As a product manager, what are the make-or-break things for you when interviewing a potential next product manager for your team?
I'm lucky in that Google has a really rigorous interview process that I benefit from. Google is also known for taking a long time during that process but I promise you that is largely because of the rigor.
Post that process though what I look for are three key signals
- Grit is my first. Big companies are notoriously slow, process heavy, and plodding. But the way I look at this is that with so much user trust, such a large business, and really a huge opportunity that we have to respect we want to get it right. I tell my team all the time that if you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far go together. And we've all chosen to go far so grit is critical (and sounds cooler than patience)
- Passion. Yes this one could seem to fly in the face of the first one. But I often find that I'd rather have somebody always frustrated we can't move faster, always frustrated that we can't do better and help them mature into taking a balanced position than the other way around. Another way to say this is that I can help show somebody the upside of measuring twice and cutting once, but I've never been able to teach passion.
- Finally EQ. Most of what PMs do depend on building trust and trust is built via relationships. Too much detail isn't likely needed here as this one is obvious but where I will go into detail is that EQ isn't the same thing as being sociable. I have excellent PMs on my team who build strong relationships that aren't loud and in your face extraverts. EQ comes in all shapes and sizes so look carefully.
There's a lot written about basic PM competencies (https://a16z.com/2012/06/15/good-product-managerbad-product-manager/), and for any PM on my team, they should be able to do all these things you'd expect from a PM (write specs, understand the customer, communicate upwards and outwards, GSD). I'll focus my answer on a few attributes that I think are really "make-or-break" for me:
- Good communication skills, both written and verbal, are an absolute must-have for any PM on my team. Whether it's through writing specs, influencing stakeholders, or pitching product ideas, PMs have to be able to communicate effectively across mediums (written, verbal), forums (large groups vs. small groups vs 1:1) and audiences (to developers, marketers, sales, executives). In particular, they need to be able to tell good stories (e.g.,, can they get their team inspired about an idea?), structure their communication effectively (e.g., can break down ambiguous problems using a framework?) and make technical concepts easy to understand for non-technical folks (e.g., can they explain how routers work to someone without a CS background?)
- Great PMs "own" the problem. They're not afraid the step outside the boundaries of their function to do what it takes to get the product out the door. They rarely ever use phrases like "that's not my job" or "this was the designer/developers responsibility". Their strong sense of ownership of the problem leads them to passionately debate about the right solution, speak truth to power when necessary, but also be open to other points of view (because it's not about "them", it's about solving the problem).
The candidate must “spike” (“8/10” or higher) in all of these areas, in order of importance:
Given how many decisions and complex problems are thrown at PMs, this the #1 most important attribute I screen for. They don’t need to be a rocket scientist (top 0.5% of population) but they should be exceptional at this (top 5%). Good looks like:
- Take large ambiguous problems and break them down into smaller pieces
- Uses logic to convince others
- Gets to the root of the issue: Think about things from multiple angles but then focuses on what matters (this is key and hard to find).
The more senior a candidate the more critical thinking/problem solving looks like: starting the why and bigger picture, being principles-based, helping others to structure their thinking (good frameworks, simplifies and structures conversations etc.).
I usually test for this both in the initial phone screen and through a product thinking interviews (case questions, panels)
PMs have a lot of responsibility, get very little direction, and get too much credit and blame, so they need to a) self start and b) be motivated to keep trying even when faced with obstacles. Good looks like:
- Ownership over outcomes vs. just doing the activities? A former manager of mine once called this “an insatiable desire to ship”
- Self starter - Can we throw them at a problem and trust them to figure it out without hand holding?
- Vigilance - do they generally think ahead to the outcome they are trying to achieve? Do they proactively address what may get in the way?
This is very hard to screen for in an interview but you can get signals from behavioral questions, their questions to you, and follow ups.
3. Bridge Building
There are two parts of bridge building
1. EQ - not easily coachable
2. Communication - this includes both written and verbal communication skills and both the quality and frequency of comms. Verbal and written comms are usually coachable.
It’s ok if someone isn't a perfect communicator because people improve on this over time. But it’s not ok if they don’t have sufficient EQ. Good looks like:
- Self aware - seeks to know (and improve on) their own strengths and weaknesses, self reflects without defensiveness
- Situationally aware - skillfully navigates people situations and figures out how to influence others towards an outcome
- Concise and clear answers that are easy to follow, verbally and written.
I usually test for written and verbal comms in the panel exercise and interview questions. I test for self awareness and situational awareness in behavioral interviews.
Make or break things when I'm interviewing a PM candidate:
Clear and concise answers to my questions. If I need to ask the same question again because the candidate didn't address my question, that's a big problem. PMs need to communicate constantly with many teams, so they should always hone their ability to listen to questions, write them down, and answer those questions without being confusing or too verbose.
I often ask a candidate to pick a hobby, project or anything else and explain it to me in 5 minutes. I then tell them that "don't assume anything about I know or don't know about the topic, but after the 5 minutes I should know what is most important about the topic." A great candidate knows how much context to provide and recaps at the end what "the most important thing" is.
Self awareness and low ego. A PM must show a willingness and ability to reflect and learn from past mistakes, know their strengths and weaknesses, show they can collaborate with people from all across the company, and adjust their plans based on new information. Lack of self awareness or strong egos often lead to PMs struggling to collaborate accordingly or becoming inflexible in their direction.
One of my favorite interview questions is "Tell me about a time that you failed". A great answer usually involved a big failure, not a silly mistake, that the candidate takes ownership of and shows that they learned from.
I hope this helps!
The product manager's job is to identify the most impactful problems to solve, enable their team to build and ship solutions that delight users, learn, and iterate. Product managers need a multitude of skills to be successful. The two most important skills that I view as must-haves no matter the seniority or product they will work on are owner mentality and leadership and influence. The reason for these two things being make-or-break things for me is because one has it or does not have it. It is extremely difficult to teach someone these two skills.
Let me share a little bit about what having an owner mentality and leadership and influence translate to.
- Owner Mentality - Owner mentality means thinking holistically and taking initiatives that may not be directly tied to the area of ownership to drive positive impact and achievement of business goals. A lot of times, PMs put themselves in a box where they just focus on building a new feature or shipping an enhancement without considering the entire experience that customers may experience. Great product managers work with stakeholders and define an end-to-end delightful customer experience by thinking about how new and existing customers discover the capability, what the monetization approach is, understand and influence how sales will sell and how customer success will support. PMs with an owner mentality wake up every morning thinking about what can be done better to delight customers. They don't operate in silos and hold themselves accountable for the success or failure of the product.
- Leadership and Influence - PMs need to work with multiple teams to drive outcomes without having any direct organizational authority. To be successful, PM needs to know how to work with different teams, and inspire and motivate them to march on the path they have laid down the vision for to meet business goals and objectives. PMs need to act as leaders for their teams by establishing trust, being persuasive and reliable, focusing the team toward shared goals, and removing distractions by saying no to anything that is unimportant.
When interviewing potential product managers, my goal is to assess their skills and abilities to determine their potential for success on the team. I also consider the knowledge gaps within the team and whether the candidate can fill those gaps effectively.
If I believe that the candidate lacks the necessary strengths to address the team's missing skills, I will not move forward with hiring them. Doing so would only result in having to hire again soon, which would not improve the team's productivity or success.
In general, when looking for an ideal candidate, I would want to make sure that this person:
- Is familiar with the technology or can quickly come up to speed with it
- Can Think Strategically
- Is passionate about the space (and can later evangelize for it)
- Is capable of making data-driven decisions
- Communicates well
- Has good collaboration skills
- Listens well
To highlight my "break" points:
- Poor communication is a significant issue for product managers, as clear and effective communication is essential for collaborating with team members and stakeholders. During an interview, I assess a candidate's communication skills by evaluating how they communicate their previous work experiences. If I find it challenging to understand their responses even after asking probing questions, it is a red flag, and I will not move forward with their candidacy.
- Poor Listener - one of the most important skills to have as a product manager, is great listening skills. Insights come from everyone: Counterparts, the team, Sales, Competitors, Customers and sometimes even from your friends who may not even be from the field. It is important to collect data from everywhere, absorb it and then decide how this impacts your roadmap. If a candidate has poor listening skills, they risk missing important opportunities and insights. I can usually determine this during an interview if the candidate cuts me off mid-sentence, avoids answering questions directly, or dances around the topic without addressing it fully.
There are 3 categories that I look at:
- Skills & Experience
Competencies and Values are much harder to coach (if possible) so if the candidate doesn't tick those boxes then usually it is a no for me. Skills & Experience depends on the need at time - if you have the time to coach this person I would take a fast learner any day than someone who is hard to coach.