Hiring a Product Manager: Our Philosophy

Find out what they do, key skills, when you need one, and how to hire them.
Anthony Sochan
June 24, 2020

At T&G we've been lucky enough to help over 100 different businesses build and grow better product management functions. Below is a summary of some of our key takeaways from this experience, and hopefully some tips that founders at various stages in the growth journey can find helpful when building a product capability.

What is a Product Manager?

A product manager is responsible for engaging with a broad range of stakeholders to figure exactly what’s needed in a product, sketch out a roadmap for getting there, and orchestrate resources to achieve these product goals. Product managers are generalists. They’re able to speak to people in basically all aspects of the business, understand their needs and challenges, and translate that into day to day product-building activities. 

Key Skills: 

  • Communication. They need to work with a broad range of stakeholders, from sales to marketing, to development and customers. 
  • Prioritisation. Lofty visions are realised through day to day actions. A product manager needs to be able to prioritise the product roadmap to satisfy the organisations larger goals, 
  • Data-driven. Great product managers combine instinct with an analytical mind to build features/products that people want to use.

What should you look for in a Product Manager?

Our perspective on this has changed over the years. 

We used to be very dogmatic about this. When hiring for a startup product role, we wouldn’t look at people who weren't incredibly technical and very data-driven, because we didn’t think they’d be able to work closely with engineering teams. 

In recent years, we've softened that approach because we've found that people with more creative backgrounds can actually offer a lot. We’ve found that whether it’s marketing, design or other areas, there's a fixed background that we feel makes a great product manager anymore. 

However, what we do believe firmly is that a data-driven, evidence-based approach is the most effective approach for doing product management. So whatever background the product manager comes from, they need to be applying methods that enable and evidence-based decision making.

So that's really the view where we still hold firm on that kind of engineering or technical background is in organizations where there's, you know, a very very strong relationship that's required between the engineering team, and the product team, kind of, to the point where the engineering team actually needs a high degree of empathy from the product manager in how in the, in the product development process meaning.

A core trait of an effective product manager is empathy. Technical experience isn’t so important when compared to really understanding the problem of the customer and the team that needs to work to build the solution. Being able to understand  the needs and challenges of the stakeholders and translate that into a roadmap is what makes a product manager great. 

When should a startup consider hiring a Product Manager? When should a cofounder give up the product role?

ASAP. We find that CEOs and co founders are fantastic at setting a product vision and strategy, but oftentimes they're not great at figuring out how they actually get there. Translating these ideas into a well thought out, prioritized product roadmap takes a lot of time, something which founders lack as they’re too busy running many other aspects of the business. In our experience, founders generally product decisions through gut-feeling. This is where a product manager can really shine. By working across many functions and generating inputs from customers, marketing, sales, surveying the market, etc, and taking an analytical, data-driven approach to roadmap prioritization, product managers can save CEOs and co founders colossal amounts of time. 

When the product manager hire occurs can vary from business to business. It could be 5 people, 10 people, it could even 100 people. But, in our view, as soon as the product function begins to stagnate (ideally before) is when the search should start. Telltale signs of stagnation include a decrease in speed at which the product is being, and also a noticeable decrease in quality. This normally arises because a CEO or founder is putting pressure on output, but not necessarily thinking about the long term.

How should a CEO and Product Manager Work together?

Our view may be a little bit controversial, but a founder and a product person should always have a healthy bit of tension between them.

Just as Freddy Mercury needed the push-back from Brian May for Queen to produce earth-shattering hits, so too does a CEO need a Product Manager who isn’t afraid to challenge their assumptions and instincts and push back. 

CEOs and founders are usually creative visionaries who have a lot of emotion invested in their product ideas. People with these characteristics don’t usually come with an analytical, data-driven mindset. A product manager who brings these traits and isn’t afraid to speak up, while potentially ruffling some feathers, will create in a better product, and in turn, a better business. 

How to Hire a Product Manager 

There are a few things to look for in a great product manager. What follows is what they are and ways you can find out whether or not your candidate is up to scratch.

  1. The ability to work across a diverse range of stakeholders 

Look at the candidate's history and see where this might have been the case. 

When it comes to the interview, involve a variety of people in your business, from engineering to sales, so see if the cultural and communication fit is right for your organization.

  1. Creative thinking and Great Communication

Set up a fictional task for them to complete (not something specific to your business, as people shouldn’t do work for free). 

So an example of that could be, you know, get the product manager to pick a web app that they really like (ideally something that’s within your wheelhouse).

Then get them to come up with 3-5 ideas on what they would like to change on that web app, and then sketch out a business case for them, and what insights they’d use to determine if the ideas are worth pursuing or not.  

Give the candidate a few hours (3-6) to prepare, and then get them to present what they’ve put together to a number of people within the organisation. 

Non-negotiables for a Product Manager

For us, it always comes back to evidence-based decision making and communication

These should always be reflected in your hiring process. That's not to say that you need to be going for people who are  extroverts or natural relationship builders, every organization's tempo and culture is quite different. 

How should a product manager spend their time?

This can vary substantially from organisation. That being said, there are some key areas

  • Data analysis 
  • Looking at what’s going on in the market
  • What are competitors doing 
  • What are customers saying 
  • Socialising, going to conferences and meetups with other product people. 
  • Technology trends and innovations
  • Time spent talking to various stakeholders in the business. 
  • Time to think, prioritise and plan.

Anthony Sochan

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