Is the Right Candidate Right for You?

Pragmatic Marketer Spring 2013A recent Inc. magazine article listed product management as one of the five hardest jobs to fill for 2012. While talent is in short supply, as the article points out, “hiring the best of the best is an absolute must if you are going to build a successful company.”

While finding the right product managers and marketers can be difficult, companies often make it even more stressful by having the wrong focus or unrealistic expectations.

Here are five guidelines to help you focus your strategy and hire the right people for your company:

1.  Have a clear understanding of why you are hiring, and what he/she will provide to the company. This is the first and most important step, because a clearly defined role sets the stage for success. Look at the needs of the company now and in the next 12-18 months. Ensure that the job definition fits the needs and then hire someone a bit more experienced than what you think you need.

Having a senior and experienced individual will help address other problems and challenges that will certainly arise—particularly for early-stage companies where product and company strategies are tightly intertwined.

In fact, while it’s important to hire good product managers in any company, it’s even more important at early-stage companies where the impact (positive or negative) will be deeply felt. Also, remember that hiring for the wrong reasons in those early stages is as bad as hiring the wrong person.

Too often, early-stage companies hire a product manager to bring control to customer requirements or to take over the tactical activities from the company’s founder.  The problem is that while a tactical focus may address some short-term needs, it’s not the way to bring product management into a company. Requirements management is only a small part, yet that seems to be where too many companies focus. The actual product is only one ingredient for success. The right product strategy, positioning, messaging, pricing, go-to-market planning and organizational readiness are all key components and need the focus of experienced product management.

2. Be realistic about what someone can achieve. Far too often, companies set objectives that are completely unrealistic. How realistic is this 2008 job description from Twitter?

As Twitter’s first product manager focused on revenue generation, you will play a defining role in the formulation of Twitter’s business. Your job will be to lead the definition and execution of the products and features that will lead to monetization of the Twitter platform.

Monetization and profit cannot be an afterthought that is added by hiring a product manager. It’s a core part of business and product strategy that defines how the company is organized, the roles defined and activities completed.

On a more personal note, I once was interviewing for a position in a young company. Despite a lot of effort and time already spent, the CEO said they were looking for someone to come in and “fix the product.”

Fixing meant a lot of things, apparently. It meant identifying a target market, making the product do what that market needed, defining a clear roadmap for the next 18-24 months, working with marketing to get the messaging correct and generate leads, and working with sales to get early customer adoption going.

Essentially, they were looking to reboot the company! And the expectation of how much time it would take to do all this was three or four months.

After the interview, I decided to remove myself from consideration for the position. Maybe they would have come to their senses, or perhaps my understanding of the work and time needed was a lot more than theirs. But I couldn’t see how anyone could be successful in that situation. Expecting more than what one person can realistically do means setting him or her up for failure, which brings me to my next point.

3. Don’t look for “rock stars” or “superheroes.” Some companies take unrealistic expectations a step further. I cringe when I see job postings specifically seeking a “rock star.” They are usually accompanied by a job description that even the smartest polymaths couldn’t fulfill.

They want someone who can think strategically, but be able to roll up their sleeves and “do what is needed to get the job done.” They need to be technically very strong to work with the top-notch development team, but also have great communication skills to work with customers and talk to press and analysts. They need to lead, inspire, listen, learn, etc.

The reality is that even rock stars have backup bands (think Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band) and superheroes work in teams (think Avengers or the Justice League). The whole is greater than the sum of the parts—and more than any role, this one is part of a team. Even if you could find someone to fit the bill, the odds of them being successful would be low. And how likely would you be to find a second one when it came time to expand or scale? It takes a team of people to deliver on all the necessary responsibilities.

4. Understand there are differentiated roles in product management. When you think of a sales team, is there only one type of salesperson on that team? Or are there different roles with different focuses and responsibilities, such as inside sales, field sales, overlay sales and sales consultants? And when you think about an engineering team, is it just a team of generic “developers,” or are there other roles such as architects, user-interface specialists, server and database specialists, quality assurance members, etc.?

When it comes to product management, a lot of companies seem to think that there is just one product-manager role that fits all situations.

Perhaps it’s simply an awareness problem, with people not understanding how to segment roles and responsibilities in product management.

There are four major areas that product management must focus on:

 1. Business/strategy  3. Organizational readiness
 2. Go to market  4 Product

Product success depends on optimizing and aligning these four areas. Notice that these cover the gamut, including business to technical, strategic to tactical and customer to market.

Consider hiring for roles such as product manager, product marketer, technical product manager, solution specialist, etc. They have different, but complementary, responsibilities as part of the overall product-management function. Breaking the function into these roles not only helps product management be more effective, but also makes it easier to identify good candidates when hiring.

5. Look for the right mix of skills in the role you define and hire for. There are numerous articles that list different characteristics that one should look for in a product manager. Here’s an abbreviated version of some of the characteristics I’ve found on Quora’s website and a number of product management blogs.

 Interpersonal skills  Ability to forecast and measure
 Technically oriented   Customer centric
 Systems thinker  Market focused
 Numbers person  Natural leader
 Ideas person   Decisive
 Visionary  Listener
 Problem solving  Communication skills
 Ability to prioritize   Write effective copy

Do any of these sound familiar? I’m sure I could find more. And some of these might seem to be at odds. Each role you hire for will require a specific subset of skills depending on the company and product focus, maturity of the company, target market and product, other members of the team, etc. Ensure you are clear on what skill sets you need and don’t simply define a generic set that covers all bases.

Having said that, I will admit that there are a number of core skills that I generally look for when interviewing and hiring. These include good analytic skills, a systems mindset and communicating and listening abilities.  Why? Because without these, the candidate will likely fail to deliver what is needed. The systems mindset is the most important. Product success comes from optimizing across the various silos in the company. If gaps or issues occur in one part of the company, they will impact the product overall. The right candidate needs to think across the departments, analyze the issues and work with others to implement solutions.

I explicitly investigate these aspects in each candidate I interview.

By taking note of the guidelines in this article, it’s possible to find someone who is the right fit and has a high chance of success in the role. But, like any other hire, there is no certainty that you have hired the perfect person. Once hired, people have to be managed, supported and engaged in order to succeed—and that’s how you get a rock star.

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  • Saeed Khan has more than 15 years of experience in product management and has worked at both startups and public companies, in roles ranging from individual contributor to vice president of product management. He writes for and has previously contributed to Pragmatic Institute?s print and online publications. He has spoken widely on the topic of product management and product development at a variety of events, including numerous ProductCamps.  Based in Toronto, Canada, he can be reached at

Saeed Khan

Saeed Khan

Saeed Khan has more than 15 years of experience in product management and has worked at both startups and public companies, in roles ranging from individual contributor to vice president of product management. He writes for and has previously contributed to Pragmatic Institute?s print and online publications. He has spoken widely on the topic of product management and product development at a variety of events, including numerous ProductCamps.  Based in Toronto, Canada, he can be reached at

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