How to Quickly Grow Your Product Team
How I built a high-performing product team by recruiting from other parts of the company
Earlier this year my company’s executive team made some major changes to the product organization. A byproduct was an immediate need to right-size the product management team. I had one product manager. I needed five. I had six weeks to build the team. There was no way I would hire four PMs in six weeks. I ended up hiring two. Once the dust settled I did end up with five product managers. How did I fill the other two openings?
Product managers are either found or made
Skilled PMs are hard to find and rarely on the market. Hiring one comes with risk: We base the decision on a cursory resume review and a few hours of conversation. Risk aside, on-boarding is an expensive activity. The new PM has to learn about the product, company, and business. In the end, a PM hired off the street won’t pay dividends for weeks or months — and in the worst-case scenario never will.
Making PMs is a different kind of challenge. Employees from other parts of your company are not product managers. They don’t know the ins and outs of the role. It’s probable they haven’t done many of the typical PM tasks. Interviewing customers. Defining problems and solutions. Identifying features to build. Yet, they are familiar with the product. They may even be a user. They are familiar with the customer. They know the company.
When I had six weeks to build my product team I traded general PM skills for specific product knowledge. I decided it’s easier to learn basic product management skills.
Essential product manager skills have nothing to do with product management
According to Todd Jackson the four must-have skills for PMs are:
- Outstanding intellectual ability, able to process and synthesize information
- Excellent communication
- Demonstrated leadership
- Collaborative and effective within the company culture
You’ll notice that the words product and management are not part of his must-have skills. Every successful product manager I have worked with possesses all four characteristics. Let’s explore in more detail.
Outstanding intellectual ability, able to process and synthesize information
Product managers need to identify what a great product looks like and how it fits into the market. They do this through problem definition, analysis, and experimentation. Taking in many information sources and turning them into a strategy is critical.
I like to say communication is oxygen. They need to speak with customers to understand their problems. They need to speak with business teams to check the impact of product changes. They need to speak to technical teams about building the right product features. Successful PMs are great written and verbal communicators.
The hard part about being a product manager is influencing outcomes without authority. The only way to get work done is to lead and influence by working with others. The rest of the organization views a PM as the expert of their product. Figuring out the path forward — like all good leaders — is an expectation.
Collaborative and effective within the company culture
This is the biggest advantage of recruiting PMs from the company ranks. You already know that the candidates fit in the company culture! They’re already in it. Collaboration between product managers and other teams is natural. The rapport already exists.
Finding the right people for the job
My search strategy was not affected by my decision to look inside the company. I wrote a job description that focused on must-have skills. HR helped me distribute the request company-wide. The process up to this point is very like a traditional external candidate search!
As applicants rolled in, I set up two meetings: First, with the applicant. A traditional behavioral interview with some case and problem-solving elements. Second, with the executive that led the applicant’s department. Built-in, easy to access, references are a major plus of conducting an internal search. I can confirm the candidate's culture-fit much faster than a traditional search would.
For aspiring PMs
An endorsement from your current leadership will help you make the jump. Continue to hone your skills in the four areas above and prove you can succeed as a PM. Get involved with product teams (like the advisory team I described here). You’ll get valuable exposure to the product process and network with product leadership. Finally, make it known you want to be a Product Manager. Communicate your aspirations with your manager and mentors. They will help (or they should).
My key takeaways
- Finding good PMs in the market is difficult and fraught with risk
- “Hiring” internal candidates is a great way to fill gaps and add knowledge to the product team quickly
- Knowing that a candidate is already a good culture fit rules out one of the biggest risks of external hires
- Learning basic product management skills is often easier than learning a specific product
Find, Vet and Close the Best Product Managers
Todd Jackson has been a part of product organizations across some of the best companies in the Valley, from Google to…