Hiring great people in a startup is really tough, and hiring great product managers is no exception.
There are many good posts on the topic – my two favorites are Kenneth Norton’s guidelines on hiring great PMs and Ian McAllister‘s, Quora answer for “What distinguishes the Top 1% of Product Managers from the Top 10%?” — both are must reads for anyone looking to hire and nurture high performing product managers.
I wanted to add some tactical lessons I’ve learned over the years that help me during the interview process:
1. Give them some homework
Unless you’ve got a highly qualified personal referral from someone you trust, the first thing I would do is ensure a candidate is genuinely interested and willing to make an effort in order to get a shot at joining the team. The way that worked best for me to determine if someone has the curiosity, agility and overall interest in the business was to ask them to do some homework before they come in for an interview.
If you have a self-service product, I would ask candidates to create an account, perform some simple core user flows and then provide their feedback – overall impressions; list 3-5 things that were great; list 3-5 that were bad and describe how they’d like to change them. Don’t provide too much guidance, just let them figure it out.
I found this to be a great test that filters candidates that are not really interested, those who don’t bother reading the job description and those who don’t think creatively and critically.
You’ll be surprised how much you can learn about a candidate this way. You can see whether they focus on the very big picture or the finer details of the product; whether they have a good eye for user experience; whether they think holistically about the market and comment on how your marketing messages align with your product, etc.
2. Search for the ‘naturally athletic’
I have a strong bias to look for the “naturally athletic” – the smart, adaptable, agile PM. It’s a phrase I first heard from Marketo’s Co-Founder and VP of Marketing, Jon Miller at the SaaStr event (see here and here). Even if you need a PM for a very specific skill set or domain expertise, I would not compromise here, especially in an early stage startup. You need your product managers to be able to lead through constant change, learn and adapt quickly.
I find that the best way to do this while interviewing is to treat the candidate as if they’re your advisor: share real challenges and see if they can suggest creative ideas how to tackle them; ask them to pitch their ‘homework’ ideas and share knowledge and experience they think would be applicable to your company. If they’re good, you should get a few valuable insights during the interview.
3. Talk about failure
It’s much easier and comfortable to discuss our successes and talk to others about theirs, but one thing that makes a great PM is their ability to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes and failures.
I’ve learned much more about myself by looking back at my own mistakes and I find it’s one of the most productive ways to get to know a candidate — it works great with PMs, but also with Marketing, Sales and other disciplines.
You’ll learn a lot about a candidate by asking them to walk you through a project or initiative that went terribly wrong. You’ll see whether they are open and honest about mistakes they’ve made, whether they really care about their work and ultimately, whether they will be able to recover from the mistakes they are sure to make if they join your team.
4. Have them work with the team
Great PMs must be able to work well with the wider team. Let your candidates experience that first hand and see how they perform. Choose a real feature or project that you haven’t yet decided how to design, provide some basic background and let them lead a discussion with the relevant stakeholders – other PMs, engineers, customer success, etc.
See how they interview the team about market and user needs, how they interact with others and whether they’re able to lead a productive and fruitful discussion. It doesn’t really matter if they reach the “right” solution, but you’ll get a glimpse into the way they think, how they collaborate with others and whether they can clearly communicate their ideas and recommendations.
In addition to helping you evaluate a candidate in a team setting, it will help you get other team members to participate in the screening process and provide other points of view based on their experience interacting with candidates.
Finding great talent is crucial to building a successful company. Focus on the aspects that can predict whether new additions to the team would add value, be able to cope with change and failure and create a great culture.