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The Top 3 Reasons Why Companies Hire Product Leaders

Our experience recruiting Product Management leaders has taught us that when a CEO or Founder wants to hire a Product Management leader, it's often for one of three reasons: there’s a problem, there’s a pivot or there’s an opportunity. 

Why does this matter? Understanding these three reasons can help to bring clarity to any candidates entering into a search and interview process with a prospective organization.

Let's take a look at the three most common reasons a CEO or Founder needs to hire a Product Leader and why it matters to you as a candidate.

There’s a Problem: 

The scenario often sounds something like this: 

  • The product doesn't work
  • Customers are churning out/no renewals
  • There is tech debt that finally needs to be dealt with
  • A competitor has emerged as the category leader

Whatever is going on, it's a problem and someone needs to fix it. Enter stage left, you, a Product Management leader.

Sometimes, based on the severity of the problem, the board will determine it's time to make a change at the CPO/Product level, replacing the leader. 

Other times a product problem shines a spotlight on the fact that a product-specific leader is desperately required. Previous bandaids of having the CTO or CEO or even Marketing run Product is not a sustainable solution and a new day has come. 

Our experience has also shown us that when a tech company is hiring a product leader due to a problem, the urgency of the search is often "code red". 

 

What Does This Mean for You as a Candidate?

The search cycle/timeline is likely to move faster than most. This means you need to be ready to qualify the opportunity for yourself as early in the interview process as possible as there might be fewer steps. 

By the end of the second interview, you need to be able to answer one if not both of these questions: Is that a job I want to do? Is that a group of people I want to do it with?

The last thing you want is to passively nod your head and say yes to every interview only to get to the offer stage and realize this is not a role you actually want. With speed being of utmost concern for the company, you're likely to burn a bridge with leaders who you might one-day cross paths with again.

In order to avoid this, be ready to ask for a meeting with the key stakeholder if by the end of the second interview you still do not understand the scope of the role and product challenge.

Do not be afraid to ask the tough questions that will help you identify that the role is available due to a problem. Here are some we suggest: 

  • Why is this role available?
  • What led you to the decision to hire for this position now?
  • Who was the last person in the position and why are they exiting/were exited?
  • What is the hire likely to walk into?
  • What's holding you back from making a hiring decision from the people you've met so far?
  • Looking back 1 year from now, how will you have measured the hire's success?

There’s a Pivot

A large pivot is needed and the CEO/Co-Founder has a strong opinion of the type of product leader they want and the experiences needed in order for this pivot to be a success.

They want low risk and high likelihood of a successful outcome - and fast. They will often describe the person they want to hire as someone who has experience leading a team through change management, or through a product pivot.

From a people-leadership perspective, the search stakeholders are likely to want to see a person who embodies leadership qualities, fits their culture and elevates the organization. While these can be subjective opinions, they often boil down to these 3 areas:

People Leadership: have you hired/fired/scaled/managed remote or international employees? Led reorganization or team realignments?

Process Leadership: have you identified inefficiencies or opportunities to do things better/faster/cheaper/more efficiently? Have you reimagined how the work is done and how the metrics/outcomes can be achieved?

Vision: do you have a clear line of sight to where things need to be and the confidence to get there through others? Are you able to communicate vision and rally people around a common goal? Have you assembled a team of leaders who have experience at scale?

 

What Does This Mean for You as a Candidate?

Curate your message into facts and examples. This is not the situation where a hiring stakeholder will be into hearing about your philosophical opinions on scrum vs squad or how you might be likely to improve Facebook's app if given the opportunity.

Instead, be ready to provide: 

  • Metrics (numbers talk - have yours ready)
  • Before & after stories
  • A roadmap of the team you inherited and the team you left (what were the skill gaps you identified? How did you raise the bar or invest in your team? What was the most difficult employee/HR-related matter you ever had to deal with?)
  • Learnings from mistakes made
  • Product opportunity you identified and how you realized that opportunity and took it to market

There’s an Opportunity:

The scenario often sounds something like a recent round of investment which means:

  • Product growth
  • Building new or more products
  • Launching into new markets
  • Product integration 
  • Launching a native mobile app 

This is an exciting stage to partner with a Founder/CEO. The Founder is fuelled with positivity and excitement and because of this searches often begin with "the dream". 

They finally have the capital to do what they always dreamed of doing; including assembling a world-class SLT starting with a world-class Product Leader. Blue sky thinker, ideation, visionary, innovator, someone who has scaled are the buzzwords often used to define the persona they are looking for. 

Our experience has shown us that when a tech company is hiring a product leader to realize an opportunity, they want a builder and aren’t afraid to wait to find them. 

There are two types of product people: builders and maintainers. This is not the type of search where a maintainer will shine as they want a product leader who has built not only a product but a business. 

Someone who has architected the roadmap of the product and what an MVP would need to include. A leader who has developed the path to monetization. Someone curious and user-obsessed with the tools to include data and rapid prototyping. Someone who lives by the fail fast manifesto.

 

What Does This Mean for You as a Candidate?

If you align with the building profile then interviewing should be full steam ahead. Have your product story curated to the key markers in the roadmap. No one wants to listen (or has the time) to the unedited edition of the business you built. Get to the main points and the outcome as quickly as you can.

Start with the beginning "I was hired by the Founder as the first product hire with a mandate to..." and then lead them through the story. This takes practice, so practice. Follow this up with metrics and learnings. No one is perfect and people value authenticity so be ready to share what did not go according to your master plan and how you reset and overcame it.

Express genuine interest and excitement. People hire people they like so demonstrate the excitement you have about their build and their organization’s dreams. How can you best show this?

  • Use mirroring: when they smile, you smile. When they laugh, you laugh, etc.
  • Ask open-ended questions to express curiosity. Get them to open up and share their dreams.
  • End interviews communicating your interest in continuing the process. Example: "Based on what I've heard today, it only confirms my high level of interest! Who can I meet next?"

We have a saying, for every person, there is a job and there is a job for every person. The same can be said for Product Leadership positions. The key is to figure out which of the three problems the CEO/Founder is looking to solve with your hire and if your skills, experiences, and general interest align with that mandate. 

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