Warning: Don’t Hire a Product Manager Without These Key Leadership Skills

Warning: Don’t Hire a Product Manager Without These Key Leadership Skills

This post is part of The Ultimate Guide to Product Manager Interview Questions series.

Steve Jobs said that “no matter how smart you are, to be successful you need a team of great people“.

Do you surround yourself with great people?

The difference between a good hire and a great hire usually boils down to leadership.

Jack Welch said “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” Growing others is what great product managers do.

Are you hiring leaders? Here is an interview framework to help you know—with highlights of the most important product management leadership skills.

The Leadership and Communication Skills Interview

The purpose of this interview is to evaluate competency by looking at:

  • Ability to influence and motivate
  • Advocacy for customers and key stakeholders
  • Confidence and assertiveness
  • Attitude and pace
  • Sociability and team skills
  • Honesty and integrity

This interview should take 45-60 minutes to complete. The key sections are:

  • Customer Leadership & Communication Skills: 15-20 minutes
  • Team (Engineering and Design) Leadership Skills: 15-20 minutes
  • Cross-Functional Leadership and Management Skills: 15-20 minutes

Customer Leadership & Communication Skills

Start the conversation with an open-ended question about how the candidate has interacted with customers in the past:

Can you talk to me about how you interacted with customers in your most recent product role?

You are hoping to see clear examples of customer development: “getting out of the building” to interface directly with customers, running experiments, and iterating to improve the product as quickly as possible.

Here is a 3 minute video of Steve Blank talking at Stanford about why customer discovery is so important. Since the audience is his class on entrepreneurship, you’ll hear examples that refer to dorm rooms and startups, but the point that Steve is making applies to anyone launching a new product:

Exactly how you listen to customers is critical. As Steve Jobs famously said, “It’s not the consumers job to figure out what they want.” As a product manager, that is your job. You cannot ask them and expect them to just tell you what to do.

Find out how a candidate approaches this in a role-play situation:

Imagine you get this job and I am a prospective customer for the product you are now responsible for.
I know nothing about your product or your company.
Let’s role play how you would interview me about my “must have” problems and whether or not your product solves them for me.

To provide some additional perspective on evaluating a candidate’s response, here is an excellent resource on how to listen to customers from Ash Maurya.

A great resource on leadership, team and communication issues facing product managers is Cindy Alvarez. She has a post titled 8 non-useless interview questions for product managers that the next handful of questions have been adapted from.

Ask about the candidate’s skills in balancing customer issues and company priorities:

Imagine you have a customer feedback tool where your users submit feature ideas and then vote on them.
One of the features is very popular among your users, but doesn’t align with your company’s long term strategy.
How do you respond to your users?

Make sure the candidate can say no to a customer when necessary:

Can you talk to me about a time when you had to say no to a customer?
Why did you have to say no?
How did you handle it?

Handling an existing or mature product is very different from creating a new product from scratch. If the candidate will be managing an existing product, make sure he or she understands how this is different from creating new products:

Imagine you’re taking over a mature product and you find out that customer issues are being dealt with reactively and much of the team that built the product is no longer with the company.
What would you do to be more proactive about prioritizing fixes and enhancements?

Test the candidate’s customer communication skills under pressure:

Imagine that you have recently deployed a major release of an enterprise software-as-a-service product.
Unfortunately, you have found a bug that was missed in testing.
Your QA group tells you that it is an edge case that will impact less than 1% of users, but for those it does impact, the user experience will be very bad.
What do you do?

Then ask the candidate to actually write the email (during the interview) he or she would send:

Your analytics system allows you to figure out which customers were impacted, but it is too many to call individually.
Take a few minutes to compose the email you would send to customers impacted by the issue.

Team (Engineering and Design) Leadership Skills

A critical factor in the success of any product is a product manager’s relationship with the engineering team. Find out how the candidate would interact with engineering in different situations:

Imagine you give your engineering team requirements for 8 features for a product release.
Engineering tells you 2 of your requirements are not possible, but they can implement the other 6.
They also say they would like to add two additional requirements of their own.
How do you respond?

You are looking for the candidate to embrace collaborating with engineering and to understand the balance in the relationship. Is the candidate open to ideas from engineering, especially if they are good ideas and would make the product much better? How does the candidate deal with requirements engineering says are not possible?

Ask the candidate to give an example of when he or she had to influence engineering to build a specific feature:

Can you talk to me about a time when you had to influence engineering to build a particular feature?

You are looking for evidence that the candidate can influence engineering and earn their respect:

How do you earn respect from the engineering team?
How do you get a team to commit to a schedule?

Get a sense for the candidate’s breadth of experience in working with engineering teams:

Can you talk to me about some of the challenges of working with product development teams?

Has the candidate worked with rock star engineers before? Does the candidate know how to work with great engineers, stand up to them when necessary, and get out of their way when they’re doing what they do best?

Talk to me about the best engineer you’ve ever worked with. Why was the engineer so good? What results did you achieve together?

Finally, calibrate the candidate’s view on what it means to be a great engineer:

In your experience, how much more productive is a rock star engineer than an average engineer?

The candidate’s answer should be in the neighborhood of 10 times better. If the answer is 2 times or less, the candidate has never worked with any really great engineers.

A product manager’s relationship with the design team is also important. Ask the candidate how he or she would handle the following situation:

Imagine you have provided your design team with a set of initial requirements, and they have turned around a first set of mocks.
Unfortunately, the mocks are not what you had been hoping for. In addition, the design team added a bunch of features that were not in your requirements.
How do you respond?

You want to see how the candidate’s skills in leading designers. Does the candidate dictate to them? Or does the candidate listen to suggestions with an open mind? Does the candidate get results by raising concerns and asking questions about issues that the current mocks don’t address?

With both engineering and design, it is usually more effective for the product manager to define the problems and let the respective team come up with a proposed solution.

Cross-Functional Leadership & Management Skills

It’s very common to say that “product managers have all the responsibility and none of the authority.”

Aside from the leadership role that a product manager must play with customers and the product development team, a good product manager must provide leadership, advocacy and support to the executive team, sales, business development and any other stakeholders that your company might have.

To succeed, product managers need great interpersonal skills and must earn the leadership of key company stakeholders.

Ken Norton has an essay on hiring product managers with some great interview questions on earned leadership. Here are some questions adapted from Ken’s approach to talk through with the candidate:

Can you draw a quick org chart for a position where you played a key leadership role?
Talk to me about a time when the team was not working well together. Why did this happen? What did you learn?
Can you give an example of you coaching others on your team?
Is consensus always a good thing?
What kind of people do you like working with?
What kind of people have you had difficulty working with in the past?
What about an example when you were being coached? What did you learn? How did you improve?
In your mind, what is the difference between management and leadership?

Some things you should be looking for:

  • A solid understanding of how to achieve results by working with and through others
  • How much process the candidate expects (and if this is a good match for your company)
  • Good negotiation skills

Now spend some time on a scenario where the candidate disagrees with a boss or senior executive:

Imagine you and the design team have come up with the interaction design of a new feature.
Unfortunately, your boss doesn’t agree and believes it should work differently.
You and the design team are confident in your opinion and think the suggestion from your boss will be inferior.
What do you do?

Follow this up with the scenario of when a senior stakeholder or boss demands more in a given time frame than the candidate can possibly deliver:

Can you talk to me about a time when a senior stakeholder or boss demanded more of you than you could possibly deliver?
How did you handle the situation?

Finally, get a better understanding of how the candidate might interact with the sales team. Here are some great sales-oriented interview questions adapted from Vittorio Viarengo’s Guerilla Guide to Interviewing Product Managers post:

Can you talk to me about the sales model of a product you have managed?
How did you find prospects for the product?
What did you do that made it easier for the sales team to sell the product?
Can you talk about a situation where you were instrumental in closing a sale? What did you do?

You want to know that the candidate understands what it takes to sell products and that he or she can work effectively with your sales team.

Did the candidate “get out of the building” frequently and interact actively with customers? Did the candidate take the time to really understand and internalize the sales team’s pains?

And while engaging with customers and the sales team is critical, a product manager must be very careful about being non-strategic and reactive. Here are a few more great interview questions adapted from Cindy Alvarez’s post:

Imagine you are nearing code freeze on a release, but the sales team tells you a key customer will not buy it unless you add a specific feature.
What do you do?

Similarly, a product manager has to be very cautious about over-promising:

Imagine the VP Sales has been pestering you to send her an updated product roadmap before she talks to a very desirable prospect.
You have a draft, but haven’t prioritized it or built internal consensus around it yet.
How do you help your VP Sales?

When a company is cash-strapped and a sales team is under extreme pressure to deliver revenue, it can be easy to become sales-driven and non-strategic.

This is a sign of a serious problem in the company, and usually happens when a company is scaling prematurely and has hired senior sales and business development people too early.

An important role of the product manager is to help the sales team not sign the company up for things that can’t be delivered, shouldn’t be delivered, or that are not strategic.

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This post is part of The Ultimate Guide to Product Manager Interview Questions series.

P.S. A lot of people have asked for book recommendations to further prepare for a product manager interview. Here are some great ones:


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