Not the Product Manager you have in mind

When you think of best in class product managers, what companies come to mind?

All the valley companies? In fact don’t we have a label, “West Coast Product Management”? True or not sounds cool like NFL’s  West Coast Offense. If you were to do unaided recall survey among most in social media it is highly likely we will find these in the top of the list, (in no particular order)

  1. twitter
  2. facebook
  3. Dropbox
  4. Pinterest
  5. Square

When you think about what sets these top notch product managers apart, what traits come to your mind? There is a question in Quora that slices it even further,

What distinguishes the Top 1% of Product Managers from the Top 10%?

If we assume normal distribution of product manager quality levels,  this question asks what distinguishes those who are 2.34 sigma over mean from those who are merely 1.285 over mean.  That is some precision.

And the answer that received 2500 votes lists  a  long list key traits. I do not know how one can measure many of them objectively. And this most popular and long answer not once mentions the word, “customer”.  Other not so popular answers list customers and understanding customer needs.  But none of the answers take it to next step – from understanding and serving customer needs to getting fair share of value created by serving those needs.

Even my own survey (that used forced point allocation ) on product management skills, did not include aspects of customer value creation and value capture. If you think about it, all the traits listed in Quora (Design, Copywriting, …) or in my survey (Strategic thinking, Hustle, …) these are really secondary to the  True North function of a product manager.

  1. Understand customer needs – Analytic skills, Usability analysis, etc.
  2.  Decide on (prioritize) needs to serve based on value created and the share of value you  can get – strategic thinking, forecast and measure, …
  3. Build an offering, Maximally Valued Product,  that does it better than alternatives and in cost effective way – Simplify, Design, Hustle, Influence, make technical trade-offs
  4. Position it in the minds of customers  – Presentation skills, Copywriting and the rest
  5. Make it easy for customers to get it –  Sales enablement, Buying experience etc

After all, what is a product but a value delivery vehicle? And all those great design, frictionless UI and copywriting do not make a product until you define a set of customers whose needs you meet and who want to pay you for fulfilling that need.

Is that the product manager you have in mind?


Influence Skills – The Most Important Quality in a Product Manager -Product Management Series

Last time I wrote about the top 5 qualities to look for in hiring a product manager for your organization- enterprise or startup. The rankings are based on a survey of practitioners and recruiters, posed as a resource allocation question. The beauty of that question type is it requires them to make trade-offs, take a pick among many qualities when only limited points are available and also state how important each quality is relative to others.  Here is the quick summary of the rankings

  1. Influence Skills
  2. Strategic Thinking
  3. Hustle – Getting things done
  4. Analytical Skills
  5. Attention to Details

In this article let me discuss influence skills and how you can evaluate that in the people you are hiring for a product manager position.

First what influence is not.

It is not a parlor game, not charm effect, not magnetic personality, not salesmanship, not smooth talking, not big presence, not about greasing wheels etc.  Influence is not a one sided winner takes all zero-sum game and definitely not a single encounter game.

You may have read the book Influence by Bob Cialdini. It is a good book but it is a set of tactics that can come in handy but not foundation of Influence. For instance, you may ease into a new working relation if you were to show them your connection to them but not succeed repeatedly if you ignore the three main skills I list below.

Consider this for a moment – in any organization, why should anyone drop what they are doing and add your ask and prioritize it ahead of others? And do it not just once but over and over in multiple encounters? How does your ask align with their priorities and incentives? Why should they trust you?

You will recognize that strong influence skill starts with trust. If you are applying parlor games to get what you want you sure will win once but it is a multiple encounter game. Only if trust exist can you even communicate effectively the common value proposition and get them to see their share of the value created.

Influence is about showing others the mutual value  if they were to work with you and deliver what you are asking for. You have to show them how big the pie is without them, how big it will grow with them being part of the effort and most importantly what is their share of the bigger pie.

What is implied here is how effectively you can communicate that value and getting them to see for themselves. It is also important that you communicate their value realization after their task is completed –

  • show them mutual value,
  • work with them to realize it,
  • show them again what you two accomplished.

Evaluating Influence Skills

When evaluating influence skills you need to explore their understanding of what influence means. Anything that signals their view of this as one-sided game is a red flag. For instance if they use negative words to describe others they influenced that is an indication of seeing this as zero-sum game.

I would recommend starting the conversation not as a quiz but as a story telling session, asking them to pick a recent engagement and explain how they met a business objective working across boundaries and with multiple teams.

Here are things to evaluate in their story

  1. How big the impact was for the business? This needs no further explanation.
  2. Length of engagement – you do not want to hear a minor one-act play where they used tricks from Cialdini’s book to get someone to say yes. You want to hear a longer engagement based on trust and mutual value
  3. How detailed the story is  – after they start with a summary of Situation-Action-Result? One way to weed out canned stories is to dig deeper for details by asking, “How are he players?”, “What are their priorities?”, “What exactly was their push-back?”, “What exactly did you say to them?”

From the story you are looking to evaluate if their understanding of influence comes through, they show trust as key factor and see the need for effective communication.

Anything less, you know where they stand among the pool of candidates you have.

Top 5 qualities to look for in hiring a Product Manager

Also read: Product Management framework CAMP.

I recently conducted a survey, asking product managers, hiring managers, recruiters and other startup founders to state the key qualities they look for in a product manager hire. It was posed as a resource allocation question – I gave them a limited number points to allocate among 13 different attributes.

Here is the list of Top 5 qualities that most look for based on their points allocation

  1. Influence Skills – The most valued skill is the ability to influence others without any authority. This is a clear attestation that product manager touches many different groups – customers, sales, marketing, engineering, finance, operations, etc. While the product manager is the CEO of the product she does not run rest of the organization needed to make the product a success. So the key quality required in a product manager to meet all the sales and profit goals they have set for the product depends on their influence skills – getting others to adopt the product manager’s priorities and do things necessary to help the product succeed.
  2.  Strategic Thinking – Despite what we hear about technical knowledge, domain expertise and obsession about product, in reality most recognize that the product managers bring in a set of skills that others do not bring to the table and these skills complement skills brought by engineers, marketing and project managers. Strategic thinking starts with asking the right questions. It is about understanding current market, where it going, competition, go to market, etc to define the right product and the roadmap. Netting it out, it is about making informed choices.
  3. Hustle – Get things done – It is the other side of influence coin. While there is the sexy part of strategic analysis and market sizing there is the day to day part of constantly moving forward to get from plan to profit. Getting things done does not mean playing all positions nor does it mean activities – it is about getting results by doing whatever it takes. Sometimes you get others to do it, other times you roll up your sleeves and get it done – be it writing the data-sheet or the pitch deck.
  4. Analytical Skills – This is about making informed decisions based on data instead of instincts and gut feel. If strategic thinking starts with asking the right questions, analytical skills is about seeking the right data and analyzing it to make profitable product decisions. Sometimes there is no data other times there is Big Data – a product manager with great analytical skills should know the right methods to triangulate the answers to business strategy, product roadmap and pricing questions.
    I want to point out here a case often made for using instincts when there is no data. Andrew Mason said in his final letter to employees,

    “My biggest regrets are the moments that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what’s best for our customers.”

    My strong advice is to not pay any attention to this statement. Lack of data does not say anything about how correct or wrong are your intuitions. Lack of data means you did not make testable hypothesis or you are not looking for proxies.

  5. Attention to Details – It is lot more than ensuring rounded corners on your App icon or having drop shadows in you charts. It is about starting with customer experience from first contact to renewals, like  ensuring the sales team has the right sales plays and price lists and ensuring the support team knows how to resolve an error code the customer is calling about.

So what are missing from the top 5 skills? MBA,  Domain Expertise and engineering pedigree.

A final note about domain expertise, most insist on exact domain experience before even they talk to a product manager candidate. One entrepreneur from Austin told me how difficult it had been for them to find the right candidate and then they realized that by insisting on domain expertise they were hiring for skills that product managers can learn quickly on the job versus skills that cannot be taught or have no runway to learn once on the job. Once they removed domain expertise they found a pool of people with Strategic thinking, Influence Skills, Hustle, Analytical Skills and Attention to Details.

Next up, bottom 5 and how do you measure the top 5 skills while interviewing a product manager.

How Do You Hire A Product Manager?

You probably have seen enough job descriptions for product managers. You may have also contributed to many of them. I did too. Most of these descriptions say

The ideal candidate must be able to lead a cross-functional team through idea generation and discovery, product definition, development and product launch, sweat the details, passionate about products, etc. …

Some startups use whimsical language,

We seek only the very best
Seeking product ninja

Well job description is one thing but do we have a system to methodically evaluate candidates and make an informed hire no-hire decision?

Can we explain, with data, how we arrived at the decision?

Do we focus more on irrelevant factors or trivial factors and make wrong decisions?

Do we let observable attributes like social media presence, clever quips and any one of those metrics like Klout cloud our decision making?

Are the results repeatable? If your team evaluates similar candidates will the outcomes be similar?

What is lacking is a rigorous quantitative framework that starts with your needs and translates into repeatable decision making system. Yes you do need to start with your needs and not the attributes of someone who adore.

First your needs. Let us cut through the language plays and jargons and quantify what qualities we look for in a product manager and how important these are for the current role.

You should realize you are hiring for a basket of attributes. What is important for you is to decide upfront, before even you talk to any candidate,  how important each attribute is. Some of the attributes are (not comprehensive)

  1. Business skills
  2. Domain expertise
  3. Communication skills
  4. Technical upbringing
  5. Hustle

You may decide all of these are equally important  or one or two carry more weight than the rest. You may already have a team with deep technical knowledge and decide you are willing to de-emphasize technical knowhow of next product manager you hire. You may look at current gaps in your team and decide to bring a candidate whose attributes will address those gaps.

Whatever the needs are, you decide before you start the search process.

List out all the key attributes and decide how important each attribute is by assigning it a weight. For your convenience I have created a list of attributes and a way to assign weights.   Most important step is to stick to your weight allocation and not let yourself be distracted by any single attribute while evaluating candidates.

Next step is to define a consistent rating scale for each attribute to evaluate all candidates. Be it a scale of 1 to 6 or 1 to 100.   This is the rating scale you will use to evaluate all candidates.  The weighted sum (sum of product of attribute weight and attribute rating) is the overall score for the candidate.

Want to hire only the best? You set a realistic (and affordable) threshold to hire only those candidates that exceed that threshold, regardless of how they scored in any one attribute (Hint: it does not matter a candidate has 10000 twitter followers or remarkable presence if the overall score does not cross the threshold.)

When more than one cross the threshold you have two options. If it is just handful that make it to that level then you can apply qualitative factors among these. Or you can commit to hiring only those that scored the most. Either way you now have a rating and decision making system.

To summarize

  1. Scope your needs
  2. Assign weights to needs
  3. Define consistent rating scale
  4. Set realistic threshold for hiring criteria
  5. Set final decision making criteria

What is left is coming up with the right process and questions to evaluate candidates on each attribute.  That part has to wait, until you answer my request to take the survey.

Stop Saying 4Ps of Marketing

The 4Ps of marketing (or  more precisely marketing mix) is neither relevant nor correct. Luckily, most product and marketing managers who think strategically do not ever mention this concept let alone rely on it for their decision making.

Why? Let us recap the what the 4Ps stand for

Product What are you marketing?

Price  What are you charging for it?

Promotion How will you get the message out?

Place  Where will it be sold?

What is missing here?

People  Who are the customers?

Problem   What is the problem customers are trying to address? What is their compelling need? What is the job customers are trying to get done?

Positioning  How do you tell customers what job your offering is applying for?

Pay   Not just price but a comprehensive view of how your offering will get paid for its value-add? This also includes pay-now, pay-as-you-go and pay-per-use considerations. Pricing for the product remains the simplest way for a product to get paid for the job it is hired to do but expanding the scope to consider other monetization models helps to look at the bigger picture and align pay with value delivered and customer expectations.

Voila! This is another 4P  (which also points to the fact how easy it is to come up with mnemonics). You can see how starting with people and their problem helps you define the offering better instead of starting with a product and looking for ways to price and promote it and places to sell, completely ignoring customers and their needs.

The original 4Ps of marketing mix served students and consulting interviewees (People), who needed fast way to remember concepts (Problem), to help ace the test/interview  (Positioning) and were willing to pay high price (Pay).

Besides those segments and jobs to be done, 4Ps should not be used.

And if you are still hiring people based on their ability to recite 4Ps, well ….

Did you also notice Product did not feature here and I kept calling it as “your offering”?