Product leadership is difficult.
That difficulty comes because it’s often very different from product management. As a product manager (PdM), your focus is squarely on making sure that your team is consistently making the best decisions they can.
When it comes to product management, you can easily access help to upskill yourself. Plenty of resources describe how you can do this more effectively. I’ve written a few myself. Some great voices in the space, such as Matt LeMay, Teresa Torres, and John Cutler, among others, lay out frameworks that help PdMs figure out how to increase the decision quality of their teams.
But what about product leadership? Well, product leaders’ job is to build product teams, which involves less framework and more coaching. You aren’t the star anymore. Instead, you take teams and make sure that they are ready for primetime.
Accomplishing this requires a completely different skill set from strict product management. You start to assume responsibilities that take you outside of a tracker or prototype and have you spending far more time focusing on the people themselves.
This work includes bringing people onto the team that you’re developing. One skill that product leaders must cultivate is learning to hire effectively. If you aren’t adding the right skills to the team, no amount of work you do individually can fix things when they go askew.
The simple truth is that when you become a leader, you have too much to do, from team to resource management, to continue doing your old job. As an executive told me in a previous product leadership position, “You can’t do both.”
And you can’t. So, you’re now hiring new PdMs to do the work you used to do well. But how do you go about that?
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Have you ever heard the saying, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you can teach it”? Well, the same thing applies to hiring.
The skills necessary to hire someone who will be a good fit for the role aren’t as simple as one would think. You risk becoming a victim of expertise bias, where you end up looking for someone exactly like yourself. You also have to consider cultural bias, in which the hiring manager prioritizes candidates who look, talk, and think exactly like the other team members. Both of these biases lead to building a team that thinks and looks alike. In a discipline like product management, this can be a fatal error.
No tension on teams means no growth. Unless you get some measure of luck, your team will remain stagnant because no one challenges each other. After all, we’re here to increase the decision quality of the teams around us, and that can’t happen without the team coming together from different backgrounds and points of view.
The bad news, as a product leader, is that you likely won’t be trained on how to do this. The teams around you probably don’t know much about product manager, let alone hiring for it. Even if they did, they hired or promoted you to be a product leader to handle these things.
The good news is that I’m going to give you a quick tutorial on how to avoid some of these traps and push you in the right direction. First, we’ll talk about the importance of being clear about the problem you’re trying to solve with your hire. Next, we’ll use that information to formulate good interview questions. And finally, we’ll talk about being honest about the time you have. Getting all three of these things right drastically increases your chances of making the right hire.
3 Steps to Better Hiring
- Focus on the problem you’re solving.
- Craft good questions.
- Allot the proper time.
Focus on the Problem You’re Solving
Every team needs a certain headcount. Likewise, every team has a million problems they have to handle. Product leaders definitely understand this since they engage with other teams at the strategic level. Sales could always use another SDR and engineering another back-end developer, just like you can always use another product person.
The fact is, everyone will say yes to another hire if it’s offered. But do you know what you need them for?
The most important part of the hiring process is getting the right mind in the job. The second most important thing is onboarding that person correctly. Third is making sure that the new person knows what they need to do to be successful.
All three factors rely on your understanding what you’re hiring for. What problem are you trying to solve with this new team member?
Product is a flexible profession. As a product leader, I’m assuming you’ve had a couple of product management jobs in the past. Have they ever been similar enough to have the same job description? My bet is no.
Despite that, every product job shares one element: flexibility. As they say, the only constant is change, and that’s as true of product management as anything else. Yet many product job descriptions look the same. And before you copy that mistake, taking a job ad else someone wrote and making some superficial changes, I would like to point you to Kate Leto’s book, Hiring Product Managers. In it, she says that one of the most impactful tools in the discipline is the product role canvas.
In her words, “Ensuring there’s a clear and shared understanding of the role that you’re hiring for is an essential first step to thinking more collaboratively and comprehensively about what a new role might be before the interviewing even begins.“
How you understand the role in your organization’s context is incredibly important for the people who want to fill it. Product means different things to different people. How can you set someone up for success if you can’t define it for them before they walk in the door?
Use the product role canvas to define the problem you want to address before you move forward. Doing so will give you and the rest of the team (usually your designer and engineering peers, but this also can include folks like customer success and sales) an idea of what you are looking for.
Then, you can think about interview questions.
What Questions Should You Ask?
So, you know the problem you need to solve with your hire. With that in mind, you should write a clear job description that matches your problem. Don’t just copy and paste whatever you find on the internet.
Once you publish the job ad, you’ll start receiving applications, and you’ll invite promising candidates for an interview. What do you ask them?
I’ve seen teams blow this part of the process. Instead of being prepared and curated, the questions are either haphazard or clearly ripped from a how-to article. Product is far more calculus than algebra, and so you should know that anything that’s called “the perfect question for product interviews” is only perfect for the context in which the question was created.
Much like a good product, good questions help you tell a story. Even better, you create an environment for the person across from you, usually stressed and hurried, to show you their unique self. Strive to uncover “unique” traits rather than the “best” ones because that best isn’t who a candidate is day in and day out. “Best” is a character they have prepared to show you; unique is who they really are.
Tap into unique by asking questions like these:
Tell me a story about X on your resume.
What was the hard part about making X real?
How did you convince opposing forces about X to make it work?
These types of questions can lead to stories that give you the unique flavor of a candidate. Uniqueness wins here since you’re looking for someone interesting and adaptable rather and who meets every item on a checklist.
In product, you’re always looking to solve an ambiguous problem, How you rate the uniqueness of a candidate against the problem set you want to solve is important. Think about the problem and the types of both hard and soft skills necessary to solve it.
Your questions should also get the candidate to talk about their experience so they can form a tapestry of their experience. The follow-ups you ask should aim to give you a better understanding of who the candidate truly is instead of the “best” person they have prepared to show you.
Because we’re looking for a story, ask open-ended questions. For instance, ask “Walk me through a time you’ve done X” instead of direct questions about some specific item. This will allow the candidates to tell you their stories.
How Much Time Do You Have?
It’s important to get to the candidate’s uniqueness quickly because we’re on the clock. You don’t have much time to devote to this process.
As a hiring manager, you’re conducting interviews and hiring on top your actual job. Finding time to look over assets and grade things can be a hassle. So, why do teams act like they have a million years to do so?
Generally, you don’t have time to look at that long presentation, nor do you have time to dig into that case study, or to relisten to that hour long interview that the candidate gives you. Sometimes, you may not even have enough time to do more than Mad Libs on a review.
So, create a key for scoring interview answers. This document gives you the ability to do reviews shorthand. You can answer what others need to know without a ton of investment on your behalf.
As a part of that key, define the time that it is going to take to review the answers. Share those targets with both the interviewee and interviewer. Being honest about the time can help you and the team get clear sightlines on how much work you are asking of them. You can even bundle the time (e.g., a standing 30 minute meeting to review interviewees each week) to get through the review process cleanly.
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And getting it right is the most important thing you are going to do as a manager. When you’re ready to take your team to the next level, you can’t afford to fail. Be clear about the problem, put the right amount of rigor in the questions, and set reasonable time expectations.
This may seem like a lot of work up front. Over time, though, you’ll spend less time thinking about the hiring process and more time thinking about the candidates themselves while being transparent about needs, which can help your team get a lot stronger in the long run.
Being a product leader is a different job and requires a few different skills you won’t learn as a PdM. Take the time to learn these new skills, and you’ll get better outcomes.