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Why It’s Not Easy To Hire A Great Product Manager

Posted by Janna Bastow
October 19, 2015

Nobody gets product managers 🙁

I regularly meet CEOs and CTOs of tech companies who wonder why they can’t seem to recruit quality product managers – and for a lot of them, it’s because they’ve written up a job description for a “project manager.” As a result, they’re automatically disqualifying themselves from getting access to the strongest product managers on the market.

How can two jobs that sound so similar be so different? And yet they are.

Project managers draw up an execution plan for a project, coordinate the necessary people and resources and keep everyone on deadline. Their largely operational role is an important job – but not what a product manager does.

Product management is a leadership role

Product management is essentially a creative function that sits at the intersection of growth, development and UX. The best product managers have been out in the field in lots of different roles before they take on the responsibility of really “owning” a product. You can learn more ab

The product manager defines the product vision, decides what should be built and communicates the business strategy to the rest of the company and its customers.

A product manager must be able to quickly evaluate opportunities to find the most promising ones (which means saying “NO” a lot), which means that being highly intuitive is part of the job.

It also means they’re busy negotiating with customers and stakeholders, thinking about the future of the product and working out the evidence they need to get everyone else on board.

In other words, product managers aren’t in it for the operations.

They’re in it for the creative challenge of bringing valuable, usable and feasible products to the market.

Filter for ‘thinkers’ versus ‘doers’

So now you’re probably wondering where you need to look to find one of these. The answer is: almost anywhere. Product managers tend to start out as UX designers, engineers and even customer support reps.

But here’s the curveball: You don’t want to hire a product manager because they’re a good UX designer, engineer or customer support rep.

You don't want to hire a product manager because they're a good UX designer, engineer or customer support rep. - @simplybastow Click To Tweet

What matters is that they can approach the problem you’re facing from every angle, truly understand it and pull in colleagues from across the company to craft an effective solution.

In other words, you need to be on the lookout for someone who is a natural problem solver, regardless of background.

Kenneth Norton, a former product manager at Google says this about picking a good product manager out of the haystack:

“I’ll take a wickedly smart, inexperienced PM over one of average intellect and years of experience any day. Product management is fundamentally about thinking on your feet, staying one step ahead of your competitors, and being able to project yourself into the minds of your colleagues and your customers.”

Curiosity, multidisciplinary thinking and the confidence to counter ideas and requests with critical questions are all signs of a great product manager. This is an incredibly valuable combination of skills, traits and experiences that isn’t easy to find.

To find a candidate who thinks outside the box, you might have to do some out of the box thinking too.

To find a PM candidate who thinks outside the box, you might have to do some out of the box thinking too. -@simplybastow Click To Tweet

One of the things I do when hiring new people for my team is ask them to come to an interview with a pre-written spec for a feature defined by me. It’s also a trick question: the feature is actually something that the business should not be building.

That way I filter between people who actually think before they do the work and can come prepared to challenge me (‘thinkers’) versus people who come to an interview with a lovely written spec for a useless feature (‘doers’).

Final thoughts

Finding a good product manager (or any leader, for that matter) is a difficult task. Just as there’s no formula for building a profitable business around a product, there’s no formula for hiring the right product manager.

So if you want to bring a new PM into your fold, consider this your call-to-action to step up your game.


Want to become a product manager? Read about the steps you should take to get your first product management job.

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Chuck Phipps
Chuck Phipps
November 14, 2015 9:29 pm

This “mini-CEO” terminology is gotten really worn and beaten, and should be laid to rest. Nobody works that way anymore. Product managers who “define the product vision, decide what should be built and communicate the business strategy to the rest of the company and its customers” — like some kind of Orwellian “great man” — might have existed in the 1970’s, but not if you want to build great products today. Nowadays, collaboration is required for visioning, decisioning, and communicating; and high-functioning teams will always trump a go-alone know-it-all. CEO’s are everybody’s boss. Product managers are nobody’s boss. We’re going… Read more »

Nandini Jammi
December 18, 2015 2:10 pm
Reply to  Chuck Phipps

Hi Chuck,

I absolutely agree. I think “mini-CEO” is just a way of expressing the idea that product managers set the tone for the way teams work, and emphasizes that they’re responsible for communicating with all their stakeholders – just as a CEO would. If anything, this means the PM is also responsible for leading collaboration, not for barking orders at at their team. They’re leaders, and they need leadership skills to do their jobs well, but they’re not “the boss.” Does that sound better?

Srividya Sunderamurthy
Srividya Sunderamurthy
November 16, 2015 8:26 am

How do you define a great product?

Nandini Jammi
December 18, 2015 2:12 pm

Well, in the classic sense, I suppose that would be a product that solves a problem for customers and makes money for a business! What do you think?

Suneel Kaw
Suneel Kaw
February 8, 2016 11:46 pm
Reply to  Nandini Jammi

The “mini-CEO” term has been overused but it’s still a shortest apt definition of a PM role. Success criteria of a PM and a CEO overlap the most when compared against all other job functions in a company. Marketing is concerned about user growth, Engineering about operability horsepower, Sales about winning contracts etc. PM is concerned about all of the above KPI’s and some more. CEO’s and PM are owners of the overall business and product. Just like a CEO sells his business idea to VC, a PM persuades stakeholders to invest in his/her idea. Thus, the term “mini-CEO” has… Read more »

Nandini Jammi
February 10, 2016 3:00 pm
Reply to  Suneel Kaw

Hi Suneel! I agree. It’s not a 100% accurate term, but it does help frame the concept of PM at least as a starting point. Thanks for helping us make the distinction!

Lio
Lio
July 27, 2016 12:57 pm

I was a bit confused in the doer vs thinker choice. What do you think counts more? Both needed but in different stages of the production, right?