Product managers lead the process of making strategic decisions about what should go in a product and how to market and sell it. Ideally, they base these decisions on in-depth knowledge of the market - prospective buyers and users, the problems they face, and the competition - and apply sound marketing principles to make the decisions. They build a shared understanding of the market, the business model, and the strategy among members of the team.
Talent, not Industry Experience
But how can a hiring manager identify a product manager that will excel at performing these duties? As Buckingham and Coffman advise, the most successful managers select candidates based on talent, and not so much for experience. Thus the typical product manager job posting that lists experience in the industry as a prerequisite is misguided. Read more on the topic of industry experience and product management.
What Is Talent?
According to Buckingham and Coffman, a talent is “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied”. Unlike a skill, a talent spans every aspect of a person's life and doesn't manifest itself merely in a particular field or professional environment.
Acquisitive and emergent learner. The primary talent of a great product manager is that she pro-actively acquires knowledge, learns without direction, and constructs new knowledge from the patterns she observes. Researcher Martin Rayala distinguishes among four types of learning: transmission, acquisition, accretion, and emergence. The most talented product managers don't rely on learning through instruction (transmission) or on learning through experience (accretion).
Principled. Great product managers align activities and details with larger goals and principles. Acquiring market knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for making sound product decisions. A great product manager is relentless in applying timeless marketing principles (which are often counter-intuitive) and in asking how activities and decisions help the company and the customer.
Disciplined. Great product managers impose structure on work and life. They aren't satisfied with "unconnected dots" and, in their professional lives, are constantly striving to make sense of market data and synthesize it into a coherent overarching model and strategy. This characteristic is closely tied to emergent learning.
Adaptable. Great product managers adjust beliefs and actions in response to new information. While relentless in adhering to principles, they know market realities determine product success, and they recognize that up-front hypotheses about the market require testing through build-measure-learn feedback loops.
Facilitative. Great product managers recognize, cultivate, and activate talents and opportunities. They exhibit leadership by identifying and activating the talents in team members. They uncover challenges that prospects face, recognize opportunities, and facilitate the people and processes to nurture and pursue them.
How to Identify Talent
Resumes are a poor way of identifying and evaluating talent. Instead, conduct brief interviews of product management candidates, probing into their passions and approaches to life, work, and solving problems. As a general rule, you'll gain the most reliable and important insights into candidates' talents from what they say about everyday life situations, not how they describe their work-specific skills. Using these methods and identifying these talents, a hiring manager can find a promising product manager candidate who hasn't even previously played the role.