Probably the single most common question I get from CEO’s is where to find great product managers?

I tell them that often they’re already in their organization, hiding under a different title – maybe a software engineer, designer, or an SE, just waiting to be discovered. But whether you recruit product managers from inside or outside, the easiest way to spot them is to have a clear understanding of the characteristics to look for. So in this note i’ll enumerate the specific traits and skills you’re looking for:

Personal Traits and Attitude

Most skills can be learned, however, there are some traits that are very difficult to teach, and as such they should form the foundation of any search for a product manager.

– Product Passion

There are some people out there who just love products. Not necessarily every type of product, but also not just a single type of product. Great product managers have a love and respect for good products, no matter where they come from, and they live to create them.

This passion for product is an essential ingredient as it will often be called upon to provide the motivation to get through the many very difficult challenges, and long hours, of defining a great product. Further, the product manager will need to inspire the rest of the product team, and the passion for a product is contagious.

It is fairly easy to determine whether of not you are talking to such a person by simply asking them what some of their favorite products are and why. It is hard to feign passion; the insincerity comes through. Ask for examples from different domains. Ask what they would improve on their favorite product if they were the product manager. Ask about bad products too.

– Customer Empathy

The ideal product manager does not necessarily have to come from your target market (there are pros and cons to this), but they absolutely need to be able to empathize with your target market. This trait is often difficult to find in high-technology companies trying to produce mass-market products. We tend to want to think of our users as we think of ourselves and our friends. However, the target market very likely has quite different values, priorities, perceptions, tolerances and experiences.

Ask the candidates about the target market and how they believe they might be different from themselves. Try and detect how the candidate feels about the target market, and most importantly, does the candidate respect and empathize with that target market, or does he view his job as “enlightening” the target market.

This is doubly important for international products, or those products targeted at specific countries or cultures. There are many similarities, and many differences, between cultures. Many of the differences are incidental and not important to defining products. However, some of the differences are essential. Does the candidate you are talking to have enough understanding of the target market to know which is which?

– Intelligence

There is really no substitute for innate intelligence. The successful product manager must be able to learn very quickly. Product management is about insights and judgement, both of which require a sharp mind. Hard work is also necessary, but for this job, it is not sufficient.

Hiring very smart people is harder than it sounds. Much depends on the strength and security of the hiring manager. Hiring smart people speaks to the company culture which is another important topic in its own right, but suffice it to say here that if your goal is a truly good product, it is simply not going to happen if you can’t find a truly bright product manager.

Assuming you are anxious to find the brightest, most insightful person possible, one technique is to drill on problem solving. Microsoft is famous for their very intensive and effective interviewing for intelligence based on problem solving. The technique is to use one or more experts in some topic to drill the candidate on a problem. The interviewer is not looking so much as whether or not the candidate simply knows the right answer (knowledge rather than intelligence), but rather, how well they deal with not knowing the answer. How does the candidate work out problems? When the candidate comes up with a solution, the interviewer changes the question somewhat and asks what the candidate would do then. This is done continuously until the candidate must force herself to deal with a scenario she doesn’t know the answer to, and then she is asked to verbalize how she would go about solving that problem. With practice, this can be a very effective technique in assessing a candidate’s problem solving capability.

Another approach is to ask two or three people in your organization who are well known for their intellectual prowess, and ask them to interview this person, and help you determine the candidate’s problem solving ability.

– Work Ethic

Not every role in the product team requires the same level of commitment and effort. However, the product manager role is not for someone who is afraid of hard work. It comes along with the responsibility. The product manager is the person ultimately responsible for the success of the product, and this burden weighs heavily on the successful product manager.

Even when skills such as time management and the techniques of product management are mastered, the successful product manager is still consumed with the product. Can you have a family and a non-work life and be a successful product manager? I believe you can. At least once you have some experience. But there are many people that want to be able to work 40 hours a week and most importantly, leave their work problems at the office when they leave at the end of the day. This unfortunately is not the life of a successful product manager.

I believe in being very frank with candidate product managers about the level of effort required for successful product management. But to be perfectly clear, it is not about requiring the product manager to work certain hours- if you have to actually ask or tell the product manager to come in during a critical point you have the wrong person for the job.

It should also be emphasized that the level of effort and commitment is not uniform throughout the lifecycle of the project. There are certain phases that are much more intense than others. What won’t change for the successful product manager is the degree to which they care and worry about their product and the lengths they are willing to go to ensure its success.

– Integrity

This trait also relates to the company culture, but of all the members of the product team, the product manager most needs to reflect the values of the company and the product. In most organizational structures, the product manager does not directly manage the people on the project team, and as such, he can’t simply direct the people to do his bidding. Rather, he must work by influencing those on his team. This persuasion is done by mutual trust and respect.

This trust and respect is built over time by the successful product manager demonstrating the traits and skills of a strong product team leader. If the product manager is not perceived to have integrity, or honesty, or fairness when dealing with his teammates, then the product manager will not have the degree of collaboration and team effectiveness that he needs to get the job done.

The product manager may not be an expert in every role of the product team, but he should have a deep understanding and respect for what each team member is responsible for, and he should be willing to trust those people to do their job.

As the main interface between the product team and both the executive team and the sales organization, the product manager is often put in difficult situations, such as being asked to deliver products earlier, or with special features for large customers. The product team will watch closely how the product manager handles these situations.

As with intelligence, assessing someone’s integrity can be difficult. For candidates with previous experience as product managers, they can be asked about how they dealt with the stresses in past products. Press for details of particular situations; what made the situation hard and how was it dealt with?

– Confidence

Many people think of confidence as a result of experience. However, while experience may be a prerequisite for confidence, many very experienced product managers simply do not project confidence (you can sometimes find brand new college graduates simply bursting with confidence, although this is generally the confidence that comes from not knowing yet what they’re in for).

Confidence becomes an important trait that the entire product team, executive team and sales organization is looking to the product manager to convince them that what they are investing their time and money and careers in will be successful, and why the vision is a good one. In communicating persuasively, confidence is a critical ingredient.

– Communication Skills

While communication skills can, for the most part, be learned, it can take years to become an effective speaker or writer, and these skills will be required from the start. As discussed above, the product manager influences others by persuasion rather than authority – making his case by communicating either through writing, speaking, or both.

Speaking skills can be partially assessed during the interview itself, but written skills should be assessed specifically. I like to suggest that product manager candidates bring in examples of written material such as white papers or strategic documents.

While good communication skills are absolutely essential, it is important to emphasize that speaking with an accent, or minor grammatical issues with a non-native language, do not constitute poor communication skills. The person must speak clearly enough to be easily understood, and write powerfully enough to persuade, but perfect pronunciation or grammar is not required.

– Attitude

The successful product manager sees himself as the CEO of the product. He takes full responsibility for the product, and does not make excuses. The successful product manager knows he is ultimately responsible for the success of the product. More importantly, he knows there are many very valid reasons for the product to not ship, or fail in the market when it does – the product is too difficult to build, it will take too long to get to market, it will cost too much, it will be too complicated, etc. – but he knows it is his job to see that each and every one of these obstacles is overcome.

This does not mean that he micromanages the product team, or that he tries to do it all himself, but rather that he is quick to take the blame if something goes wrong, and equally quick to give credit to the rest of the team when it goes well. The successful product manager knows that it is through the rest of the team that his product vision will become a reality, but that it is his product vision they are building.

Skills

In order to succeed at the job of product development, there are several skills that are important. If the person has the right personal traits, I believe all these skills can be learned.

– Applying Technology

One reason many successful product managers come from the engineering ranks is that a big part of defining a successful product is in understanding new technology and seeing how it might be applied to help solve a relevant problem.

While you don’t need to be able to invent or implement the new technology yourself in order to be a strong product manager, you do need to be comfortable enough with the technology that you can understand it and see its potential applications.

There are many ways to develop this skill. Taking classes, reading books and articles, and talking with engineers and architects can help you learn. Ask the senior engineers on your product team what they would recommend as ways to learn more about the technology possibilities. Brainstorming sessions with the engineering team is another way to learn how new technologies might be applied.

– Focus

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” There are so many distractions out there, especially for the product manager trying to create a product that customers will love. The ability to keep the focus on the key problem to be solved, and not succumb to creeping featurism, or the loud voices of a few key people or customers, requires tremendous discipline – both company discipline and personal discipline.

The truth is that nearly every product has features that are not really all that important – if the features were never there it would not significantly impact the sales or customer satisfaction. Much more often, if the features were not there, the product would be better for it as more users could comprehend and appreciate the resulting simpler product. Focus will help you reduce the number of cluttering features, reduce the time it takes you to build the product, and therefore the time it takes you to get to market.

– Time Management

In today’s e-mail, instant message, and cell-phone based world, it is so very easy to come in to work early in the morning, work frantically all day even skipping food, and then head straight home well into the night, not having actually accomplished anything important for your product. This is because you have spent the day chasing fires and working on “urgent” items.

It is absolutely essential to get very skilled at distinguishing that which is important from that which is urgent, and learn to prioritize and plan your time. If you can’t manage to get the time to focus on those tasks which are truly important to your product, your product will fail.

I have known too many product managers that burn themselves out with 70-hour weeks and the worst part is when I tell them that they’re not actually doing their job. The natural response is that they just don’t have any more time and can’t work any harder. I then go into my lecture on time management and working smarter. So much of what these people spend time doing is avoidable.

– Written Skills

Product managers spend a great deal of time writing – composing e-mails, specs, white papers, strategy papers, data sheets, competitive product reviews, and more. The successful product manager is only taking the time to write these if he believes people are going to read them, and since they are going to be read, they need to do their job well, which is typically to describe, educate, and/or persuade.

Being able to write clear and concise prose is a skill that product managers use every day. The successful product manager realizes that the readers of his writings are constantly evaluating him based on his writings. Especially with senior management, sometimes these writings are all they have to go on.

– Presentation Skills

The other major form of communication that product managers frequently need to do is a presentation. Presenting in front of a group is hard for many people. Presenting effectively is even harder. Yet this is an important skill for a product manager since many of the most important events in the life of a product require the product manager to stand up in front of company executives or major customers or the company sales force and in the short time you have, explain what your product is about and why it is important.

We have all sat through terrible presentations, with slide after endless slide; the speaker simply reading the bullets; people straining to read the too-small print; meaningless graphics; and being unclear what the key messages are and why you should care.

In contrast, the successful product manager has a minimal number of slides; he is engaging, clearly knowledgeable and passionate about his product, he speaks clearly and to the point, his slides provide relevant supporting data for what he is saying, and he has unambiguously stated his main points, and what he needs from the audience after the presentation. His presentation finishes early, he entertains questions and if he can’t provide a clear, useful answer immediately he follows up diligently and promptly with the questioner, and if appropriate, the entire audience.

– Business Skills

Finally, business skills are also important for the product manager. As the main interface with the rest of the company, the product manager will need to work with company finance staff, marketing people, sales, and executive management, and the language and concepts that these people deal with.

I sometimes talk of product managers needing to be bilingual. They need to be able to converse equally well with engineers about technology as with executives and marketers about cost structures, margins, market share, positioning and brand.

This is one reason why so many product managers are recruited out of business school. The product organization knows that they need someone who can talk the language of the business side, so they hire an MBA. I have known some great product managers that have come through the MBA path, but if you’ve read this far, you know that the business skills are but one part of the mix required for a successful product manger, and they can certainly be learned. It is at least as common that an engineer moves into product management and acquires the business skills required by reading books, taking courses, and getting coaching and assistance from mentors in the finance and marketing organizations.

So where do you find these people?

After reading this list of traits and skills, you may be thinking that such people are extremely rare. They are rare – about as rare as good products are. But few hires you make will be as critical as your product managers, so it is worthwhile to interview for these characteristics and set the bar high.

There are a lot of different schools of thought on recruiting product managers. Many companies think that all you need is someone from the marketing organization or someone with an MBA. In the old-school definition of product manager, this may have been true, but this is a recipe for failure today.

Many companies prefer MBA’s from top business schools that have a technical undergraduate degree combined with applicable industry experience. This can work well if you keep in mind that a problem with MBA programs, even from the top-tier schools, is that they almost never teach product management, so it is dangerous to assume that the recent MBA grad has any idea how to be a product manager.

My favorite source for product managers is to look for people with the characteristics described above and then use training, an informal mentoring program, and/or a formal employee development program to develop these people into strong product managers. Such people might be found virtually anywhere in the company. I’ve seen outstanding product managers come out of engineering, technical support, professional services, product marketing, sales, and the user community. Often these people will approach management asking how they can get more involved in the product. It can also be useful for senior management to approach top performers from across the company about the possibility of product management, as this can be essential experience for those on an executive track.

I’ve written earlier about running a good interview process (The Microsoft Advantage), but there have been some great posts on general hiring practices recently. My favorite is: http://pmarca-archive.posterous.com/how-to-hire-the-best-people-youve-ever-worked.

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