Hiring product managers: how to find, hire, and court top talent

Business meeting

From sourcing and defining PM roles to deciding when to make your first PM hire, there are a lot of factors to consider when beginning the recruitment process.

Robert Walters, along with Richard Hung, VP of Product Management at Skillz (formerly at Google and McKinsey), and Monica Tran, VP Product at Alto Pharmacy (formerly Apple and Microsoft), held a “Product Leadership Breakfast” roundtable where they explored these topics and discussed candidate feedback, and whether or not a “take-home” assessment should be a step in the hiring process.

Check out our summary of the discussion points below for insights on how to find, hire and court top product management talent.

Your first PM hire: junior or senior?

Prior to building your candidate pool, it’s essential to define what skill level you expect your PM to have, the problem that you’d like them to solve, and how they will evolve within the organization.

“I think that there's a temptation to hire for what you urgently need today. However, it's like architecting; Think about what your business will look like in a year or even six months from now. Hire senior enough that you have “three legs” in the proverbial “tent”, says Monica.

Your first hire should be well-versed on foundational PM skills, ready to come in and begin driving results.

“That individual will be your foundation to build all your other PMs around who are more junior. Then, you can take a lot more risks. I've hired individuals who have rotated in from across the company who want to learn about product management. They will be successful as long as you have the three legs of your tent to support and “role model” what it is to do product management,” says Monica.

How should you define your PM role

Prior to starting the hiring process, you should define exactly what it is that you’re looking for and agree on how each candidate will be assessed.

“At Skillz, we have have a Target Doc that is quantifiable. We quantify what kind of metrics we want the new hire to impact, and then we send that around to all of the stakeholders and get them to sign off on it by agreeing “who we want to hire”, “what this hire should be doing”, and “by what date should this hire have done it”, says Richard.

“The nice thing that this does is actually reduce bias. We start measuring people based on this Target Doc, instead of looking only at their background”, he adds.

“You can measure candidates by OKRs, but you can also structure your teams around an audience. At Alto Pharmacy, we have a provider (physician) audience, a patient audience, and an operations audience. So, if you’re hiring 1 or 2 PMs, it helps to start socializing how you're going to structure the team, so that when they come in, you already know what mandate you’re going to give them," says Monica.

“Are they going to be a specialist, are they going to own a part of the product, or are they going to be a generalist?  Those are the kinds of questions all of us have had in our own job searches,” she adds. “What am I doing here?” “What is the problem that I’m going after?”

Taking a chance on less-experienced candidates

Many start-up hiring managers want to know what to look for in a hire that doesn’t necessarily have previous PM experience. How do you know whether or not to place your bet on someone?

“The last step in my interview process is always a Growth Mindset interview, based on a book called Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck,” says Monica.

“The whole premise behind it is--Can they learn? Do they want to learn? They did a 17-year longitudinal study looking at the differences between people who think they can learn, versus people who are fixed mindset (those that behave in ways to reinforce their identity as a “smart person”). The individuals who have a “growth mindset” tend to grow much faster, and are more effective, successful, and happy as people,” she adds. “So that’s when we feel ready to embrace someone that hasn’t done it before.”

Candidate feedback

Start-ups can be more competitive in the hiring process by creating a positive candidate experience. Companies who reject candidates without feedback risk damaging their brand.

“When candidates come in for a full day interview, I debrief them at the end of it:

“What do you think went well?”

“What could we have done better?”

I ask the same questions about how they feel about their own performance during an interview. By the time I debrief with the other stakeholders, we can marry up and decide how self-aware that candidate is, and how savvy they are about the organization,” says Monica.

“My advice for clients is to maintain dignity throughout the process. Understanding and maintaining the push and pull between evaluating and storytelling, and making the candidate feel part of something bigger is important,” says Eric Soni, Senior Manager, Technical Recruitment at Robert Walters.

“When I was given a tour by Monica at Alto Pharmacy, it was not just a cursory tour of the space; The whole flow of product was presented on a whiteboard, as well as the complexities behind it. So, you’re already storytelling from the first day,” Eric adds.

The take-home task

When this topic was brought up at the roundtable, there was a collective sigh among the attendees. Controversial, yet also agreeably “high-signal”, what is the best route to go that won’t alienate top candidates?

“As a hiring manager, you're very tempted to do a take-home task because everyone gets the same prompt, everyone puts the same amount of time in, and everyone must come into the office. It also makes it super easy for the hiring committee,” says Monica.

“So, I will say, it exists for a good reason. However, you can expect your conversion rate to drop if you are speaking to candidates who are already working full-time and may be just casually “speaking” to companies about new roles,” she adds. “It’s not fair because people who are not working have oodles of time to put into it, and people who are working-- simply don’t. When hiring PMs, I do give homework (usually a final presentation), but I reserve it until the very end of the process, when there is 80% certainty that we will move forward with them.”

“As long as you’re giving and getting feedback along the way, by the time you get to the presentation portion of the interview, people are happy to do it, because there’s already been so much investment up front,” adds Eric Soni.

Hiring for PM roles? Get in contact with us today

San Francisco – Eric Soni, Senior Manager
eric.soni@robertwalters.co

New York – Neil Wittensleger, Senior Manager
neil.wittensleger@robertwalters.com

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