why hiring a product manager is so hard

Rapleaf is looking for a super talented (read: rock-star) PM (product manager).   we've looked at over 1,000 resumes and have yet to give an offer.  so I find myself asking: why is it so hard to find a rock-star PM?

First, to define a rock-star PM, the person needs to be:
super smart, great communicator, fantastic listener

180px-Venn_diagram_cmyk.svg But the problem is that most really smart people that can communicate are not great listeners.  These people, from a young age, could talk and argue their opinions very effectively.  So many of these people become great engineers or salespeople (or even CEOs) where listening is important, but not the most important thing.

Great PMs need to incorporate feedback.   They need to understand the customer.   And they need to listen.  

Unfortunately, the Venn Diagram overlap of super smart, great communicator, fantastic listener is a very small set … so finding a great PM is hard.  

Another reason finding a great PM is hard is that a great PM will quickly get promoted in companies (probably faster than a great engineer or a great salesperson).  The role of a PM is to interact with more people in the company than any other role (except maybe HR).  so a great PM will meet more people and impress more people … and their talents will likely get noticed faster.  This seems particularly true in big companies.  So a great PM is more likely to become a VP faster than a great engineer or a great salesperson.  

And great PMs often end up starting companies or get promoted to C-level positions at companies.  The greatest PM in the world is probably Apple CEO Steve Jobs.  Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, is a great PM.  Unfortunately, you can’t hire Jobs or Zuckerberg … they’re not on the market.   I often invest in people that are obviously strong PMs: like Brightroll CEO Tod Sacerdoti, Meebo CEO Seth Sternberg, and  Thread cofounders Katherine Woo and Brian Phillips.

And we are looking for a great person.   And I know they are out there.   If you come across someone, even if they are still in college, please let me know.

13 thoughts on “why hiring a product manager is so hard

  1. Jen Zundel

    Eloquently stated, sir! This completely echoes my experience in working with Product Managers- of many different skill levels.

  2. Scott

    Good call on the listening skills – they are generally under-valued and often under-utilized. This despite the fact that empathy – which is largely grounded in active listening – has been repeatedly identified as perhaps the most important trait of good managers and product managers alike. In fact, the issue is systemic – MBA curriculums are chock full of strategy and finance courses, but have paltry few classes that emphasize listening skills.

  3. Chris Neumann

    I interviewed for your rock star PM job, and (obviously) didn’t get the job. I’ve had many people call me a rock star PM, and I’ve invented products that Walt Mossberg said were good, so I must be doing something at least partly right. I’ve heard the “I want to hire Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg/Aaron Patzer” argument a few times as well, and my response is always the same as the argument you made: those guys start their own companies, you can’t hire them. I have a few thoughts which might be helpful to you:
    1. Can you identify a product manager that works for someone else that you wish you could hire? Clearly the “I want to hire the famous guy who founded the famous company” argument won’t work. What about the guy that Palm hired who created the iPod? You’re not making consumer electronics, but is there someone like him in your industry? What’s the best product you can think of in your industry? Perhaps you can try to hire that person.
    2. Whether you like it or not, the products that your company makes are being product managed by someone, probably you and the other senior managers. Perhaps you should orient your thinking around finding someone who can do the job better than you. You have lots of opportunities at Rapleaf, perhaps you could even hire a PM for a specific opportunity that you want to go after, which might reduce your risk of hiring someone who could take the company in a bad direction.
    3. A comment on listening: In my experience, I think it’s important to know who to listen to. Being the PM is sort of like driving a bus and having everyone on the bus (bus being the company employees) giving you an opinion on how to drive. You have to basically ignore a lot of that, and focus on listening to the *customer*. This is why I like user testing for consumer web apps. It’s a great way to get actual customer data, which refutes or confirms the various opinions coming from the back of the bus. It’s hard to overcome actual customer data, so it makes the PM’s job a lot easier.

  4. Dave Stock

    A great product manager is not just technical which is often overlooked. In my opinion, the product managers that I have worked with were very intimate with the customers. They didn’t say, “Wow this is a great technological feat”, but rather “Wow, this is a great enhancement/new product that our customers will use, and they have given us the green light to roll it out to everyone.”
    This is why the “super smart, great communicator, fantastic listener”, often comes from customer service experience (in some form or fashion). They have the ability to relate to the customer. They also have one thing that you missed I think, that is the ability to learn quickly. You can teach the technology, but you can’t teach the intuitiveness or the creativity, as that is innate in a person. I believe this is why people who are entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley have been so successful. If takes that combination of “super tech smart” and creatively/intuitiveness to make a company successful, as they must have both. There are numerous examples of companies who had one or the other, but the most successful companies have had both qualities.

  5. Beth Vuolo Gousman

    1,000 resumes-how many interviews? Sounds like you’re not attracting the right candidate, either.
    A number of questions come to mind. I might suggest starting by reviewing the job description. “Super smart, great communicator, and fantastic listener” are very hard to quantify. It’s hard to imagine any kind of role in any organization where those skills would be undesirable. Also, what on a resume will indicate if the person in question possesses those skills?
    I thought Chris made some excellent points in his remarks. It might be very worthwhile to determine which members of the management team are contributing to PM skills, and prioritizing which contributions could be better outsourced to a PM to determine the highest strategic importance that a PM can bring to your company. It may give you a better idea of what you need.

  6. spUdsPud2

    If you’re open to people still in college for the ‘rock star PM’ gig, then you should probably change the Master of Product Management job description on Rapleaf to open up that filter.
    I respectfully disagree that ‘a great PM will quickly get promoted’. It depends upon the company and it’s industry context as well as personal circumstances. For instance, what if a great PM gets a money spinning product ready to launch just when the company runs out of funding? What if the Uber PM loses a child at birth?
    The whole ‘the cream always rises to the top’ argument ignores a lot of proof to the contrary. I think Malcom Gladwell, in his inimitable pop-culture way, states that case pretty well in ‘Outliers’.
    Not everyone starts from the same place. Extraordinary talent can be found in unexpected places and in novel ways.
    Fair enough to say: ‘yes, there might be great PMs that don’t have an illustrious track record, but we will manage our hiring risk by only looking at those who have a few ‘double platinum’ hit products.
    However, the ‘proven’ concept is mutex with ‘still in college’, isn’t it?

  7. Roger L. Cauvin

    You’ve hit the nail on the head with the difficulty of finding product managers with listening skills. I recently co-presented a webinar in which I talked about the different forms of learning:
    accretion – learning by “osmosis”, through experience over time.
    transmission – learning by being trained or through other programs structured by others
    acquisition – learning through proactive research and immersion
    emergence – creation of new knowledge through the proactive synthesis of knowledge
    People who learn by accretion and transmission are a dime a dozen. What distinguishes a good product manager from others is their exceptional ability to learn by acquisition and emergence. They do so by uncovering market problems in much the same way a therapist uncovers the root of a client’s problems.
    The typical product manager job posting calls for years of experience in the industry. The problem is that acquisitive and emergent learners get bored staying in a particular industry for too long, especially if they’re managing the same product. They have a hunger for knowledge that spurs them to explore uncharted industries. Furthermore, acquisitive and emergent learners often can, in only a few weeks, surpass people with years of experience in the industry in their mastery of a market.
    You’ve got what appears to be a fantastic job posting for a product manager. You’re looking for someone who truly embodies what product management is all about. I wish I could throw my hat in the ring, but I’m partial to Austin, Texas.

  8. John Harris

    In addition to the product management role (being out in the market listening and learning from customers and non-customers), it appears you expect this person to also serve as a business analyst and UX designer (to work with Development) and a sales engineer (to work with Sales). I would suggest that 1,000 resumes is probably not enough to find someone with 2 years experience or still in college with all those skills.

  9. Jim Holland

    First, I read, LISTENED and heard what you said. I come from the Product Management school where “Hearing is a gift and Listening is an art.” In your post and on your site, you said you were looking for a “rock-star PM” that is “super smart, great communicator, fantastic listener” and has 2 to 6 years of experience.
    It would be an interesting exercise to review the list of resumes/CVs and note the number with less than 5 years of experience and those with no sales experience such as “sales engineering.” In my opinion, the foundation for GREAT product management listeners is a person who has spent significant time getting bludgeoned for not doing so, has lived the sales cycle and that isn’t a person with less than 5 years of experience.
    Your point on many successful product management-types make great C-level executives is spot on. I wish there were more.

  10. Saeed Khan

    Would a company ever put out an ad like this?
    We’re looking for a hunter-killer salesperson. You’ll need to be able to identify and develop opportunities, close deals in record time, solution sell when needed, strategic sell otherwise. You’ll need great account management skills, and be able to mentor less experienced sales people. Technical skills are a requirement as you’ll also manage a team of Sales Consultants. You’ll report into the Director of Regional Sales, North West.
    Of course no company would have a job description like this, but they often do this for Product Managers. They want to roll an entire team (or at least the roles of 2 or 3 people) into one role. And then they wonder why they can’t find any “good” PMs.
    Rock Stars don’t work alone. Springsteen has the E Street Band. Bono has the Edge, Adam Clayton, Gary Mullen. Even famous solo artists have song writers, backup singers, producers etc. to make them great.
    Companies need to understand the Product Management is a function not a singular role.

  11. Robert Clawson

    To add to Saeed’s well put comment, you also need to offer a truly compelling opportunity to change the world to attract the rock-star product manager to your team.

  12. Gammydodger

    A great product manager should be an agent of change able to inspire, convince, cajole and institute change upwards and downwards in an organization and to do the same with customers, partners and investors. And all of these thing simultaneously.
    This means you’re looking for an individual who is able to successfully carry a set of dichotomous pairs of traits:
    Communicator vs. Highly Analytical
    A) They must be highly effective communicators (two ears one mouth – used in that proportion) able to hear and empathize with the business needs of every stakeholder (understand engineering constraints, sales targets, customers’ business models and pains, investors’ ROI/Payback objectives), understand which are real needs and which are simply perceived, then address the real needs head-on with product features and service options.
    B) But they also must be able perform an independent analysis, asking critcal questions of the problem, the system and technical solution. They must be able to shift focus and see things from 50,000 ft or under a microscope then rapidly move between the two perspectives (like this http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/begin/cells/scale/) and then make objective decisions that optimize resources and deliver the greatest return on investment
    Pragmatic vs. Idealistic
    A) They must be able to apply logical process to ensure that all factors are well considered yet be able to make rapid decisions on incomplete information, to make trade offs and hard decisions to cut features. They need to know when to stand-by those decisions and where to adapt them when the situation shifts unexpectedly. Ultimately a project manager has to manage the dividing line on a product backlog.
    B) Yet, they need to be open to new ideas, know how to brainstorm effectively, to champion new technologies and understand how to infuse existing products with innovation and create game changing strategies and they need to know how to create action and movement out of an idea with strong potential.
    Critical vs. Promoting
    A) They must be able to be constructively critical of the product – in terms of underlying technology, in terms of the total user experience to include any services and channel partner aspects, in terms of elegance vs. functionality of user interface, in terms of product quality and not be afraid to ask the stupid and obvious questions – this is a process of continuous improvement.
    B) However, they must also be able to promote and put a postive spin on the proposition – to sell new ideas inside the organization, present new concepts to prospects, customers and channel partners, press and analysts such that they are itching to use it for themselves, they must be a performer and improviser.
    When you look at the skill set, is it any wonder that these individuals are rare – because as you say, they are quickly snapped up or more likely, they’re doing it for themselves.


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