Product Manager Wanted: HR’s Mission Impossible?

Human Resource professionals know that a well-oiled product management organization improves the chances of success for new products while increasing the long-term profitability of existing products.  But let’s face it: HR is handed a tall order when asked to recruit for product management positions.

For one thing, while account managers close deals and engineers design products, the definition of what product managers do for a living varies immensely across companies and industries. This makes it difficult for the HR and hiring managers to simply rely on a job title to bring in appropriate candidates. Second, evaluating candidates can be challenging – if a new product bombs or was successful in a prior experience, what was the real contribution of the product manager?  Third, there are typically fewer product management positions relative to other areas of the company. This results in fewer openings, thus the hiring process for product managers may not be as refined as it is for other positions in the company.

So how can Human Resources professionals and Product Management leaders work together to consistently attract and retain top product management talent? Here are a few questions HR professionals may want to answer before hiring a product manager:

1) What business problem is the product manager hired to solve and what functions must be executed to address this business problem? This may sound obvious. Yet, while product management position descriptions are usually well-crafted, experienced product managers are often puzzled by the contradictory presentations of the position given by each interviewer during the hiring process. Product managers are typically interviewed by many departments, such as Sales, Marketing and R&D, in addition to the department they hope to join. As a result, they witness the differences in expectations and lack of alignment across the company front and center. For example the VP of Product Management wants to launch new products while her R&D counterpart wants help prioritizing defects, Sales begs for better collateral and Finance wants someone who will positively impact profitability.  In this situation, and in a good economy, the best candidates see a red flag and stop the process. In a bad economy, they try to please everyone to get the job and expose themselves to a potential backlash once they are hired, because they encouraged the wrong expectations and they can’t deliver for everyone.  In this case everyone loses. A solution? Leaders in product management development methodologies, such as Pragmatic Marketing and others have codified each of the functions of a product manager (pricing, requirements, innovation, win/loss…), so take this as a guide to list the responsibilities that are expected of them and ensure that every department agrees with each function included or excluded from the position description.

2) Will the organization embrace the product manager’s role as you’ve defined it? or in other words, is your organization capable of handling someone who meets the requirements for the position? Product Managers want to be leaders, evangelists, marketers, strategists, change agents, financial analysts, accountants and project managers. Oh I forgot about sales support… and that’s what they like to do. However, what product managers see as a part of their job may create too much change and may be construed as a nuisance for an unprepared organization, reflecting badly on the product manager and their organization. Is the hiring organization ready to acknowledge a product manager insisting at every turn that the sales organization must be redesigned for their new products to be successful?  Is the organization ready to consider the product manager’s recommendation to partner instead of building in-house?  Product managers chose the profession because they like to lead and they do get frustrated when they cannot complete tasks they think they were hired for. Ensuring that all parties outside product management agree on the exact definition of the role and what it means to them will go a long way toward addressing these concerns.

3) Are all the position requirements really “must haves?” Since product managers dabble in so many different domains of knowledge, it is extremely easy to create a long list of skills that are required for the position. Loading up a job posting with too many “must have” requirements may result in too few applicants, effectively shutting out those that are qualified for the job. Spelling out specific priorities can help you prune the laundry list and improve the quality of applicants. Is industry experience an absolute requirement or merely a nice to have? Do you really need someone that can code Java, PHP and web services, or do you just need a product manager that isn’t going to get snowed by product development? Also, do not ask for a talent or skill as a “must have” that will not be used within 12 month of the hiring date. This will limit your pool of candidates and disappoint your new product manager if they aren’t provided with an opportunity to exercise these skills.

4) How will your interviewers respond to questions about the product management organization? Experienced product managers know that the most important factor to help them do their job is the respect the company has for the product management organization. As mentioned above, they can see firsthand through the interview process if the PM organization is respected or not. Among the red flags are: How many VPs of product management over the past 5 years? If more than 3 or 4, the CEO and the C-suite may have differing views on how new products should be developed and released. Does the PM organization have unfettered access to customers and prospects for win/loss analysis; do they have full right to use CRM tools such as Salesforce.com? Can they access and query the financial system to determine if their products are profitable? If not, the leeway of the product manager will be severely limited. In this situation top candidates may exit the hiring process because they know they won’t be able to positively impact the organization. The solution may no longer be in the hiring process but as part of an internal change management effort, to bring a specialized product management consulting organization who can teach execs state-of-the-art Product Management processes and techniques which, once in place, will attract A-level candidates. In addition, even the best candidates will have a difficult time interviewing successfully, if they’re walking into the hiring manager’s office blind. Only so much background information can be gleaned from the corporate website, so recruiters can improve the quality of the interview interaction by briefing candidates on the dynamics, expectations and landmines important to those on the interview panel. This is especially important when members (especially senior executives) are prone to stick by their first impressions.

In short, you can reduce the time that it takes to locate and hire high-performing product managers by emphasizing prep-work upfront. Coach and manage the candidates and the organization prior to the interview process, keep a laser focus on the essential roles and responsibilities of the position, and keep an open mind!