How to Recruit and Hire Product Managers in 8 Steps

According to leading research on technical recruiting, the interview process for the Internet and Tech industry currently averages more than 24 days. And that’s not counting the time that’s spent before the interviewing begins when you’re searching for and sifting through candidates.

In other words, “good help is hard to find” still rings true in 2019. But if you’re recruiting product management talent, you’re in luck. Today’s article is dedicated to explaining how to source and how to  recruit product managers. You’ll also learn how to cross the recruitment over the line and hire product managers by establishing a product management talent funnel.

Hiring Product Managers: The Product Management Talent Funnel

The sales funnel is a pretty standard business concept these days. You have a huge pile of leads based on inbound and outbound marketing, the pool is winnowed down based on their interest, ability to pay, etc., and then the most qualified leads are closed through sales tactics and drip marketing campaigns. In the end, only a fraction of those initial leads has converted into customers.

Hiring talent can be viewed along similar lines. You have a massive pool of candidates proactively applying for an open position or recruited by headhunters, human resources, or the hiring manager themselves.

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Resumes are reviewed, weeding out a large portion, followed by phone interviews, multiple rounds of in-person interviews, reference checks, and then an offer. Some candidates will leave the funnel because they’re not interested as they learn more about the position, while others exit because they aren’t a great fit.

Sounds familiar, right? Here are 8 steps to building and optimizing your product management talent funnel to streamline your product management hiring and recruiting process.

8 Steps to Building and Optimizing Your Product Management Talent

1. Diversify your sources of product management talent.

There are typically four ways you can find a product management candidate:

  • Proactive applicants—They saw your ad and applied.
  • Personal network—You already know them and personally reached out to gauge their interest.
  • Social discovery—While you may not personally know them, you’ve been connected to them through a mutual acquaintance (or a series of acquaintances).
  • Passively discovered—Their LinkedIn profile looked like a match, so you (or your talent team) approached them.

While some people swear by one of these particular methods, there’s no perfect way to find a prospect. Although someone who wasn’t actively looking for a job might seem more attractive, they might also be harder to actually get since they aren’t particularly unhappy with their current situation. And, while personal connections are great, there’s plenty of junior talent out there that may not be in your network.

Therefore, utilize as many sources as possible to give yourself the most diverse pool of possibilities.

2. Diversify your candidate pool.

There’s no perfect product manager resume, only personal preferences. Some people love hiring folks who can code. Others want people that can sell. Marketing experience is a plus for some, while analytical horsepower is a must for others.

With no universally agreed-upon blueprint for the ideal product manager, don’t limit your candidate profile based on personal biases. Someone with a different background might surprise you.

A few words of caution. When considering an engineer-turned-product manager, it’s essential to make sure the candidate actually WANTS to be a product manager and isn’t just making the jump because it seemed like a better role than slinging code or managing other developers.

“A PM who’s a former engineer needs to realize that he or she is just that – a former engineer. PMs who come from engineering and still try to take charge of technical decisions and implementation details will crash spectacularly,” says Ken Norton of GV. “For that reason, I like hiring technical people who’ve already made the move to product management at a previous job. They’ve already gone through the challenging adaptation period and by checking references you can get a feel for how well they’ve evolved.”

For candidates coming from the non-technical side, the focus is different. Can they speak intelligently about technology fundamentals? Are they interested in learning how things work so they can communicate with the development team and explain things to customers?

“Good product managers do not know their product’s complete technical details on day one,” Robert Brodell wrote on Product Coalition. “Companies should focus on identifying product manager candidates with a zeal for learning. Good product managers know what they don’t know and are excited to learn about it. They have a basic familiarity with technology and are curious to understand how a product works. But their attitude has more impact than their knowledge.”

It’s okay to let go during recruiting.

Of course, another way to expand your candidate pool is to let go of the “industry experience” requirement. Consider folks who haven’t worked in your particular space before. What they may lack in knowledge can be offset by a fresh perspective.

“As an outsider, you can ask questions an industry veteran would be embarrassed to ask,” says Liz Ryan of Human Workplace. “You don’t get breakthrough ideas from people who have been trudging along the same neural pathways for years. You get big new ideas from people who are totally new to your field.”

3. Create a structured process for hiring product managers.

Respecting everyone’s time is key when creating an interview process, which means you shouldn’t be bringing candidates back for endless rounds. It’s often difficult for candidates to take time off of work on short notice to visit your office. Plus, excessive interviews can be a waste of you and your coworkers’ time.

There should be three rounds of interactions with candidates:

The phone screen

No major commitment on either side, they can understand what you’re looking for and ask a few clarifying questions, you can gauge their interest and clear up any unknowns sparked during your review of their resume.

Individual interviews

A single half-day session where the candidate has three or four separate interviews with you and selected coworkers.

Group interview and presentation

A two or three-hour session where the candidate presents on a predetermined topic and gets to interact in a group setting.

This is then followed by:

Reference checking

A few conversations with the candidate’s references to reinforce what you’re already thinking and fact-check their claims.

The offer

A phone call to let them know you want to hire them along with an email with details about the package.

Tell candidates about the process upfront and share an expected timeline. This takes the emotion out of wondering where they are in the pipeline, and sets clear expectations for when they can next expect to hear from you either way… and they WILL hear from you either way. While it might be nice to keep a candidate in your back pocket, it’s not very respectful of their time, so provide closure after every phase.

4. Sell yourself during the screening process.

Your initial interaction with a candidate is just as much about making sure the potential hire wants to consider the opportunity as it is for you to determine if you want to proceed. It’s far better to scare someone off early on before you’ve invested too much of you (and your coworkers’) time on in-person interviews.

A great screener from Chegg’s Mike Osier is “Tell me what the job is you’re applying for, and why it’s a great fit for your career.” This can clear things up very quickly.

Also, if you’re still in the early stages of a startup, you’ll be spending a lot of time trying to convince them it’s worth their time. The call should end with you telling them you’d like them to come in for a first round of interviews (assuming they’re interested) or with you letting them know that you’re not sure it’s a great fit at this time. There’s really no reason to drag it out and leave them in suspense.

5. Use variety to make the most of your time with the candidate.

The initial interview round usually puts the candidate in front of multiple individuals from your company. But—left to their own devices—everyone is likely to cover a lot of the same material. So instead of multiple iterations of the “resume review”-style interview, divide and conquer to cover more ground with candidates and get a fuller picture of their viability.

Andy Jagoe of Venturegrit advocates this approach, assigning different interviewers to conduct a case interview, an analytical and cognitive skills interview, and a leadership and communication skills interview, as well as a more traditional resume review.

Another benefit of this approach is that each candidate is put through the same paces and asked a similar set of questions. This means you’ll have an apples-to-apples comparison vs. diving into the specifics of each one’s individual experience.

For example, you might spend way more time discussing corporate culture with a candidate who worked for Google while someone from a relatively unknown startup might be asked more about their technology experience and personal background.

6. Discuss the product management candidate in a group setting

After the one-on-one interviews are complete, everyone should gather (ideally the same day) to chat about their experience. This not only collects feedback while it’s still fresh in their minds but also socializes the findings amongst the hiring committee.

Comparing notes and hearing the impressions others had based on their particular discussion with the candidate can be pretty eye-opening. One thing to look for is whether candidates were able to expound on the details of products that delight customers and go in-depth with enthusiasm. “That’s how you know the difference between a passionate product person and someone who just wants a job,” says Todd Jackson of Dropbox.

7. Finish with a presentation.

The second round of interviews is your chance to see how candidates operate in group settings. The session can consist of two parts, a prepared presentation and then a free-flowing conversation to see how they handle a group dynamic. Ideally, the people in the room are the same folks they’ll be interacting with regularly if they get the job.

“I like to ask candidates to come and give a presentation in the office around a conference table for 8 to 10 people,” says Jackson. “This is a good way to see how they do in a group dynamic, how they present their ideas, and how clearly they express themselves… But really you’re looking to see how deep the person goes in their thinking. How fluidly do they communicate? Presentation matters. Most importantly, how do they deal with Q&A on the spot, because PMs have to be able to handle a constant flow of hard questions.”

This final session is a great opportunity to ask some questions that tell you about their personality and drive. For example, are they a really hard worker or do they throw in the towel when things get tough?

“We look for a time the candidate wanted something so badly, they were unstoppable in pursuing it. Or a time they overcame an obstacle,” says Kristen Hamilton of Koru. “Try to get a sense of how long that person can stick it out.”

You can also put the candidate on the spot a little bit by asking them how they might change a senior stakeholder’s mind.

“I pose a scenario where the team believes in a feature but the CEO wants it done in a different way that the team believes is ill-conceived. I then have the PM explain what they would do in that scenario,” says Anthony Schrauth of Betterment. “As a follow up I then ask for a real-world example where they disagreed with an executive or manager and really drill into what the PM did and why.”

8. Closing the deal.

All interview processes end with one of three outcomes:

  • You don’t make them an offer
  • You make them an offer and they accept
  • You make them an offer and they decline

If you’re not extending an offer, at least extend your candidates the courtesy of letting them know (and ideally telling them why). Try to give them something more specific than “we went in another direction” or “it just wasn’t a good fit.” They gave you hours of their life, the least you can do is provide some constructive feedback.

When you are making the offer, it’s not just about the salary; this is your final sales pitch on the opportunity. “I like to think about the reward centers in the PM brain,” says Jackson. “There are several big ones I can think of: having impact, delighting users, sense of purpose/mission, having autonomy, getting recognition, financial outcomes, learning/growth, etc. In my experience, more than other disciplines, PMs tend to care most about impact and autonomy.”