The Art of Hiring Great Product Managers
And consequently, interviewing for a Product Management role
I have been a PM hiring manager for more than a decade. I confess that it is not something I made important enough. I was more interested in the products I was delivering and building the skills of the people I had. But it’s hard not to get a little better at something over time, when you spend 5000+ hours on it.
All of this advice assumes you and I agree on what PM potential looks like. I’ve written about what makes for a great PM, but this is about how to know someone can become a great PM. Someone who is a good PM. So let me outline that up front:
- Innovation mindset. They constantly want to make things better, including themselves. A certain level of dissatisfaction with the status quo is necessary. And they start with why.
- Comfortable with ambiguity. If they need there to be “an answer” they aren’t going to be good PMs.
- Outcome focused. In other words, not process focused. Process people won’t scale. Strong beliefs, loosely held is also key to being outcome focused.
- Customer empathy. Know they aren’t the customer and want to build customer empathy.
- Intellectual horsepower. Gets things quickly. Able to keep up with the engineering conversation.
- Design sense. For B2C in particular, some understanding of what makes for good design.
- Driver. Someone who takes charge. Doesn’t wait to be told what to do.
- Influencer. An understanding of what it takes to bring people along and the necessity of doing so.
- Leader. Will people want to follow this person? Does this person know how to lead as a helper, not a commander?
- Emotional Intelligence. Self-awareness and self-control. Ability to read a room and diffuse tense situations when necessary.
- Collaboration. Comfortable with conflict. Doesn’t avoid it, prematurely try and diffuse it, or facilitate “compromise”.
- Communication. There is no such thing as a good PM who is a bad communicator.
- Structured thinking. Can break problems and solutions down to the point where people can move forward.
- Ownership and accountability. A strong sense that they own their feature or product and are accountable when things don’t go according to plan.
Yeah, it’s a long list 😳.
What’s not on it is also important. These are things that many companies interview for that I think can either be taught easily or are not that important:
- Understanding business. This can be taught and will also absorb through osmosis over time. It’s not rocket science and you should be hiring for intellectual horsepower.
- Project management. I have had people fail because they absolutely refuse to do dive into the details and do the project management. But that was never the only thing missing from these PMs. A structured thinker and natural driver will do the right amount of project management.
- Idea generation. A personal pet peeve is that product managers are often interviewed (I’m looking at you, Google) for their ability to generate ideas. I don’t think you can have great ideas without deep empathy and you don’t have empathy until you are immersed in a problem space. Think about it hiring managers… have you ever heard a feature from an interviewee that you hadn’t already considered for your app? I also think everyone has ideas once they have sufficient empathy, not just PMs. Ideas are not the hard part.
- Specific business experience. My view on this is that I’d take a generalist way before I’d give up on any of the traits I listed above. Personally, I went from consumer internet software to B2B2C TV platform to consumer and business productivity to search ads (also B2B2C) to a consumer app with no need to monetize (Apple maps). I figured it out. Easily. Some ramps were harder than others (cable TV was a bit tough… search ads was really tough!), but once I learned, all of my other skills were relevant.
One of the biggest challenges I found is that recruiters and sourcers (if you are lucky enough to have those roles separated) so rarely understand the role. Having some compassion for their situation, they typically don’t have to hire nearly as many PMs as they do other roles. It’s just not their top priority to understand what they are looking for.
For those of you looking to get hired, this is particularly bad news. How on earth do you get in the door if the first screen doesn’t understand the role? How do you get past the first screen and still have a resume that a hiring manager will not filter out?
I was joking with my PM students that you might actually need two resumes — one to get in the door and another for the hiring manager. A good idea… but how to implement 🤔? Thoughts anyone?
But I’m supposed to be giving advice, not just pointing out how hard it is…
My advice is that your network and your team’s network is the best funnel. This means you need to constantly work on it. Attend PM events, meetups, Grace Hopper, internal networking events, etc. You should be on the lookout for anyone who shows PM potential, not just existing PMs. Keep track of potential future hires, checking in with them periodically.
You should also take the time to train your recruiters. I’ve had varying amounts of success with this, FWIW. I have even had a recruiter solely focused on PM under my VP but we still struggled with resume quality.
Honestly, I think this stage is mostly to get a read on energy, intellectual horsepower, and openness. Do they speak the language? Do they have the passion needed to succeed as a PM? Are they keeping up with the conversation? Do they have good questions for you? Have they done some research?
And making sure they don’t have some odd attachment to doing some part of the PM job that this role doesn’t provide.
Maybe they didn’t have a designer at their last company and loved doing the design work. Not going to happen at Apple and the designers might actually eat you alive if you try and tell them how to do their job. That sort of thing.
If you are feeling done speaking with the candidate after 15 minutes — don’t bring them in. There is a diversity concern with that statement I realize.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think the PM role requires a more “western” personality. As an example, I test introvert. Always have. When I tell people I’m an introvert I get looks of shock and even flat out disagreement. I have pushed past my natural introversion in order to succeed as a PM.
If your upbringing or culture or nature is deference to authority, you need to push past that to be a PM. If it is that the one who speaks most is the least important, you need to push past that too.
You aren’t going to be an influential leader and driver if you aren’t noticably passionate. Happy to be proven wrong here (strong beliefs, loosely held, right?). Feel free to chime in.
Now comes the really tough part. How do you interview for all of those traits above? You divide and conquer.
Have an interviewing panel that you use for each role. With a substitute or two to accommodate crazy schedules. Give each member of the panel two or three traits to focus on. With a 45–60 minute interview this should still provide time to interview for culture fit or anything else that is important for this particular role.
Generate the questions together with your management team. Iterate on the questions over time.
Most importantly, ask the interviewers to score the candidates on each trait.
Use a combination of “tell me about a time when…” and hypothetical situations to get the best sense of each competency. Good questions will cover a couple of traits at the same time.
Here are some of my favorite questions.
“Tell me about a time when your feature or product was cut before it shipped.” or “Tell me about a project you were on that failed.”
We are looking for a couple of things here. Does the PM portray himself as a victim? Or does he take accountability? (ownership and accountability). Was it he that figured out it should be cut? This shows that he understands failure is part of the job and doesn’t fall prey to sunk costs (innovation mindset). Does he talk about what he learned?
“Tell me about a time when the data proved you wrong.”
This gets to outcome focus and innovation mindset. Look for when in the process the PM found this out and energy around it. Is there ownership and accountability? Did she learn?
“You’re a PM on my team and I ask you to add coupons to Apple Maps. Go.” or whatever feature your app doesn’t have.
I do a few things with this question. They should of course easily understand the complexity of this from a user’s perspective and getting the user the information they need to make a decision. But only a junior PM would start there.
Sometimes I have information that would indicate we really shouldn’t do this feature and want them to uncover it. I want them to show an understanding of the customer, starting with why, managing up. This all gets to innovation mindset.
It can also uncover design sense. Where should we put them? What might they look like?
You can let them get into technical complexity/feasibility (intellectual horsepower). Coupon data sources and freshness would be a tough problem on the coupons in Apple Maps feature, for example.
As a bonus for more senior PMs, I’m hoping they ask about vision and fit of the feature given our brand. Should we have coupons in an Apple product?
Making the call
Sometimes I have had a meeting afterwards to discuss the candidate. But I don’t recommend this approach. Gather everyone’s feedback in a tracking tool or by email and make the call yourself. As with many PM calls, this is a process of looking at all the data and then using your intuition.
As the hiring manager’s boss, I did veto a couple times. But never went in the opposite direction — insisting on a hire that the hiring manager was leaning toward no.
Learning from my mistakes
The biggest mistake I made by far was simply not preparing enough. As with anything worthwhile, this is hard to do well and you need to take the time.
Another mistake my team and I made was to get desperate. Interviewing feels like a tax on the team and you are interviewing because you need more people. You are already stretched thin. We would get excited about someone on paper or from informational and ignore obvious signs in the interview.
A final one is letting people do 30 minute interviews. It’s not long enough. If someone insists… take them off the panel if possible. There is nothing more annoying than getting feedback from this one person that he/she thinks the person is a “no hire” and they were 10 minutes late and only talked to the candidate for 20 minutes. And everyone else was a “hire”. In my experience, this person was often someone that considered his/her “no hire” a trump card.
To really get good at hiring, you should revisit your scorecards for people you hire at certain points. To see where you were wrong or right about them to try and improve your questions. In other words, treat it like a product and iterate on it with actual data.
I never did this in spite of hiring pretty much constantly for 3.5 years in my last role. This was a big missed opportunity in hindsight. Not many people get to grow a team from 20 to 70 in a 3 year span.
My boss and I used to talk about the possibility that it is so hard to hire PMs well that instead of trying to get better at hiring, we should be getting better at quick assessment and firing. It’s an interesting idea… Would love to read that story if anyone goes that direction!