Hiring a Product Manager

Image source: http://www.rochester.edu/working/hr/employment/

Image source: http://www.rochester.edu /working /hr/employment/

Having moved from Austin, TX to Des Moines, IA to San Diego, CA, I have had to learn a few things about hiring product managers.  In Austin, Product Management is a well-known profession and many talented people who are either natural product managers or trained ones are available for hire.  Des Moines, like many areas in the country, is not a product management town.  It is full of wonderful, hard working people but with industries centered around insurance and agriculture, there has not be high demand for product management, as a discipline.  This is changing, both with the enthusiasm around Agile as a software development methodology and the increasing number of start-ups in the “Silicon Prairie.” The need for product managers is, therefore, on the rise.  If you are tasked with hiring Product Managers, here are three tips to help.

Comfortable withOUT a job description

For nearly every job that I have had, I have lacked a job description.  Not only am I comfortable with that, I actually prefer it.  And I think most natural Product Managers feel the same.  Of course, we all want to know the rough boundaries around our job but we tend to be very comfortable with ambiguity.  A product manager’s job may range from strategic product visioning to market research to customer interviews to tactical prioritization to sales training to process documentation and much more.  What you intend to get done when you arrive at the office may differ completely from your accomplishments at the end of the day.  As one of my colleagues so eloquently stated, “A product manager is the CEO of that product” and just like company CEOs, you have to roll with the punches and respond to the needs that are presented that day.

A good product manager is also never bored.  If a lull in activity occurs, there is always more research to be done or conversations to be had or messaging to refine.

When interviewing or considering someone for a move into Product Management, if they are fixated on a job description, it probably won’t be a good fit in the long run.  Not that these aren’t great people – it is just a question of aligning folks where they are most likely to be successful.  And product management, with it’s ever-changing needs and dynamic considerations, requires people who are comfortable with ambiguity and capable of identifying the ‘gap’ and filling it.

“N=Many” Thinkers

Pragmatic Marketing offers so many great concepts around Product Management and one that I found particularly true is that Product Managers need to be n=many thinkers.  Some jobs are n=1 jobs like Sales and Customer Service. In order to be successful, you need to be focused on the person or deal or caller in front of you.  In Sales, you need the prospect to believe that you are fighting for them, care about them and are attentive to their unique business requirements.  In Customer Service, you need to handle each individual caller or ticket with understanding and empathy.  The best customer service reps are the ones that can relate at an individual level with the caller.

Product Managers cannot and should not be n=1 thinkers.  If that were the case, then we would have custom software for every individual on the planet.  Product Managers need to think in terms of n=many so they can find a single solution that solves the needs of many consumers.  Even if a Product Manager is interviewing an individual customer or prospect, they need to be thinking of common threads and global solutions.

If you want to hire a Product Manager from another department – like Sales or Customer Service – you need to be sure that they can shift their focus from n=1 to n=many.  It can be terribly frustrating to be working on a product enhancement only to be side-tracked because the Product Manager talked to a single customer or prospect who wants something slightly different.  That is n=1 thinking and it will not bode well for an organization trying to create a standardized product offering.

Not afraid to “Make the Call”

Finally, Product Managers need to be decisive.  Now they also need to be collaborative and open to new information, but they cannot be afraid to make the call.  In fact, it is their most important role.  When designing or enhancing a product, we must make choices and often, they are hard choices.  We have to decide between something that will increase revenue or reduce costs, something that will speed processing or enhance usability, something that will please the head of Sales or please the head of Customer Service.  Prioritization is a tricky game with lots of data points to consider.  It can be overwhelming and it can be paralyzing.  But not for a good Product Manager.  They are capable of sticking their neck out to make a decision.  It is risky and they can sometimes be proven wrong but their personality type allows them to be comfortable with being decisive.  Again, this doesn’t mean that a Product Manager can be authoritative and approach their teams with a commanding style.  They need to be good listeners, keen observers, influential collaborators — and decision makers.

Product Management is the best job out there.  You get to play in all of the sandboxes – sales, marketing, finance, development, operations, customer services – to create a great product that will advance your company.  Being a good product manager means that you don’t need a job description, that you are an n=many thinker and that you aren’t afraid to make the call.  I hope anyone who fits that description will consider Product Management as a profession.  I am certain you will love it!




2 Responses to Hiring a Product Manager

  1. For almost all roles – product management is no exception – a certain mix of talents is ideal. Smart managers in companies that aren’t dysfunctional identify those talents and hire primarily for them, not so much for skills or experience.

    “N=Many” thinking and decisiveness could be a couple of the talents great product managers possess. However, I tend to think the most important product management talents are acquisitive and emergent learning, principle, discipline, adaptability, and facilitation.

  2. Nils Davis says:

    I really like the “n=many” formulation – it captures a lot of what makes product management different and hard. (I’d say it’s the basis of why “product owner” “product manager,” for example.)

    Roger’s talents are also valid, but I’m not sure they differentiate PMs from other professionals as much as n=many.

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