Evaluating Product Manager Skills: Map A Hiring Game Plan

A Product Manager’s role involves understanding complex problems that arise, and identifying opportunities to solve these problems through a logical and creative process. Seems simple enough. When you marry that concept with their key mission, which is to maximize the return on product investment—the challenge of hiring a truly effective product manager gets even more difficult. Use these tips to make sure your new product manager has the skills you need. 

Product Management can be a real rollercoaster ride and not everyone is mentally equipped to stay the course. Jon Newman, Senior Manager, Product Line Management at Cisco Systems recommends looking for talent with the following qualities:

  • Motivated with a high desire to win
  • Calm under pressure
  • Competitive and ambitious
  • Strong sense of humility

Long-term vision and managing change

If the Product Management changes hands too often, it will inevitably have a massive impact on the strength of the positioning of the product and its core messaging. The evolution and lifespan of a product takes time, and every time this is interrupted by change in management, the momentum can be significantly halted.

Managing change is a constant reality for a Product Manager, and your next hire needs the skills to thrive in change. You want to look for someone who is excited by change and can figure out how to adapt quickly. Plan to ask them to provide examples of how they have dealt with change in the past during the hiring process. You need to know if they can take a project and run with it through the ups and downs.

How to measure their ability to work with engineers

Here are some good questions for gauging how well a technical Product Manager has adapted to the role in the past and their ability to work with engineers.

  • Why did you decide to move from engineering to product management?
  • What is the biggest advantage of having a technical background?
  • What is the biggest disadvantage?
  • What was the biggest lesson you learned when you moved from engineering to product management?
  • What do you wish you’d known when you were an engineer?
  • How do you earn the respect of the engineering team?

How to measure leadership

Product managers need to have exceptional leadership skills, in order to effectively influence all the stakeholders they need to influence. Here are some interview questions to help you evaluate a product managers skill level in leadership. 

  • What types of people have you found it difficult to work with?
  • Tell me about a time when a team didn’t gel. Why do you think that happened, and what have you learned?
  • How do you get a team to commit to a schedule?
  • What would somebody do to lose your confidence?
  • Do you manage people from different functions differently? If so, how?
  • What have you learned about saying no?
  • Who has the ultimate accountability for shipping a product?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where your team has let you down and you’ve had to take the blame?
  • How has your tolerance for mistakes changed over the years?
  • Which do you like first, the good news or the bad news?
  • What’s your approach to hiring?
  • What is it that they dislike about your product and if they are hired, how do they intend to improve it?

These are the types of questions that will ignite your understanding of the magnitude to hiring for this hybrid role. They don’t all have to be asked, but it should provide the framework for what is needed to measure the basis of a competent candidate.

Google’s approach to evaluating product manager skills

If you think this is difficult, here are some of the questions that Product Managers at Google use through their interview process:

  1. How would you explain cloud computing to a 6 year old? 
  2. What is your favourite Google product, and how would you improve it? 
  3. You have a colony on Mars that you want to communicate with. How do you build a system to communicate with them?

Obviously some of the questions are more than a little out there, but they come from a place of trying to challenge the interviewee to think logically and critically under pressure—as is the nature of the Product Management role. They require you to think quantitatively and broadly, and test the way you tackle problems in the heat of the moment.

“Product Managers are usually leaders in their organizations – but they need to earn their authority and lead by influence.” – Ken Norton

Consider this a cheat-sheet overview of how you need to structure and plan for hiring an elite Product Manager. A long-term focus has to frame the hiring process with questions that target the granular, the vision and the team cohesiveness.