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The Hard Thing About… Hiring Product Managers

Hiring product managers is hard. Hiring great product managers is harder.

By now, most of you have heard the truisms about the process of adding product managers to your team:

 

  • “Product managers are in high demand.”
  • “There is no ‘Bachelor of Product Management’ degree to signal competency.”
  • “I get lots of resumes from [insert generic job board here] but the quality is not there.”

 

 

At TWG, we’ve been hiring product managers for over six years now and we have learned a lot in the process. This is our story, and we wanted to share it in the hopes that it will help a few product management teams on their own journeys.

Setting the stage

Five years of 35%+ yearly growth has enabled TWG to go from a merry band of around 20 technologists to a team of more than 140 dedicated individuals with a plethora of skills. In even less time, the ever-versatile product team quadrupled in size from 4 to 16. The seemingly insatiable demand for TWG’s services has led to the (admittedly positive) challenge of constant hiring.

A larger product management team has also allowed us to broaden our product manager personas and hire more specialized individuals. Still, the one thing that has remained constant is our uncompromising attitude towards culture and values. At TWG, everyone – not just the PMs – needs to embody Collaboration, Leadership, Problem Solving, Craftsmanship, and Reliability.

So, what is working for us? Here are some actionable tips we’ve distilled down for you, however, we’d love to hear from you if you have any specific questions!

Leverage your network

The best and most cost-effective source of candidates is always your own network, especially if you’ve been active in the community for a while. Referral candidates come with a much higher likelihood of fitting your needs, as the referrer has already done some implicit filtering for you before the resume even hits your inbox. Be vocal about what you’re looking for. Talk to friends, post on your LinkedIn, socialize at events, never be shy about mentioning that you’re hiring. Even if you don’t meet your dream match directly, you never know how the six degrees of separation effect will pan out.

Give back to the community

Those who know TWG are familiar with our work in the community. Be it the guests we bring in (Mike Montiero, Jules Ehrhardt, our Connect the Bots series, engineers from Spotify), the partnerships we form (with TechGirls Canada or #movethedial), or the events we host (join us at ProductTO!), we make it a point to be engaged citizens of the Toronto and New York tech scenes.

Recently, a great example of giving back while investing in our own future presented itself in the form of spearheading the Toronto Associate Product Management Program. With invaluable contributions by some of the best tech companies in the city, we created this initiative to help swell the ranks of product thinkers in Toronto, who may in the future join us as product managers.

Not every company may be able to start an APM program, but there are a variety of things you can do to contribute to the tech scene (like hosting meetups, creating valuable content, or sponsoring initiatives), and you know what they say about the rising tide and the boats!

Include others in your hiring process, then empower them

This was a key learning for me personally, early on in our process. As the Director/VP/CEO/CPO etc., your inclination may be to have a firm grip on the hiring process. It’s unlikely that you are the only one the candidates meet, but it’s quite likely that you are the key decision maker. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but you have to keep in mind the following:

  • You’ll become the bottleneck if you have a lot on your plate and need to hire more than one candidate.
  • It’ll be hard to balance out your biases. Even the most mindful person still has biases. Lived experiences inevitably colour the way we absorb data.

A great way to minimize their impact is to have diverse voices at the hiring table so that you can compare notes and objectively do what is best for the team and the candidate. My recommendation is this: Have multiple stages with clear objectives. Set unambiguous criteria and look for a clear Yes/No for each. For example, have a session with your hiring team and establish what “Leadership” means to you, and how to unequivocally be able to say “yes, this person has it.”

Then, do a few of the stages together. Debrief on how they go, and adjust your expectations. Let the team speak first, then share your perspectives. Compare notes to fine-tune what the right fit for your team is in that stage.

Finally, minimize your involvement to key inflection points. Maybe you only join for the round in which they do a case study, and again at the end when you pitch your company as a great place to work. Or perhaps you only do the very first and the very last rounds. You’ll have to experiment and find out what produces the optimal candidate analysis strategy to balance out time commitment, biases, and hiring experience.

Don’t forget that you can use the hiring process as an opportunity to train current team members with management potential. Whatever you do, make sure to show appreciation for those who take the time to support you in this process, as hiring is unlikely to be the sole item on their list of responsibilities.

‘No’s are opportunities for lively discussions

The most valuable contribution someone could have in the interviewing stage is a well reasoned “No, I don’t think this candidate is who we’re looking for”. The likelihood of bringing the right person in can only be improved by disagreements that lead to deeper analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate.

People who are junior to you may hesitate to disagree with you, so I recommend letting them state their opinion first. Then, if you disagree, you can share your reasons and pass the floor back to them with an explicit ask for a response, like “ here is why I believe this, what do you think?”

When they make a good point, encourage them through verbal or non-verbal cues (e.g. nodding of the head) so they know that you’re appreciating their input. Let this debate go back and forth for as long as new information is being shared from both sides. The goal, ideally is to reach a consensus on either a “Yes” or a “No”. However, a vigorous debate that solidifies into a conditional yes” (e.g. “We’ll bring him on but at a more junior level” or “We’ll bring her on but limit her focus for the first 8 months to help them find their footing) is also invaluable in ensuring success and sustainability in your team.

Some companies choose to follow a different path: Hire quickly and rely on probationary periods with an explicit message that some people are expected to fail and be let go during the 3-6 month window. I think this is sub-optimal, since that time is enough for individual friendships to form, and having friends let go can hurt an existing employee’s happiness. We still use probationary periods, but by investing in multiple interview rounds for both ability and culture fit, we are making a commitment to the process that if we hire someone, we have created a path where we expect them to succeed.

Be human

Hiring is a two-way street; the good candidates will be assessing you as much as you’re assessing them. Most people in our sector want to work with three-dimensional people, so you should not have any hesitation in being yourself in the interview process.

The people involved in hiring should be comfortable making jokes, being frank about what is good and what needs improvement at your company, and overall being human with the candidates. Some companies feel the need to be extremely formal, or “professional”, in the hiring process. Unless that really embodies your day-to-day work environment, most candidates will appreciate a more personal approach. Feel free to talk about your dog if it’ll be a bonding opportunity for you. Ask them about their hopes and fears, empathize with the stress of interviewing. You may see 50 candidates to hire one product manager, but don’t forget that each of those is a human with their own stories, not a movie extra!

Set the vision

As a leader, hiring is probably one of the most impactful activities you’ll do, so much so that if you hire well, all other aspects of your job will become easier. So make sure that you’re bringing in candidates that are not only aligned with your team and company vision but also whose personal visions and goals are clear to you. Do you know what makes each of your people tick? Do you have a sense of what they want their next job to be? Did you discuss areas for career growth before bringing them on board?

We create product cultures within our clients organizations

TWG’s Product Team Mission Statement

Most people in the tech sector, especially good product managers, are driven by the desire to continuously grow while being part of something that is bigger than themselves. If you can articulate an easily digestible vision and make sure that you work on connecting the candidate’s vision to yours, your hiring will be that much more impactful. This way, you aren’t treating people like cogs in a machine; instead, you’re caring about them personally and showing them that you will do your best to help them achieve their goals. Those who see a path for personal growth and an opportunity to make progress towards their vision will be much more likely to join your team and stick around for years to come.

Here’s a quick summary of all the areas we covered on hiring effectively:

  • Leverage your network to get the word out
  • Give back to the community year-round
  • Include others in your hiring process, then empower them
  • Debate vigorously when there are different opinions on a candidate
  • Be human, take an honest, personal approach in interviews
  • Understand the candidate’s vision for themselves, and share yours

Thank you for making it all the way to the end of my post. Hiring is near and dear to my heart, and it’s an area where all of us, including TWG, can get better. If you have thoughts on how to improve on what’s shared here, or in general would like to share your views on hiring more effectively, please feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn or at oz@twg.io.

If you’re interested in experiencing our hiring process yourself you’re in luck: we’re hiring!

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