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The Top Dilemma When Hiring a Head of Product

Last week, we covered the six most common reasons companies struggle with their Head of Product hire. Far and away the most common issue is the struggle to choose (or find balance) between industry subject matter expertise and product management experience. 

If you find yourself in this conundrum, the first question to ask yourself is WHY? Why do you think you need your Head of Product to be a subject matter expert? This is a key question to ask first because as a tech recruiter, the more specific and narrow the requirements of a search are, the smaller the pool of people you have to pursue. Which then means the longer the search can take. 

There is no doubt that when a candidate understands and is able to communicate the complex nuances of an industry or product and what it is you are trying to do, that is a powerful and magical moment. Many employers will find it hard to resist hiring that candidate. Martyn Kagen, Founder of Silicon Valley Product Group shared his perspective on how to add subject matter expertise to a product management organization and where it counts the most.

While subject matter expertise (or someone from a competitor) is truly the “cherry on top,” what happens when that cherry is nowhere to be found? Then what? 

If for example there are five Heads of Product in Canada who are responsible for a similar or competing product, and four of them are not interested in leaving and the last one you are not able to approach due to a “mutually agreed upon Founders Agreement” (this has happened), then you may be waiting a long time for the timing to align where one of the other four will be available - it also assumes they would want to work for your company. But that's a blog article for another day.

It’s also important to keep in mind that most likely your company already employs someone or a group of people who have been playing this role to date. After all, most companies launch from a Founder identifying a problem they want to solve for a community of users, researching, building a business plan, followed by convincing someone to give them an Angel round to build a prototype. Meaning if you could figure it out then so can other smart hires. 

Generally speaking, Product talent who produce top quality results are rare. Product people have unique characteristics and traits that set them apart from other departmental hires. They have the ability to take in everything: the data, the customer and user feedback, the competitive insights, and the market opportunities and imagine.

Tackling the new and difficult is what they like to do and if you’re hiring an experienced Head of Product they have done this before, many times, successfully. Your role will not be the first time they will have been in this situation of being “uncomfortable.” Generally, top talent in the product market is attracted to opportunities where they get to solve new problems and understand and learn about a new set of users. There are many successful products whose Head of Product was new to the industry before joining 

How to broaden your search without sacrificing what's needed

One of the ways a business leader can broaden their selection of qualified candidates in the recruitment process is to identify broader experiences that are likely to be transferable but still have some of the specific “expertise” they feel they need. For example: 

  1. We’ve partnered with many fintech companies whose leaders confirmed what was really ‘the why’ behind their need for someone with previous experience in audit software or RTR money transfers boiled down to experience working in a regulated industry. Suddenly, that opened up the companies and candidates we could target for the search because regulated industries are more than just financial services!
  2. A client of ours whose product and business was a Project X. The ideal candidate was someone who had released a wearables product, and their ‘why’ was so they would know how to work cross-functionally with hardware, software, and firmware teams. This new ‘why’ opened up the target companies and candidates to CE vendors not only people in a small pool of wearables vendors. 
  3. Another recent client wanted to hire their first product leader to launch a new D2C financial services platform. They were excited about evaluating candidates who had some digital banking experience but their ‘why’ was because they wanted to consider candidates who had launched products (a) for native mobile/native digital customers and (b) were UX focused to drive delight and reduce the likelihood of churn. Suddenly our recruiting juices were flowing and options opened up to talk with candidates in any digital consumer experience brand.

The take-home message … 

Use your interview process as a time to ask the tough questions to relieve any doubt that the candidate is ready and able to tackle a new challenge. We encourage our clients to ask questions such as:

  • Share your experiences having to learn a new industry or a new product category.
  • How long did it take you to fully understand the opportunities and challenges?
  • Have your former organizations had SME in other functions you could draw from? What did your engagement look like? What would you do differently?
  • Walk us through how you were able to understand the market and the customer? Was there a UX research function? How frequently would you engage with the market or sales calls?
  • What mistakes have you made in your past roles? How will you apply those learning now/here?

The key to finding the right candidate for your business is knowing the why behind your search and the difference between what skills/experience is essential for success versus waiting around (and delaying product launches) for the perfect candidate (who may not even exist.)