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What are the best strategies for recruiting effective product managers?

by Anuraag Verma
June 12, 2016

Building great product teams begins with hiring great product people. But who are product professionals and what exactly do they do? Sometimes even
product pros find this a difficult question to answer because their scope is wide and they wear many different hats.

Ken Yeung, a reporter for The Next Web, defines them as, “the unsung heroes of the industry, these skilled professionals are the people who manage every movement of the product’s lifecycle, taking the idea and guiding it through development.”

So how do you find one of these multi-talented, unsung heroes that’s the perfect match for your products and company?

Create an ideal candidate persona

This role is often a jack-of-all-trades, able to dabble in anything from software engineering to market predictions, customer surveys and sales. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to find someone who checks all the boxes, but by starting with a clear picture of who you want, you’ll have a much better idea of what traits to look for and where and how to go about sourcing them.

Defining exactly what you want in the role is not a clear-cut task and will vary across companies. The skills, experience and personal qualities required will be dependent on the specific needs of your company and the role you are trying to fill. However, there are some common traits to look for.

Customer Empathy

They must display a deep understanding of both customers and competitors to build products that customers want to use. This valuable market insight comes from having a genuine sense of empathy. Rather than viewing themselves as separate from the customer, they must be willing to immerse themselves in the customer’s world to understand that perspective: what their needs are and how to meet them.

To screen for this, ask candidates about your target market and note their reaction: Do they relate to and respect your customers? Do they have past
experience with them, or express passion for learning more about them?

Work Ethic

Product management requires doing whatever it takes to get a variety of jobs done. It requires a heightened level of focus and commitment.

The success of the product is in their court, and you need to trust that they’ll be there to catch the ball at all times. Their strong work ethic and commitment to the product’s success needs to be contagious enough to carry the whole team through.

Communication

Strong communication skills are critical to success. This includes listening to—and implementing—customer feedback, providing succinct but detailed updates in meetings, and maintaining communication channels between engineers, designers and the marketing and sales team. To gain trust and communicate efficiently, it’s important they speak the language and technical jargon of each department.

It’s easy to pick up on oral communication skills during an interview, but also consider using a short writing assignment to test a candidate’s written communication skills.

Past Experience

Do you want someone who will successfully meld into a large company culture? What about someone who has skills that pertain to a specific industry? Or, perhaps you want someone who is more entrepreneurial. Maybe you want someone who can build out a team and create a structure for building new products. Knowing how high within the organization or team this person will sit helps determine what past experiences and skill sets to look for.

“Unless the position is very junior, I’ll usually hire product managers who’ve actually shipped a product,” said Ken Norton, a product partner at Google Ventures. No amount of studied skill can beat hands-on experience.

Skill Set

As they interact with people across all levels and departments on a daily basis, they must fit seamlessly into company culture. They should be easy to work with and willing to joke and have a bit of fun, even when under pressure. Although the skills you focus on hiring for will vary based on whether someone spends most of their time in marketing and sales or works with engineers to develop the product, here are some common skills to look for:

  • Technical: Not all product positions require technical skills, but it’s beneficial to understand what is required from the engineering team and be able to discuss this in technical terms. This helps ensure an understanding of the technical implications of a product decision.
  • Business and marketing: There’s no use building a great product if no one wants to buy it. They must understand the market they are catering to and must know how to tailor current and future products to meet those needs.
  • Management and communication: Product people don’t work alone, or even in one department. They collaborate with a diverse team and need the communication, leadership and interpersonal qualities suited to this role.
  • Strategic thinking: Product professionals, especially at a senior level, must be able to think strategically. This helps them be successful in planning, budgeting, resource allocation and operations.

Skills can be learned on the job, so don’t be too critical if an otherwise acceptable candidate doesn’t have the entire skillset you
are looking for.

The job description

Now that you have a very clear idea of what skills, personality traits and experience you’re looking for in a candidate, you need to create a job description before you can start sourcing candidates.

As product positions can be so open-ended and vary from company to company, try to be as clear as possible on exactly what their duties and responsibilities will include. Do you require someone to market current products? Will they conceptualize and build new products? Will they only focus on a specific industry? Paint a picture of the work environment and the teams they will need to coordinate with. Be clear about who you are as a company. Spell out the exact skills that are necessary and any other educational requirements. Indicate the experience level required and provide an idea of what a successful candidate would be like. Also remember to reflect on the appeal of working at your company, rather than simply listing your demands of applicants.

Sourcing

Sometimes the best candidates are already working within your organization, masquerading under another guise. Designers or engineers who have years of experience working with your particular products and systems or have occupied prominent project leadership positions before could be ideal candidates. They are already ingrained within your company culture and have a deep knowledge of how your business works.

On the other hand, sometimes the best solution is to bring in fresh, outside talent with the exact industry skills and experience you are looking for. A few managers I asked said they found their best hires through referrals from their professional network and other team members. They also recommended the following job sites:

  • Angellist (for startups)
  • LinkedIn (check out the Pragmatic Marketing Alumni Group)
  • SimplyHired
  • Mind the Product
  • ProductHire

The job interview

Once you have hand-selected promising applicants, it’s time to screen them. This is your chance to filter through the noise and hone your selection. Screen for skills defined in the job description and ask questions that give each applicant a chance to teach you something new.

You need to validate their ability to conceptualize, create and carry through products that solve market problems. Use these interviews as an opportunity to test how they problem-solve and meet the criteria you set.

Microsoft is known for drilling interviewees about how to solve a single problem until they can no longer come up with a solution. The focus is not on a candidate’s answer to the problem, but rather on the steps they take to try to solve it and how well they handle themselves when they don’t. Discuss a problem and see how the applicant divides it into smaller actionable steps. You want to see how candidates define problems, how they break them down and what experience they have with testing and measuring possible solutions.

Asking questions helps encourage candidates to think strategically. It also reveals their level of problem solving, technical ability, communication skills and passion for product. Ken Norton sums it up: “When I learn something from a candidate, I know two things: (1) they’re not afraid to speak critically, and (2) they’re probably smarter than me. I want both in a product manager.”

Closing the deal

Innovative people want to work with other innovative, creative people. To attract the best, you must be the best and be able to demonstrate that you are a company people want to work for.

Use the people on your team as shining examples of the culture someone would want to be immersed in. Be sure to publicize concrete examples of impressive products you have created and provide a breakdown of how they evolved. Be transparent about your company culture and the types of challenges product people will face.

Hiring the perfect product team member can be a complex process. It is a critically important role that needs to be defined specifically for your company. From the start, be clear about who your ideal candidate is and refer back to these attributes throughout the hiring process.

This article was originally published in Pragmatic Marketing’s Sprint 2016 issue.

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Anuraag Verma

As VP of Client Partnerships at Alpha, Anuraag helps organizations embed experimentation into their everyday workflow. Prior to Alpha, he partnered with senior executives at Fortune 500 companies to identify learning and development needs as Enterprise Account Director at General Assembly. 

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