Wool weaving machine.
Wool weaving machine. (source: Bea Lipson, CSIRO, on Wikimedia Commons).

A great product manager can help align customer needs with business goals, inspire developers and designers, and make critical connections across functions and silos. But the actual work that product managers do is harder to pin down than that of their counterparts in engineering and design. Given the ambiguity and variability around the role, what can organizations do to hire great product managers, and set them up for success?

Understand your company’s product management needs

Before posting a job listing or looking for internal candidates, take the time to think through why you need product managers in the first place. Do you feel your current product direction is not achieving its intended business goals? Are you struggling to articulate those goals in the first place? Do you feel the efficiency of your design and engineering team could be improved?

In some cases, this exercise may lead you to realize that what you need is not actually a product manager at all. If, for example, you feel your team is unequivocally building the right things but needs to work faster, hiring another developer might increase your overall speed more than hiring a product manager would. Broadly speaking, if you simply want to improve the performance or output of a single role (designer, developer, researcher), a product manager might not be a good fit. If, however, you want to improve the way these roles align and collaborate, a product manager would likely be a critical addition to your team.

Identify candidates with strong connective skills

Some organizations are well known for favoring a certain “profile” for product management candidates. Amazon, for example, looks for MBAs. Google, on the other hand, prefers candidates with a computer science degree from a prestigious university. Generally speaking, the “classic” profile for a product manager is either a technical person with some business savvy, or a business-savvy person who will be able to earn the trust and respect of developers.

Recruiting against these profiles can seem like the easiest and safest approach. After all, how wrong can Google and Amazon be about hiring for a role that these organizations helped define? But the pool of candidates that fits this “classic” profile can be frustratingly small—and while they might fit the profile on paper, they sometimes struggle with the actual day-to-day demands of the job.Some product managers may have design, engineering, or business backgrounds, but the best product managers possess the connective skills necessary to translate between design, engineering, and business concerns. Identifying the candidates who can actually perform this connective work can be very challenging. However, there are a number of characteristics that great product managers tend to share across industries, company sizes, and formal job descriptions.

Great product managers are connectors

Great product managers are able to make connections between the technical concerns of developers, the emotional needs of users, and the political trappings of their organizations. Great product managers bring out the best in their teams and organizations by aligning everybody around clearly stated and well-understood goals.

Great product managers are adaptable

Great product managers are adaptable to new organizational contexts and frameworks. They are able to take a goals-first approach to their work, and adapt their tools and approaches as needed, based on what works and what does not work.

Great product managers are self motivated

Great product managers do not sit around waiting to be told what to do. They proactively figure out what work needs to be done for their teams to succeed, and they make sure that work gets done. Even at the most formal and process-oriented enterprise company, product managers will often need to work through some ambiguity around roles and expectations.

Great product managers are curious

Above all else, great product managers are curious. They do not shy away from new ideas, challenging perspectives, and tough challenges. They do not complain or shut down when things change.

Interview for the needs of the role, not technical trivia

Unfortunately, many product management interviewing practices are based largely on hard skills, not connective skills. As Lulu Cheng says in the excellent article “Getting to Technical Enough as a Product Manager,” “the qualities that make someone a universally respected PM rarely have to do with technical expertise.” While technical skills can be the easiest to “test” for, they are a poor predictor of success in a product management role. There are, however, some best practices for making sure that PM candidates have the necessary connective skills to succeed in their roles.

Ask about contributions from other team members

Great product managers—like great business leaders—don’t take sole credit for the work they’ve done. Look for examples where candidates talk through the contributions of their team members. For example, be cautious of statements like “nobody had any idea what they were doing, but I was able to step in and solve the problem.” Look, instead, for statements like “our incredible development team was able to come up with a fantastic solution and execute it quickly.”

See if the candidate can adapt when their solution is “wrong”

One of the key strengths of a product manager is their ability to incorporate new information and prove adaptable when their first idea proves implausible. If you ask a product manager to come up with and talk through a hypothetical product problem, throw in some confounding information and see how they react. Do they welcome this new information as an opportunity to deliver a better solution? Or do they rush to defend their initial idea?

Set clear expectations with technical interviewers

I’ve been party to many situations where a developer is being sent in to interview a PM candidate assuming they are interviewing an engineer. As a result, the candidates who most closely resemble their engineering counterparts are hired, even if they are poorly suited to a product management role. Take the time to talk to any technical interviewers before they talk to your candidates. Work with them to establish a set of questions that you believe accurately reflects the actual work that a product manager will be doing. Encourage them to have a conversation on the order of product direction, as opposed to quizzing the candidate about technical details. A great candidate will be able to talk through the product, its users, and its business goals in a way that engages and interests their technical partners.

Be ready to change

Finally, understand that bringing on a product manager will almost certainly necessitate making some fundamental changes to the way you work. If product managers are doing their jobs well, they will challenge their teams to stay laser-focused, and challenge leadership to be clear and committed to company goals. Realize that the outcome of hiring a product manager will not be “exactly the way things are now, only faster and more successful.” Be open to the positive change that a product manager can bring, and you may find not only your product teams but your entire organization imbued with a new sense of clarity, focus, and collaboration.

Article image: Wool weaving machine. (source: Bea Lipson, CSIRO, on Wikimedia Commons).