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How To Hire A Stellar Product Manager With This Interview Roadmap

Hire a product manager in haste, regret at leisure. Have you hastily hired a product manager because the budget was about to vanish? Or a product is about to launch? Feeling the pressure to hire a candidate and thinking “this person is better than no one?”. This article will explain how to consistently hire great product managers.     

Early in my twenty-year product management career, here is how hiring in haste unfolded for me. One of our top-grossing products needed a product manager immediately. We had a major product launch and needed a stellar product manager.

Out of all the product manager candidates we rushed through the interview process, my boss and I loved one of them. The candidate looked like a younger version of my boss. He aced all the interviews. He was “one of us”.  

The ten-person stakeholder interview team was smitten, especially once my boss waxed on about his qualities. The interview scorecards gleamed. I extended an offer. Position filled super-fast. I was so relieved.

Fast-forward one year later, and I am placing the product manager on a performance improvement plan. That hasty hiring decision resulted in a languishing product. My revenue numbers and reputation were both tarnished.

How To Hire A Product Manager Internally

An internal hire is underrated: it is far savvier to hire internally than externally. According to Forbes and anyone experienced in hiring product managers, interviews are notoriously unsatisfactory for assessing candidates. Some of the best product managers bomb in interviews, while some of the worst excel.  

It is always better to hire from inside because the individuals have a track record and a short ramp to productivity. And yet, Harvard Business Review has noted a trend in company culture, in which only 28% of talent acquisitions leaders consider internal people as an important source of potential candidates.  

Can there be zero product manager potential internally in your organization? Most organizations today lack clear career ladders, programs to foster talent or the imagination to see internal potential.

To buck this trend and uncover talent, examine your colleagues with an open mind:

  • Who are the overlooked women and/or people of color? 
  • Do these individuals have some of the great product manager characteristics: curiosity, determination, collaboration, and critical thinking? All are necessary for product vision.

You can teach someone a product management skill set more easily than you can teach characteristics, such as curiosity.

For overlooked individuals to apply, you may need to encourage them. As Harvard Business Review notes, women on average apply to jobs if they have 100% of the qualifications, while men apply with a mere 60%.

How To Find Great Product Manager Candidates

While you look around internally, you will likely post the job externally as well. Competition has never been fiercer for great product manager candidates. Oodles of companies pay product managers more than yours, enjoy more name recognition, and are more fun places (free lunch!) to work.  

This is your mission: To entice great product managers to apply to your job posting.

How To Make A Punchy Job Posting

Make the candidate—especially she who isn’t looking—unhappy in their current product manager role. Make them want to work at your company by writing a pithy job description that sells the job and the company. 

  • Use action verbs (“create”, “build” or “change”).
  • Ask questions in your job posting: “Do you want to think differently?”; “Do you want to solve X?”
  • Keep the product manager job responsibilities realistic. 

A rambling, boring advertisement reveals that the company doesn’t know what the job is—a big warning sign.

What To Omit From The Job Posting

Omit the requirements for formal education, if HR will let you, to widen the candidate pool beyond grads. Many BIPOC and/or candidates from low-income backgrounds have lengthy experience but lack a college degree. Deleting the college degree requirement will remove an unnecessary barrier.

Delete The Biased Language From The Job Posting

Ensure the job description passes a gender/race decoder. There are free ones online—all imperfect—but better than nothing. Evidence shows that biased language deters applicants.  The reason I chose “stellar” for the title of this article is that “rockstar” (my first choice) is gender-coded

When hiring a product manager, your own communication skills matter. 

The Product Manager Interview Roadmap

Organizations justify a preference for external hires with the “need” for new ideas, fresh talent, and different perspectives. “We want someone to shake things up” translates into:

  • Our products bore our customers;
  • Or we’re worried the product strategy is wrong; 
  • And we are praying this new hire can solve all the problems that confound us. 

Remember, saviors are scarce, so keep the job and expectations realistic and the process streamlined. 

Use Three To Five Interviewers At A Maximum

For my first role as a Director of Product Management, fourteen people interviewed me during the hiring process. At the time, I viewed the multiple interviews as an obstacle course to successfully complete. Today I know it was symptomatic of an indecisive organization.   

An excessive number of interviews will deter candidates, especially the best ones. 

Choose Your Product Manager Interviewers Wisely

I always included one unexpected person in the interviewer group. One of my most competent interviewers was Julie. Julie prepared extensively. She listened. She took notes. She took the interview far more seriously than anyone else on the interview committee. She read the resumes. Julie was our summer intern and a university sophomore.

If you don’t have a Julie, another option is to include someone without a stake in the hiring and not a team member. You are hunting for an interviewer who is perceptive, exceedingly curious and is someone who listens.

Have Each Interviewer Focus On A Skill Set And Characteristics

Each interviewer should focus on specific skills relevant to the product manager role: roadmaps, product development, product team experience, and product marketing. More importantly, interviewers need to suss out characteristics, for example, problem-solving, communication skills or curiosity. 

These will help to determine if the candidate has the competencies you’ll need in a good product manager.

Let interviewers devise their own product manager interview questions to stimulate creativity. Examples include:

  • Tell me about something you hated and later loved. 
  • Why do you snowboard? 
  • What is your favorite successful product?”   

Unexpected questions provide an opportunity for the candidate to show you who they are, which you should believe.

Know Your Biases & Encourage Others To Know Theirs

Take a test to determine your implicit biases. Click here for Harvard’s Implicit Assessment Test. 

You will discover that you—along with everybody else in the world—have biases. You may prefer white or brown people, athletes or intellectuals. Keep this at the forefront of your mind.  Do I prefer this candidate because she talks, looks, and acts like me?

Speak To Each Interviewer Individually About Their Feedback

When a group of interviewers meet to discuss their impressions from the interview questions, they will defer to the opinions of the most powerful person on the Zoom. If you speak to people individually, you are more likely to hear their true thoughts.

You Will Make Bad Product Manager Hires - Fix Them Fast!

One of the best bosses I’ve had—a woman with twenty years of experience—asked me to interview the final candidate for a VP of Product position. She found him on Linkedin, and he had worked at start-ups and Microsoft: perfect on paper for a new product launch and key product management role. 

It was a sunny day in San Francisco, and when I went to meet the candidate, he sat, muscles bulging in shirt sleeves, admiring the Bay.  When I entered the room, he stared. He didn’t think I was a VP of Product but rather an assistant.  

His confusion gave me a few seconds to assess him. Realizing I was underestimated, I proceeded to pepper him with my hardest questions.

While making one particularly passionate point, he crawled across the table, using his forearms to close the space between us. As he reached the crescendo, he triumphantly leaned back, and the table almost flipped on me.  

I have forgotten everything he said, but I remember him inexorably creeping across the table.

This was absolutely the wrong person for the job. No soft skills. I knew at that instant. But I was the only one on the twelve-person product leader interview team who was a detractor.  

The big boss loved him. I doubted my impression. I diluted my feedback. My boss hired him.  

He spent the next three months napping at his desk. This was a role that paid $350K a year.  After three months my boss fired him.

We all make hiring mistakes, so be prepared to have the courage to fix them fast for the sake of the company, other team members, and yourself.  

Become A Great Hiring Manager

Hiring is one of the most important things a manager does, but oddly, organizations provide scant support to hiring managers, nor is there much accountability when it comes to hiring decisions.  

Be accountable to yourself. Forgive yourself for hiring the wrong candidate as a product manager and then fix the situation fast. You aren’t born a competent hiring manager, you become one. 

To learn more about how to manage your newly hired product managers, read this article here, and don’t forget to join the community for everything you will ever need to know about product management.

Related Read: Related Read: Product Manager In Digital Transformation: How To Make It Work

By Marta Lee-Perriard

Marta Lee-Perriard, Ph.D., has twenty years of experience in product management, most recently as VP of Product. She advises executives in Fortune 500 companies with a focus on women in product.

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