20 key questions when hiring product managers

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Hiring product managers particularly in a small team can be a daunting task. In a sense you’re adding to the group of leaders in an organization. It’s important to find someone who has the experience and skills to thrive.

As a hiring manager, there are 5 focus areas in no particular order I tend to dig into, using some of the 20 questions below I can gain some insight into how a candidate operates and determine if they’re likely to be a fit with the team and organization.

Cross-functional involvement

Questions

  • What aspects of product management do you find the most and least exciting?
  • Have they ever had to build or motivate a team?
  • How well do they interact with designers and engineers?
  • How well do they interact with sales and marketing?
  • In past roles, who else would they have typically worked with, and how did they work with them?

What to look for

Product managers come from all sorts of backgrounds and is not something that is taught directly in university. A candidate needs to have been around the block a few times, have a few battle scars, and have seen things. What you’re looking for with these questions is identifying are they the right type of product manager for what you need in the here and now. If you’re going through a pure product delivery phase, you’ll want someone that can communicate with the engineering team and feed in high-quality requirements and keep morale high by showcasing the value they’re adding.

If you’re in a growth phase, you’ll want someone that is quite analytical, data-driven, has a scientific approach to running experiments and appreciates Lean Startup principles. In a Growth PM, you’re also potentially looking for someone who can potentially take more of a lead in the Sales and Marketing functions as well and is able to identify what’s working and not working with regards to website traffic -> trial signup -> conversion to paid -> activation -> regular usage/retention -> upsell -> referrals.

How a candidate carries themselves will have a motivational impact on the team. A great product manager is able to take outcomes achieved and translate that into how the team is having an impact.

Behavioral

Questions

  • Find out they interact with customers/users?
  • How they overcame product failures/challenges or poor feedback.
  • If one exec says ‘Feature A’ is more important and another says ‘Feature B’ is more important. How do they choose which on to implement?
  • How do they use data to make a decision?

What to look for

A good product manager should be able to interface well the rest of the organization and be able to assist with Sales and Marketing in defining the positioning of new features and products as well as be empathetic to support and account management teams with the issues they typically have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. On top of all that, they also able to take criticism well from customers. I would expect a good PM to lean in on customer feedback, dig into why they feel a particular way, identify and address the root cause of the issues not just be an order taker.

A growth-minded PM will lean towards using data to make a decision, and if there isn’t any product data available will lean on customer and market insight to determine what is the best course of action. How the candidate manages stakeholder expectations, keeps peers and stakeholders updated on the latest progress is paramount to the success of this role.

Product

Questions

  • How do you decide what to build and what not to build?
  • What is the key to a good user interface?
  • Have you signed up to our product? What is one improvement you would implement?
  • Who are our competitors?
  • What metrics do you think would be important for us to track?
  • What is a major challenge our company will face in the next 12-24 months?

What to look for

The first couple of questions here provide a window into how they prioritize features, and what they value in the user experience. Good answers here would be aligned at the intersection of business strategy, customer needs, and product vision.

My absolute favourite question is asking the candidate if they have signed up to the product. If nothing else, it reveals how serious they are about the role and how much homework they have done on the organisation, the product and the market. I’ve never hired a product manager / product owner / UX designer that hasn’t signed up for the product and been able to suggest something they would improve at the interview stage. A standout candidate would have had a cursory look around at the competitors in the space.

Growth product candidates will be able to take a quick look at the product and be able to quickly identify boilerplate metrics that will be worth tracking from Day 1 if they’re not already tracked. This will again provide a window into how they think about a product and optimizing for success.

The last question there is an absolute bonus if they answer correctly. It shows that they have done their homework on the industry, competitors and are able to identify a few threats for the product and market.

Balancing Trade-offs

Questions

  • What is the most difficult decision you’ve ever had to make?
  • How do you say ‘no’?

What to look for

These two questions give a sense as to how trade-offs are approached. As a leader, this would be something you could have been potentially doing in lieu of a candidate, or doing on a daily basis if this was your responsibility beforehand. So it’s important that a candidate’s approach to balancing trade-offs and their thought process for determining which path to pursue aligns with your own views, and that they’re going to provide enough evidence that you’re comfortable with their judgment.

Leadership and Communication

Questions

  • What’s the best way to work with executives?
  • What’s the best way to work with customers and users?
  • What kind of people do you like to work with?
  • What kind of people do you have a hard time working with?

What to look for

The first couple of questions give sense of a candidate’s style of communication. How they work with you and other senior leadership means there is a need for well-written updates and killer presentation skills.

I always find working with customers and users interesting questions to dig into. Product managers come in all sorts of different sizes, and ones with more technical background will often want to shy away from too much customer contact. Data-driven product managers might also shy away from customer contact and let actual user behavior and data do the talking. Product managers with a more non-technical background might lean more on customer contact than data, and result in subjective views that will meet the needs of the vocal minority but not the majority of customers. So the balance here is pretty important.

Overall, I’ve found these focus areas and questions a great set of go-to questions for most interviews when looking at any type of leadership role not just in product.


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