Product Leadership Skills: Building a Strong Product Team

This month we’re focusing on all things Product Leadership. Keep an eye out for events, podcasts, blogs, and more!

If you’re a team leader, hiring manager, or c-suite professional, it’s your job to build high performance teams that work together to bring a product vision to life. Building a successful team is almost as hard as building a product!

You need the right mix of multi-disciplinary talent, a diverse set of backgrounds, and a group of people who can form strong working relationships with each other. Hiring just one perfect person for a role can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack, so when you have to fill out a whole department it can easily feel overwhelming.

But putting the right strategies in place, and keeping your eye out for the right things, will help make your role-filling missing easier. And leave you with an all-star Product team!

How to Hire Product Managers

Must-Have Skills

One of the biggest questions that we get from aspiring Product Managers is ‘which technical skills do I need to become a PM?’ We’ve gone into depth on this already (check out Product Managers and Technical Skills…What’s The Deal?) but let’s talk about it from a management perspective.

PM roles that do require technical skills (if you’re building AI products for example), will of course have very specific requirements. But in general, you won’t need to hire people with CS degrees or engineering backgrounds when you’re looking for your next great Product Manager. While an interest in technology is key, a Product Manager only needs to know how to talk about the tech they’re building. They don’t need to be able to code an entire product by themselves, because that’s not what they’re being hired for.

Instead, look at the soft skills that the candidate has, as these are much harder to develop and are absolutely essential for all kinds of Product Management roles. You need someone with amazing communication skills, who can tell a story, and influence without authority.

You need someone with vision, who can take care of your team’s North Star, while being both customer focused and data-driven.

Check out: The Skills Product Managers Need in 2021

Underrated Attributes

Those are all pretty obvious skills that all Product Leaders already know about. But there are some very underrated attributes that go into the secret sauce for all-star Product people.

For example, it’s easy to find engineers, UX designers, and digital marketers who are looking to transition into Product Management. And of course, these disciplines are incredibly beneficial to a product team. It feels like a safe bet to hire your new PM from a background that’s directly related to Product. But some amazing Product Leaders who have flourished in the industry have come from very unique backgrounds.

Some have been music producers, journalists, landscape gardeners, teachers, army vets, and a whole host of other jobs roles. The transferable skills from more unique roles can really help to set a candidate apart. They’ll have knowledge that no one else in the room has, and this will help you to build products that serve more customers.

Looking for someone who is a self-starter is also highly underrated! Someone who has taught themselves everything they know through free online courses is just as strong a candidate as someone who attended an expensive college or bootcamp. Not only does this allow you to hire more diverse talent, but it ensures that you’re bringing people with an entrepreneurial spirit onboard.

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Hiring Leaders

If you’re hiring to fill a leadership role, there are a few extra things you need to keep in mind, as leaders have a huge impact on the working lives of the team members they manage. Hiring the wrong person can have a ripple effect on everyone under them, and hiring the right person can bring out the best in them.

So if you’re hiring a Senior Product Manager, a Head of Product, or a CPO, etc, you need to make sure that their leadership style compliments the way your teams like to work. For example if you’ve got autonomous, self-governing teams, hiring a micromanager is going to cause friction. Similarly, a hands-off manager for a team that prefers top-down leadership may cause bottlenecks.

When hiring leaders, don’t forget to look internally. By promoting team members who have the potential to step up and take on more responsibility, you benefit from a leader who already knows your business very well. They’re already integrated into your team, and have spent time building relationships with the rest of your employees. That’s the type of experience that you can’t buy!

It might be better to promote an employee who has the potential to step up, and trust that they’ll learn the skills they’re missing on the job, than to bring in a stranger who may or may not fit in with the rest of the team.

When hiring leaders, include your teams in the interview process. Make sure they’ve met their potential new boss before any final hiring decisions are made. After all, you’re primarily hiring a leader to be beneficial to the team, so they need to be a perfect match.

Check out: What Is Product Leadership?

What to Include in Your Job Descriptions

Before you get to interview the right candidates, you have to attract them first! When you write your job descriptions and send them out into the world, they need to give your ideal candidates everything they need in order to hit that ‘apply’ button.

One helpful thing to include is a section explaining what you’d expect from the new hire in the first 12 months. This helps to set expectations, and gives a much clearer picture of the workload and day-to-day responsibilities.

Don’t forget to weave your company culture into your job postings, as this helps job seekers to get to know you and your company’s vibe before they apply.

If you’re serious about recruitment, don’t make the application process unnecessarily challenging for your applicants. Helping them to send in the right application by providing them with as much information as possible will save you time in the long run. You’ll be quicker in identifying which candidates are worth inviting to interview.

One way to do this is with a killer careers page. This is something that many smaller companies and startups overlook, as it’s not a priority in your early stages. But once you start deliberately aiming to scale your teams, it’s a valuable asset to have.

What To Look Out for In Interviews

Red Flags

One thing to keep an eye out for, is someone not answering the right question. Let’s say you ask them what their favorite feature of your product is, and they start talking about a potential new feature, it shows that they’re not in the habit of listening very carefully.

You should also be watching out for any signs of apathy. If they’re not excited about your company or your mission throughout the interview process, their enthusiasm isn’t going to build on the job. You need someone who’s starting with a positive attitude.

It’s also important to look out for someone who has too many negative things to say about the job they’ve just left or are planning to leave. Of course, it may not be their fault if they’ve had a negative experience. But it’s a good sign if they’re able to be tactful about it. Imagine if you were to ask them, “Why are you looking to leave X?” and they say “Well for starters, everyone in my team is lazy and my manager isn’t qualified to lead a team. Also I think my CEO is a sociopath…” Someone who has nothing nice to say about any of their co-workers probably doesn’t have the best interpersonal skills. You don’t want to hire people who are in the habit of burning bridges.

Gold Stars

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The first thing that’ll set a candidate apart is enthusiasm for your mission. Hard skills can be taught, and some soft skills develop over time. But there’s simply no replacement for enthusiasm. Someone who really cares has the potential to become one of your biggest advocates, and is more likely to stay long-term.

Similarly, look out for people who are excited to meet their potential new team. While it’s not fair to penalise people for being shy (plenty of shy people blossom in the role that’s right for them!) if the role you’re hiring for involves a lot of cross-functional collaboration, they need to be a people-person. If you have on-site interviews and team meetups as part of your interview process, keep an eye on how they interact with those around them.

You should also keep an eye out for someone who has clearly prepared for the interview. Someone who is able to back up their statements about their achievements with facts and figures, and who has obviously done their research about your product/company is someone with a Product Management spirit!

Building All-Star Product Teams in 2021

One of the challenging things about building a team is having to hire people who know so much more about their area of expertise than you do. How do you choose the right designers, if you don’t have a design background?

Luckily, you should already be working with people who have the knowledge you lack, and you can lean on them to help you figure out what the goalposts are. Ask your lead engineers what they look for in new teammates. 

After the events of 2020, it’s more important than ever to look upon gaps in people’s resumes with more empathy. Being out of work for a period of time is no longer the red flag that it used to be, as you never know which circumstances were out of the candidate’s control.

Speaking of the impact of 2020, it’s important to make sure that the candidate is comfortable with your remote/hybrid work policy, if you currently have one. Remote working skills are an absolute must for building an effective team in 2021.

The most important thing to consider when building your teams is finding people who will go the distance with your company. After a year of serious instability, it’s more important than ever to build stable teams who will build the future of your product alongside you.

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