the applicants start rolling in, it’s helpful to do a quick review so you can find those who might be a good fit. Don’t be too specific on the first pass. If in doubt, add them to your shortlist for a deeper review. I strongly recommend that you send a short rejection email to every person that is an outright no. (This goes a long way for applicants as too few people do it and you’re likely going to be hiring again soon.) I normally include the line: “At this point we feel that some other candidates are better suited to our current needs” which is vague enough to not offend, but direct enough for them to get a solid answer.

I then do a second pass of my shortlist and dig in deeper into their experience and skills, rejecting those that don’t fit. This typically gets me down to 5–10% of the total applicants, to which I send out a calendly link for them to schedule a 30min screening call.

🎬 Screening Interview

The two goals of these 30 minute interviews are to add a bit more colour to the person behind the CV and to share more info with them on the role. I like to start these conversations off with a very open ended question of “Tell me about yourself.” It usually catches candidates slightly off guard and it’s interesting where the candidate starts to describe who they are. Their conversation will normally lead into a run through of their CV and experience anyway — occasionally with a gentle prompt. I try to probe a fair bit to explore deeper than the information that they’re giving and regularly interrupt them.

I also like to ask “Product means a lot of things to a lot of people. What does it mean to you?” to help me understand what they think their role is. I always keep 10 mins at the end to chat about the role, how they will fit in, and to ask if they have any questions. Be sure to end with outlining the next steps and when they can expect to hear back from you.

The important thing about this interview is that you’re probing for red flags. These may include if they jump jobs every 12 months or less, are they vague in describing what they have achieved, have they struggled to get projects over the line, or is there an arrogance or attitude that will clash with your culture? If there are no major red flags, then bring them in for a skills test. In most instances I push borderline people through and give them another instance to prove themselves — remember that you’re just looking for 🚩 red flags 🚩 at this point.

The team over at Prodify have some great tips on the 4 things that they look for when hiring a Product Manager: People Skills, Craft Skills, Mindset, & Diversity.

🎨 Skills Test Interview:

Once you think there’s a chance that they would be a fit, then it’s time to see if they have the required skills. Ideally this should be a take home assessment that they can do in their own time. I usually aim for a scope that will take 2–4 hours (max) for a strong candidate to complete. (Remember that they’re probably doing 3–4 of these on top of their current job, so if it’s too onerous then busy candidates with a current job are going to be disadvantaged and make it harder for you to evaluate them.)

I then create a standard brief with the following outline and ask them to deliver it as a pitch deck or PRD (Product Requirements Doc) format:

Context: (For you to define)

  1. Provide product description and context. (A short video talking about your product can set a great tone.)
  2. Identify a new feature, area for improvement or addition
  3. Unpack the user feedback / insights that are driving the change.

Brief: (For them to define)

  1. Outline the process to validate the insights through customer interviews
  2. Create hypothetical user stories that you would expect as an output to the interviews.
  3. Map out a proposed development roadmap of Epics and Stories
  4. Create a high level launch plan for the new feature. (Outline any assets or collateral that will be needed.)
  5. List your core concerns or assumptions of things that you would look out for during this process.
  6. How would you measure the effectiveness of a successful launch?

In this interview, you’re wanting to assess how well they understand the core principles that drive user behaviours & why they choose certain tools. Do they understand the reasoning behind their suggestions? You also want to make sure that they are customer-centric and data informed, as well as show how they communicate across teams. Keep an eye out for if they acknowledge their assumptions and if they’re just dropping fancy names of tools without understanding why those are best for the situation.

You also want to look for attention to detail in their document. Spelling errors, poor formatting, or a confusing layout all indicate that they’re going to struggle to deliver high quality detail or concisely articulate systems and processes. Being a good communicator at a high level with executives as well as getting into the weeds with developers is very much a skillset that you want. Try to throw in a few curve balls of other products and features to see how they think on their feet — but remember you’re evaluating thought process, not actual outcome/feature/product.

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 Team Interview

Once you feel that they might be a fit and that they have the skills for a role, it’s time to have some peers evaluate them too. This should be an informal discussion with a group of the wider team that they will be working with as well as some people across the company — I try to find 3 to 4 willing participants. This gets buy-in from the wider team while also giving the candidate a glimpse of how people at the company work together.

The conversation can cover a bit of everything: their experience, their interests, your culture, what it’s like to work at your company, how your teammates see the need for the role, etc. It should be relatively unstructured and free flowing — just be careful to drive the conversation away from sensitive topics like gender, politics, or religion. When your team gives feedback you need to be aware of their biases and compensate for them. Sometimes called a ‘Christmas Party interview’ a good question for your team is “Would you want to sit next to this person at the company Christmas party?

✅ Background Checks

Around this point I generally find it useful to have another quick call to ask for references, notice periods and salary ranges. To avoid biasing people against shitty previous employers (which they are leaving), it’s best to avoid asking what they’ve been paid previously — also it shouldn’t matter. A better approach is to give them a range (never a single value) that you are looking at for this role and ask them if that’s reasonable for them. You should then call their references and get HR to do whatever background checks they need.

📝 The Offer

Once you’ve picked your top candidate it’s good to get an offer to them ASAP. This should be a short document of the terms where you’ve highlighted the main points covered in the contract. Specifically, make sure there is a decent probation period with a formal review — as no matter how thorough your interview process is there are some things you’ll only learn by actually working with them.

Remember that you have 5 key components of any remuneration offer: base salary, revenue-share, equity, leave, and culture (or other benefits — Medical aid, lunches, gym memberships etc). These are the only factors that you have to play with, but also note that it’s a lot more than salary alone. If you offer loads of leave or have a great culture with lots of growth opportunities then candidates will often take a lower base salary. Be sure to unpack all of these aspects in your offer letter and email or conversation to them. (I normally like to explain this on a quick call and then send through the offer via email afterwards.) Note that sometimes people want to see a sample contract and that it is totally normal and not a strange request.

Good luck on building a great team! Remember that getting the right people in place can make all the difference and that this process may have a much bigger ROI for your business than most of the other things on your To Do list.

Let me know if you have any suggestions, tips, or tactics that you think should be added: sound off in the comments below or ping me on Twitter.

Thanks to Richard, Obakeng, Annu for reviewing this post for me.

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Roger Norton

Roger Norton

Head of Product @FoundersFactoryAfrica. Previously: co-founder @Trixta & @leaniterator, CEO Playlogix.com, and wrote a book on startups: leanpub.com/starthere