What Your Next Head of Product Looks Like

I led product at five tech companies and have helped dozens of high-growth startups find exec-level product leaders. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Everyone understands that hiring a VP of Product for a tech company is hard. Given the variety of product leader skills, experience and styles, half the battle is determining what type of product leader you seek.

Below I share the technical and leadership skills required of a product leader, along with an outline of their career stages. These tools can identify the skills, style and level of experience of your next Head of Product.

A recent “Product Leader Summit” in the Bay Area — lots of different styles and stages among these leaders.

1.) The Technical Skills of a Product Leader

When I interview candidates, I write the following list on a white board, then ask the candidate to identify their top 2–3 skills:

  • Technical: Strong understanding of technology; work well with engineers
  • Management: Light process to deliver results; strong communication
  • Creative: Generate lots of ideas that matter
  • Business: Understand business models, pricing, and how to deliver shareholder value
  • Marketing: Package & position ideas in ways that uniquely appeal to consumers
  • Design: Work well with designers, value simplicity
  • Consumer science: Deliver consumer insight via focus groups, usability, surveys, behavioral data, and most important, A/B testing.

I find that most candidates give an accurate self-assessment of their skills, especially if you haven’t told them yet which skills you seek. (I reveal how the exec team prioritizes the skills later in the interview.)

2.) Functional Leadership Skills

Below are the skills I seek for all executive team members, regardless of function. The key difference in hiring a “Head of Product” v. “Head of Finance,” for instance, is that the technical skills of a finance leader — raising money, understanding unit economics — are very different from the technical skills of a product leader.

Again, I ask the candidate to identify their top 2–3 skills from the following list of functional leadership skills:

  • Leadership: Inspired communication of a vision.
  • Management: Hiring, firing, managing, organizing, and developing teams & organizations.
  • Strategic thinking: Developing hypotheses for how to delight customers in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways.
  • Results-oriented: Proactive, “everybody grab a shovel” attitude to make things happen. Not overly process-oriented.
  • Culture: Understand how to leverage culture as the foundation for light process and to build world-class organizations.
  • Business maturity: Great judgement about people, product and the business.
  • Domain expertise: Experience with product category and/or stage of company.

Again, I am not transparent initially about which skills are most important for the role, but there’s a shared understanding among the exec team of what we seek.

3.) The Career Stages of a Builder

Product leaders love to build stuff, and I find this notion extends to a love of building teams, organizations, companies and even industries. I find it helpful to understand what stage the candidate is in their career.

Here’s how I articulate the different stages in a product leader’s career. In talking with a candidate I tease out how far along the progression they are and what skills they have developed along the way:

  • Build something: Build a basic product, irrespective of the product’s success. The candidate demonstrates the ability to work well with engineers, designers, and data analysts. Most of the time I simply ask the candidate to talk about the first product they built.
  • Build a successful product: I like to have candidates talk about successful products they have built, as this speaks to their consumer insight and ability to package and position a product.
  • Build an organization: If a candidate feels they have achieved this level, they should be able to speak to their leadership, strategic thinking, and management skills through their demonstrated ability to build and scale teams. It’s possible, too, that they can demonstrate an understanding of the power of culture in helping employees make great decisions without onerous process.
  • Build a company: The candidate demonstrates cross-functional leadership through effective working relationships with their technology, marketing, finance, and HR partners. They can also talk to their ability to help define company strategy. If the person can describe companies they helped to build and how they contributed to the company’s success, then you have a “been there, done that” candidate who can likely do it again — if they still have “fire in the belly.”
  • Build an industry: Candidate understands the importance of both long-term strategy and external partnerships in building a world-class product. Very few product leaders have achieved this career stage but examples include helping to create the internet streaming ecosystem (YouTube, Netflix), a huge social network (Facebook), or a monstrous search or e-commerce platform (Google, Amazon).

Conclusions: Pulling it all together

The real value in the list of technical skills, functional leadership skills, and the articulation of career stages is to give the exec team a shared language and sense of priority about what they seek in their next Head of Product.

Here is one of the simplest rubrics I know for evaluating the total package:

  1. Can they do the job? Speaks to a candidate’s skills and experience as identified in the lists above.
  2. Will they do the job? Speaks to the candidate’s intellectual curiosity, passion, motivation, and “grit.”
  3. Are they a culture fit?

This last issue — culture fit — is highly idiosyncratic. It pays to loosely articulate things your company values then evaluate the candidate against this list.

I am amazed by the diversity of successful product leaders so there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to hiring world-class product leaders. One thing I say to every company I work with: spend time to build agreement among your team about what you seek and then carefully assess how candidates stack up against these attributes.

I hope you find this helpful. Please “clap” if you do.

Gib

Gibson Biddle

My Other Product Management Articles on Medium:

(Many thanks to Florian Fischetti and John McMahon for their edits.)

www.gibsonbiddle.com to learn more about my talks

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