Here at the ProductPlan blog, we regularly offer product managers advice about how to navigate and grow their careers. We’ve written, for example, about how to find great PM jobs, about some of the lesser-discussed traits that any product manager should have, and about some great training resources to help bolster your product management skillset. We even have an entire Product Management Career Section right on this blog! But in addition to working regularly with product managers (because they use our roadmap software), we also work closely with product executives around the world. In our many discussions with these leaders, we’ve gleaned some insights about what traits they value in product managers and what skills and characteristics they look for when they’re hiring a product manager.
Recently this got us wondering: Have we ever written a post specifically for product leaders, offering them our guidance on how their peers are able to identify and hire the best product managers (and keep an eye out for the jaded ones)?
Our initial review of the Product Management Career Section suggests we haven’t. So this article is for you—whether you’re a Product Lead, Chief Product Officer, VP of Product, or any other role that includes overseeing or hiring a product manager.
We thought you might benefit from hearing what your colleagues, across more industries, than we can count, have told our team over the years about the traits they’re most interested in when it’s time to find a new PM.
(Psst! If you’re really a product manager reading this, the advice you’ll find below can definitely help you, too. Just reverse-engineer it.)
7 Clues to Spotting and Hiring a Product Manager (and a great one!)
Let’s go from the most to the least obvious.
1. Problem-solving ability
Many of the product leaders we’ve worked with have told us that problem-solving ability is the trait they value most in a PM on their team.
These executives understand that product management is a tricky role—one in which there is always a lot of moving parts—and that driving a product successfully to the market will require plenty of creative solutions to unexpected challenges. So, when they’re looking for a new PM, these sharp product leaders look for natural problem-solving aptitude, which often presents itself as creative thinking.
Note: In most cases, the best way to identify this ability in a PM candidate will not be to throw a difficult riddle at her during the interview. You know those riddles—like the thought experiment placing the candidate in a room with three light switches, and asking her to figure out how to determine which switch operates which of the three lightbulbs in the next room before going in. Don’t do that.
Don’t set up roadblocks in the interview to trip up your candidates. Let them tell you about their background, then tell them about your product, and finally, ask them how they’d manage or improve it. Have a discussion. You’ll find evidence of creative thinking and problem-solving aptitude emerging naturally from this conversation.
2. Great communication skills
Virtually every product executive we’ve ever spoken with on the subject has listed communication as one of the top skills they demand in a PM.
Even if a PM candidate checks all of the other boxes—solid product management background, experience in your company’s industry, strong technical knowledge—that PM is far more likely to prove ineffective if he cannot communicate clearly and effectively with professionals across a wide range of disciplines and teams in your company.
This is why we’ve written about how important it can be for a PM to learn the many department-specific dialects of English—such as Sales Speak and Developer Speak.
Whatever else you look for in a product manager, communication skills should be at the top of your checklist.
Another attribute that product leaders very commonly seek in a product manager is empathy—the ability for a PM to truly see things from his customer’s point of view, and to build products that match up to those customer needs, desires, fears, and other motivations, as opposed to trying to force a solution the customer isn’t really asking for.
“Empathy is important to look for when hiring a PM. Can the candidate see things from a customer’s point of view?”
This is a more difficult trait to find than you might realize, particularly in our modern era where everyone is so focused on their own needs and wants. Indeed, our own founder has written about the importance of empathy because, as he has discovered as a product lead at a number of large B2B companies, it is a skill that many PMs have not fully developed.
4. Leadership and charisma
Charisma, or natural leadership ability, might not seem as obvious as the previous traits. But as many product executives have told us over the years, it is just as important for a PM.
Product managers have the difficult role of coordinating and leading a large cross-functional team—but often without any actual authority over anyone on that team. In fact, some of the team’s members, such as a VP of Engineering, might be well above the PM in the organization’s hierarchy.
How, then, can a product manager successfully drive such a complex initiative as bringing a product to market, when she doesn’t have any organizational power over the people executing the details? With natural leadership skills.
Many product leads have told us that a great PM will have the ability to build chemistry and generate enthusiasm among the various teams and departments responsible for developing her product. This will be no small task, considering that often the same PM will have to say no to requests from these teams, or push them to work more quickly or with fewer resources.
To succeed in the face of all of these inevitable challenges, a PM will need charisma—to make that cross-functional team feel as invested in the product’s success as the PM herself is, and to want to make that success happen.
5. An insatiable curiosity
When ProductPlan interviewed Procore’s Director of Product Management, Shivan Bindal, as part of our “Product Lessons Learned” series, he told us something we’ve often heard from other product leaders. When he’s hiring a product manager, Shivan is first and foremost looking for evidence of insatiable curiosity.
“A curious product manager is one who will never be satisfied with just one answer,” Shivan said.
This tracks with what we’ve heard from product executives across many industries, but particularly in the technology space. (Procore develops a SaaS platform for the construction industry.)
Product management is a role that requires a great deal of initiative and intrinsic motivation. It’s very difficult, after all, for a Product VP to tell her PMs specifically what they should be doing from day to day. And it can be very easy for a PM to settle for the first idea or the first answer they come up with.
This is why smart leaders like Shivan Bindal look for curiosity: Your PMs don’t know what they don’t know. And because often the best strategic decisions will emerge only after serious research and investigation, you want a PM who will be internally motivated to keep looking.
(By the way, if you’re interested, you can read all of the interviews with product executives from our Product Lessons Learned series here.)
In another of our Product Lessons Learned interviews, ProductPlan spoke with Julie Cabinaw, Scentsy’s VP of Innovation and Business Technology.
In discussing what she looks for in a product manager, Julie touched on something we’ve heard from many product execs—not as many as those who’ve said they want great communication skills or problem-solving savvy, but plenty of product leads.
The key trait for Julie when evaluating a PM candidate is passion. “You can see that light in some people’s eyes where they just get so fired up,” she said. “I call it the raw meat factor. You can just feel from everything that they’re doing that they’re going to go after what they’re about with 110%.”
Julie here was hitting on a very important insight. Product development can be a long process—often months and sometimes even years—and that process is often punctuated along the way with setbacks and disappointments.
If the product manager responsible for driving that long, setback-ridden development isn’t passionate about seeing her product through to a successful market launch, then the whole effort can slide off the rails at any point.
“Don’t overlook natural passion when hiring a product manager.”
Don’t overlook natural passion as a key trait when you’re trying to hire a product manager.
7. Comfortable with failure
Smart, visionary product leaders take the long view. They know that any single product in a line, or any specific market launch, might fall flat for any number of reasons.
That’s why these executives have told us repeatedly they would like to know that any PM they hire won’t fall to pieces at the first product disappointment. Instead, they want a product manager who will be able to react appropriately, take a moment to grieve, and then start gathering useful learnings that can propel the next launch to success.
This could actually make for an interesting interview question: “How would you react to an underwhelming product launch or a new product that received a negative reaction from the market?” Just make sure you can resist the temptation to penalize too harshly those candidates who tell you they’d be devastated by product failure. It would be a tricky question, after all, and some PMs who might indeed take the long view in the real world might answer incorrectly in a job interview.
Still, though, posing such a hypothetical in your interviews might help you when your goal is hiring a product manager who fully understands the value of the learnings that can come only from failure.
4 Signs You Might Be Hiring a Jaded Product Manager
1. They lack enthusiasm when you discuss:
- Executive stakeholder meetings
- Sprint demos
- Release day
- Customer feedback
These represent some big milestones in the life of your products and product managers. So what does it mean if they can’t muster enthusiasm for any of these potentially big product milestones? These might be clues that you’re interviewing a jaded product manager.
2. They seem unwilling to adjust to a new process.
The problem with an unwillingness to adjust to processes is that new realities are imposing themselves on your products and your company today at a faster pace than they ever have. As a product manager, they’re going to continue to find new obstacles in their path. Many of these obstacles will require them to employ new tactics, new tools, and new processes — often with less time than either of you would like for a smooth transition. Your product manager has to be willing to adjust if they want the product to succeed.
3. They’re too comfortable with “close enough.”
You’re interviewing the person whose job it is to care about that product at least as much as anyone else in the world, if not more so. This means that sometimes they’ll be the only person standing between your product shipping at its very best — and shipping at less than its best.
Maintaining an attitude of always striving for excellence is important in your product manager hire. We’re not saying that means they’ll need to overthink every project or task and sometimes “good enough”, is “good enough”. But more often than not your product manager’s correct response isn’t “Close enough.” It’s: “Let’s keep at it.”
4. They won’t aggressively advocate for the product.
One of the most important roles your product manager will have is to advocate on behalf of their strategic plan for the product. This will be difficult, of course. Developers will ask for more time. Executives will come to them with equal pressure in the opposite direction. Sales will request that they prioritize a low-priority feature in the next release or even a feature that the product team has never discussed because they might be able to close a big deal with a potential customer. All of these external voices will all push for your product manager to release the product sooner so that it can start earning revenue sooner.
Your product manager will know the product better than anyone in your organization, not to mention better than everyone outside your organization. You want to hire some eager to advocate for the product with their eyes always focused on the objective, which is to deliver your product to the market.
If you’re a product leader, what traits do you look for when hiring a product manager? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.