What you should expect when recruiting a product manager

What you should expect when recruiting a product manager

or: What makes a good product manager? #

After my slightly frivolous post last time, I wanted to follow up with a more practical article intended for people wanting to hire a product manager and, by the same token, those of you wanting to step into that role.

I have had the pleasure of recruiting and working with some excellent product managers over the years.  Similarly, I’ve interviewed some complete jokers.  There are several things I now look for in a product manager in terms of their character and approach that I value above all else.  While it’s by no means a definitive list, I reckon that if you can find people exhibiting the same qualities, you’ll be on to a winner.

A product manager’s role is to own and be ultimately responsible for one or more product lines.  And that really means OWN.

Let’s start by considering what hiring a product manager will mean for your company.  A product manager’s role is to own and be ultimately responsible for one or more product lines.  And that really means OWN.  A product manager effectively fulfils the same crucial role that the founder(s) of your company had when they figured out there was a gap in the market they could fill (and make money by doing so).  If you’re not ready or willing to devolve both the responsibility and authority for the product to your new product manager, stop right there.  You might as well save your recruitment fees and carry on as you are.

In the same way, you should make sure you support your product manager and listen to them.  Generally speaking, a good product manager will give you good advice, though it may not necessarily always be the advice you want to hear (e.g. this product needs to be taken out and shot).  A good product manager will rapidly understand how your business works and so will also notice where it’s not working as well as it should, to a greater degree than you might expect.  Think of your product managers as CEOs for their specific products and give them a corresponding level of respect.

So what makes a good product manager?  In my view, quality product managers:

  • keep their head when all about are losing theirs;
  • can see both the bigger picture and the fine detail;
  • are consummate problem-solvers and fixers;
  • are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and do something themselves if nobody else is bothering to;
  • have a calming effect on others;
  • are excellent listeners;
  • are sponges for quickly absorbing, understanding and retaining information;
  • have an eye for spotting an opportunity, whether commercial or technical;
  • are great communicators, mediators and educators;
  • are natural organisers, but while capable of running a project successfully, would not like being thought of as a project manager;
  • will be able to pitch their product better than anyone else, but don’t want to have to do Sales’ or Marketing’s job for them;
  • take negative criticism with good grace and will continually seek to do better;
  • like being recognised for doing a good job, but will rarely solicit praise for themselves;
  • will recognise the efforts of others before their own;
  • treat a problem not as a setback, but as an opportunity to make things better;
  • have a natural curiosity and interest;
  • continually test their (and your) assumptions;
  • tend to excel in something completely unrelated to their job – whether as cooks, musicians, writers or linguists;
  • hate feeling ineffective – take away their responsibilities, authority, budget, or stop listening to them, and you’ll soon find yourself with a product manager-shaped gap in your organisation.

You may have noticed that I don’t believe that it’s necessary for a product manager to have previous experience with the markets, technologies or products they’ll be working with.  However, I would expect a product manager to grasp the basic dynamics of each in a relatively short period of time.  The ability (and desire) to learn and understand is, in my opinion, the most fundamental quality of a product manager.

Product managers hate feeling ineffective – take away their responsibilities or stop listening to them and you’ll soon find yourself with a product manager-shaped gap in your organisation.

I would test this by setting candidates the task of preparing a 15-minute presentation on a fairly broad but relevant topic.  This would show me all sorts of useful things about them, such as their ability to find, distil and interpret the information available, to make reasonable, market-led deductions, to speak like a human being rather a business droid, and to be able to keep to time.

The really good ones would end up having an informed and stimulating discussion with their interviewers.  The worst ones would generally start by quoting a dictionary definition of words in the title of the presentation, as if to suggest that the interviewers were simpletons.

So there you go; that’s what I think counts most in a product manager.  I’d be interested to know if you agree or think I’ve missed some key traits, so let me know what you think in the comments.

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Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a product management and leadership coach, product leader and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.

2 Comments on “What you should expect when recruiting a product manager

  1. Totally agree that domain knowledge is not a necessary prerequisite. It should be much quicker to pick up market/domain knowledge than learn the tricks and approaches an experienced product manager picks up over time.

    Your comments about an organisation trusting a product manager are spot on – a great follow on post would be what should a product manager look for in a potential employer!

  2. That’s a great idea! I’d be interested to know what you would look for – I’m wondering whether people’s preferences are completely subjective, i.e. everyone is looking for something different, or actually that most product managers are looking for similar things. What do you think?

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