Part 4: Recruiting world class product managers

This is part 4 of my five-part series on scaling your product management craft (Creating Conditions, Leading with Intent, Building Foundations, Recruiting World Class PMs, Preparing for Scale).

You’ve done the heavy lifting, and rewarded with half a dozen new headcount to help achieve your team goals. Take a beat and pat yourself on the back because that’s a big deal. Congratulations!

I remember when this happened to me almost a decade ago. I was pretty excited. I called up a few friends and after some small talk invited them and their friends to apply for this job. The immediate question was, send me the job description. My manager had done the hard work justifying the role, and I was too focused on the prospect of getting help to build more stuff, faster that I didn’t stop to think about what this meant.

I stumbled through the entire interview process; an offer was made and accepted. Survived, but things could have gone significantly better.

With more interviews as a hiring manager under my belt, I’ve battle-tested my process with star candidates. Here are my findings that you might find helpful before you get on your next screening call.

Preparing for common questions candidates ask

Q: Can you send me the job description?

To write a great job description, you need to have self-awareness of your shortcomings. This way, you can define the role appropriately, so you hire to fill gaps. Write job descriptions based on this instead of focusing on what you see out there. Additionally, be smart about including the right job titles and keywords. This might mean posting multiple job descriptions for the same role so you can a/b testing what method works best to source candidates.

Q: Why are you hiring this role, now?

If you already haven’t mastered an elevator pitch for your team (not company), now’s the time. In part 2, I referred to team culture as an essential pillar in leadership. Practice pitching the team purpose and culture to existing members and new hires and other folks in the company. Then refer to why you prioritised this role and express the sense of urgency to the candidate.

Q: How do you measure success for someone hired into this role?

If you’ve been following along in this series in part 3, I wrote about defining a strategy and tying headcount allocation to specific team goals on the roadmap. I go one step further and write up a 30/60/90 day plan with particular projects this candidate might deliver; providing sufficient clarity and excitement to this job seeker.

Q: What can I expect from you as a manager? How will I learn from you?

Before you can answer this question, you need to know what you stand for. This article describes ten common leadership styles. There’s a lot to unpack here, probably in a separate post. What do you stand for? Think of all the managers you had. What did you like best about your managers and mentors?

This is your opportunity to reinvent yourself and be the manager of your dreams.

Q: What kind of person are you looking for this role?

While a job description may be a little more open-ended to encourage more submissions, you will need to outline your screening criteria clearly. In addition to relevant experiences, walk the candidate through what requirements you might have, such as:

  • Location
  • Industry/function affinity or interest
  • Sample works you expect to review

Right now is the right time to evaluate “stage” fit. If your company is:

  • Early: A good fit expects little direction, is a generalist and can operate with a high level of autonomy.
  • Mid: Successful candidates are resilient and malleable to the changes that come with rapid growth and scaling.
  • Late: You’re looking for someone who is a specialist and has the domain experience and quickly plug into a role and execute.

You might already have some star PMs and need to scale rapidly. If market supply is low, what other functions serve as good sources of product managers? Consider these functions and the unique skills they bring to product management:

  • Finance: Rigorous with market assessment and value-based prioritisation.
  • Developers: Comfort with technology and minimising scope risk and maximising execution velocity.
  • Customer success/operations: a deep understanding of the customer pain points and bottlenecks in the operational workflow.
  • Design: empathy for the user journey and the meticulous detail to finding and eliminating friction.

You should always feel comfortable hiring juniors; it builds bench strength.

Q: What should I expect from the hiring process with this company?

You will need to articulate for the candidate, the expected length of the process, the number of stages, any portions that might require take-home work or case study presentations. You will also need to figure out who will be on the interview panel.

Here’s a sample guideline I created for a product manager role. And here’s one for a product internship.

Evaluating candidates

Passion vs expertise

You have a great candidate who doesn’t have domain experience but is extremely passionate. There’s nothing more to say here. Go with passion. Always.

Inclusion and diversity

The applications are rolling it, and most of the submissions are from one gender and ethnicity. What do you do? It isn’t enough to add an EEO callout to your job application. It requires active effort in sourcing as well as networking. Find the meetup groups for the demographics you are under-represented in and personally ask them to apply. If you rely on your referral networks, you’re going to get applicants who are just like you.

Culture fit

If someone doesn’t look just like you, you probably might use the phrase “not a culture fit”. When the hiring panel meets to discuss a candidate, you have to be very careful to avoid groupthink that might eliminate great candidates. I’ve seen the “beer” test used as a mechanism to break tie-breakers. How often do you drink beers with your co-workers? Is it a good test? Best is to avoid that and instead ask, will this candidate add to our culture?

Matching compensation

Unless you’re in a FAANG, you might find yourself in this position. How do you justify blowing your squad budget on the PM hire? You will have to re-evaluate what you need most urgently. If you can’t afford the perfect candidate, you should consider the diamond in the rough, who has the potential to be the ideal candidate a few years from now.

You have several great candidates. Whom do I hire?

Let’s face the truth — some roles are tough to hire. Either your bar is too high, or you interview panelists care a lot and have steady, but varying opinions. What do you do?

  • First, congratulations on finding a great candidate who inspires this kind of debate! You’re on the right track.
  • Secondly, if you are a democratic leader and seek unanimous agreement to make decisions, you must convince yourself to make an exception now. You cannot have everyone to agree if the role you are hiring for is low in supply.
  • Finally, YOU are the hiring manager. Here’s a test in your decision-making. You have the data. Ultimately you are accountable, and you will do what’s right.

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