So You Want To Hire A Product Manager?

Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Ana Milicevic, co-founder and principal at Sparrow Advisers.

The product management discipline owes its roots to marketing: To justify new headcount, Neil H. McElroy, a Procter & Gamble junior account executive and eventual president of the company, wrote a memo outlining several new roles centered on integrated management of how a brand should be taken to market.

While product managers may still feel like we’re very much in an emerging discipline today, the “Brand Men” memo was written in 1931. McElroy received authorization to hire two new people and created the foundation for product and brand management.

As critical as this function is to overall business success, most ad tech and mar tech companies find hiring for product roles to be a challenge. In younger companies this is often a key role that unlocks the company’s ability to scale; in more mature ones it is often the difference between happy customers and a significant loss of momentum that comes from customer churn and building the wrong things.

This is precisely what makes hiring for the role complex: The product function varies from company to company, and a successful product management process from, say, Google, isn’t readily applicable to a startup or scale-up. This important distinction is often not readily obvious to folks with non-product backgrounds, recruiters or HR departments.

In practice, that means that a product manager’s core skill set and day-to-day focus can vary widely. Before companies sign off on that job description, they should consider where they’d like the role to fall on the following framework:

The purview

The first determination companies should make is to what extent their product managers should be client-facing vs. internal-facing. If the focus will be on building quickly and the company has enough product-market validation for three to six months, the product manager can be more internal; otherwise, regular and direct feedback from clients and prospects will be needed, which means the product manager will be spending more of their time in front of clients, prospects and different field-facing teams.

Generally speaking, ad tech companies working on infrastructure will likely lean more toward the left quadrants, while media companies and software technology suites will fall more to the right.

When hiring initial product managers, they’ll have the most immediate impact if they can own the tactical day-to-day responsibilities for shipping new features and establish an initial set of product management processes. If adding to an existing team, companies should consider how the current team’s skills will evolve over 12-18 months and hire someone complementary.

The time frame

The second dimension of the framework is the time frame for which the product manager will mostly spend their time solving, which is often proxied by seniority.

Junior product managers will focus on immediate and subsequent releases, usually a rolling 90 day period, while senior ones will work on road maps that are three to six months out.

As you go further up in seniority – toward the top of the framework – that time horizon increases, but companies will often try to title-bait and pitch a more senior role when they really need one or more junior roles plus a mentor. So in a job description for a VP of product that emphasizes more sprint and release management and requirements gathering, with little mention of budgeting, headcount and responsibility over a product portfolio, the role is likely misleveled.

Applying the framework to interviews

Say you’re a rapidly scaling ad tech company and want to shore up your product team’s capabilities to quickly gain market share after raising capital and landing some key new strategic clients.

You’re evaluating three candidates: Candidates 2 and 3 are already on your team, and candidate 1 is a highly recommended external applicant. You can start by asking candidates to rank themselves on the framework, then use that to lead the rest of your discussion, drive what you’ll want to dig deeper into during the interview and confirm if that’s the correct ranking.

At first glance, candidate 1 seems like a great fit, but they’ve only worked in large multinational companies. You’ll want to understand their ability to adapt to a less structured, more rapidly changing environment typical of scaling companies and confirm that this aligns with their interests.

Candidate 2 also seems like a good option, so you’ll want to dig into what they find most appealing about their role: If it’s the feeling of building, shipping and minding the details, then a move from practitioner to manager may not be the best fit to focus on organizational design and team management.

It may be a stretch for candidate 3 to interview for a director or VP role. You’ll want to dig into how their managers have influenced them, how they think about process and team structure, and their longer-term, strategic outlook on the space you’re operating in. If you hire candidate 3 for this role, you’ll want to find them an experienced coach.

Avoiding the three most common myths

Myth No. 1: CEO in training You’ve probably heard product managers described as “mini CEOs.” This is the wrong framing: A product manager’s key skill set is to connect and manage across different functions, often without any direct line reporting authority. Thus the main role is one of chief communicator and connector rather than chief executive. They need to reconcile everyone’s expectations – both internal across teams and external with clients and partners – while ensuring that all teams are executing according to a defined timeline. The comparison also doesn’t apply to more junior product roles, whose core day-to-day work is more focused on task management and team organization.

Myth No. 2: This is a technical role If we go back to the discipline’s origins, it’s clearly defined as a function of marketing, but later shifted toward a technical function. Today it frequently manifests itself in job descriptions as requiring a computer science or similar technical degree. This approach artificially restricts the number of folks entering the discipline and focuses on the wrong skill set. For most product managers, a sound command of empathy, communication skills and corporate diplomacy will be far more valuable than in-depth technical knowledge. Companies that need a more technical product management team can create distinct product manager and technical product manager roles.

Myth No. 3: We’ll hire a hands-on CPO Since product roles vary across companies there’s often the temptation to hire the most senior person possible and expect them to cover both strategic and day-to-day work. Can a CPO be hands-on? Absolutely. Is that the best use of their time and compensation? Absolutely not.

Product managers usually step away from the day-to-day detailed view and think about where the company’s products need to be on a longer time frame. If the CPO isn’t spending all of their time setting product vision for the next three-plus years, interacting with the board and key strategic clients, evaluating build/buy/partner decisions and mentoring and building an effective product organization, then you likely don’t need a C-level role.

The right hires in product roles can make companies operate faster, better and more effectively. Understanding what exactly you’re looking for in each hire and how different team members’ skill sets stack up will go a long way toward making this process easier.

Follow Ana Milicevic (@aexm) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Eric Picard

    Having led product management organizations in the ad tech space for 20+ years, I read this with great interest.

    The main distinction that needs to be made is between Marketing-focused product management roles and Technology focused product management roles. They’re actually radically different types of roles, one that is focused on marketing the product and bringing it to market, and the other that’s deeply entrenched in technology and working closely with software developers. If we created a spider web diagram of areas of focus between all the different attributes in each of these roles the coverage would look very different.

  2. Agreed – that’s what I’m charting on the horizontal axis w/ slightly different labeling. It’s why someone coming from Adobe might not be an immediate/obvious fit at AppNexus’ product org or vice versa – and why one might be better off looking for talent outside of the industry but within the same technology vs marketing role split.

    Love the idea of the skills spider graph though – that might be next 🙂