Thursday, September 28, 2023
HomeProduct Management SkillsHiring a product manager - hire for attitude, skills you can train

Hiring a product manager – hire for attitude, skills you can train

When you are recruiting for a new fresh crispy product manager the first question that comes to mind is what should be the skills to hire for. What should my new rockstar bring to the table to produce magic for your organization? I’ve been involved in many hiring processes, and hired a number of people for this position. I failed many times, but was also able to attract some really amazing talent. The one thing that became clear in all these recruitment cycles was the importance to hire for attitude, not for skills.

“We’ll train you on whatever it is you have to do; but the one thing Southwest cannot change in people is inherent attitudes.” Herb Kelleher, CEO, Southwest Airlines

This is what Herb Kelleher, the CEO of Southwest Airlines said many moons ago. He was the first to make a case for hiring for attitude.

When I started hiring as newby manager, I started the process by looking at resumes to see if I could find someone with relevant experience in my domain. This was after I had put together a job profile with far too many requirements :). I can now say that this became a frustrating process as relevant experience in the same industry does not guarantee success. I then started looking for product management experience in different industries. Unfortunately this also became a drama. Being a product manager means something different from one company to the other.

Then I saw the light – just by accident – I was looking for a product manager and was talking to a general marketeer. By listening to the way this person was taking on his work, how he mastered his challenges, and how he was engaging with others I quickly realized this was a potential future product manager, and he still is.

When hiring for attitude, the level of education, work experience, social activities are not ignored completely, but they become a threshold criterium. Having worked for a number of years brings an understanding of how companies work. Having completed a Masters guarantees a level of intellectual capabilities. Having shipped a product forms the basis for a solid product manager.

Eight things to keep in mind when hiring for Attitude

Product managers are strange beasts in a company. They are in charge of their products, and often the profitability of products. However they are not the ones building the product, selling the product or marketing the product. Their job is to make sure that everyone moves in the right direction at the right time. So what kind of attitude should you be looking for when recruiting such a person?

1 Daring to take radical accountability

What more can you achieve when you take ownership, what can you do when you put your heart into something. Taking radical accountability for product managers means taking the ownership and acting like being a CEO of a small business. Especially in a multi-team environment where teams are dependent on each other things can fall through the cracks. Not your responsibility, the other team messed up. You cannot deliver your product, because the dev team missed their deadlines, etc.

You are looking for product managers who do not stand on the side, waiting for others to do their bit, but you are looking for a product manager who is going to put his heart into the situation, and is going to work with the dev team to solve the situation and make a better product.

Questions to ask in an interview:

  • What was your role in the process of building and launching the product?
  • Can you name a situation where timelines were not met, and how did you respond to that?
  • When a salesteam is not able to make their targets and your product targets are at risk, what tactics would you deploy?

2 The one who masters creativity

As a product manager you have to be able to develop an idea into a meaningful product. This is hard. It means thinking about the purpose of a new product or feature, and drilling this down into logical pieces that need to build. It means thinking about the implication your product has on your companies operational processes, the position the product will take in the catalog your sales people take outside, and the unique features that will blast your competitors. Creative people find their way around these challenges, and come up with fresh ideas that will wow you.

My best product managers have wowed me with new ideas for their products that I would not even have dreamt about. During an interview with a great product manager you will walk out of the meeting with new ideas and considerations.

Questions to ask in an interview:

  • My team is currently struggling with a specific situation (explain), how would you tackle this challenge?
  • What do you really like about this product, and why is that
  • What would you improve on my product if you had a chance

3 He or She who is keen to learn new things

When I say skills you can train, you have to be prepared to spend time to train your new heroes. It helps if your product manager has a broad interest, and is eager to learn new things. This open mind helps to take them through the first four weeks of intense training when they learn how to take on their new role.

After these magical 4 weeks your product manager will not have the network, nor have build all relationships. They will be able to use this baseline to develop their network, and after 6 or 7 months they will also know all relevant stakeholders and influencers.

Questions to ask in an interview:

  • Do you follow the local news
  • What was the last book that you read
  • If you want to learn a new skill, how do you go about it
  • What do you do in your personal time

4 The one who is a teamplayer

Mastering the art of influencing is important for a product manager. Not a lot of people i’ve recruited were really good at this, as in many product managers are a bit geeky: being passionate about the product, balancing multiple priorities at the same time, ying yang, and then at the same time also finding time to influence others…

You do need teamplayers though – people who can work with others, excite them about your vision, influence them to take on work on your behalf. When talking to candidates in an interview you typically find the teamplayers amongst those who don’t put themselves on the peddistel all the time, who don’t make the extra mile to explain their own amazing contribution in a project.

Questions to ask in an interview:

  • I typically ask people to explain their role in a major project that went horribly wrong and needed salvation.

5 A good sense for what makes products tick

You have project managers who think in timelines and deliverables. You also have salespeople, who think relationships and targets. Developers think features and deliverables, and then product managers who think… well jeez – product.

Apple builds great products, that we figured out. There is a wow in every step of the experience, from going to the store, buying your product, opening the box, and using the product. Not every product provides an Apple experience, but every product manager should be interested in influencing the entire lifecycle of such a journey. Many product managers think their work ends when the product is launched – but my friend, that is when it begins. The work ends when the product is retired and dead.

The feel for products, and everything that comes with it is what you are looking for in a product manager. Someone who can think through an idea, and see it work in practice.

Questions to ask in an interview:

  • What is the best product you own at the moment, and why is it great, and please don’t mention Apple
  • Did you ship a product that did not get traction, why was that?
  • Can you describe the product lifecycle for the product you manage now, and your role in each of the phases?

6 A holistic thinker

Product management requires a continuous shifting of gears between short term operational aspects and long term strategic planning. A product manager often gets in trouble when the day to day clutter prevents him or her from looking at the big picture.

I ask my team members every now and then to get in their helicopter and rise above the fields to look at the landscape from above. Take a holistic view at your performance, and think about strategic plans that will help you get closer to your goal, and monitor getting there.

Your product manager should be able to think big picture, oversee the battlefield from above. Then he or she must be able to stand between the soldiers, and fight the next fight.

Questions to ask in an interview:

  • Ask your candidate to solve a complex strategic challenge, and then also define the steps to get there. This will help to determine if the candidate is able to think big and small

7 A natural sense of leadership

Leadership is earned, not given. Solid product managers are able to gain a level of respect so they are listened to by the rest of the organization. When they make a statement, people listen. When they ask for a favor it is given.

Questions to ask in an interview:

  • You ran into an issue with the dev team, and was not able to resolve this yourself, what did you do?
  • How do you describe the role of your manager

8 Curious by nature

Product managers need to be curious, as it makes them continuously explore new ventures. You want them to spend time in the market, doing research. Finding out about new things, understanding what they would mean for you. You are looking for people who spend a lot of time expanding their knowledge on many areas. Broad interested people make you happy.

There is a limit to what you can come up with yourself, there are millions of people out there with better ideas. They will use this knowledge and these experiences to build better products for you.

Questions to ask in an interview:

  • How do you spend your free time?
  • What was the latest professional magazine that you read?
  • How do you keep yourself up to speed on developments in your domain?
  • What was the craziest idea you’ve encountered recently?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

- Advertisment -

Must Read



Product managers use their persuasion skills to sell their vision to others and motivate them to fulfill the product manager's dream. Persuading others does...
vision superskill product manager


The Helicopter View