The Difference Between Good and Great Product Managers (Bonus: How to get me to interview you when I’m hiring)

Just yesterday I posted that Good PM/Bad PM by Ben Horowitz is my absolute must read for product managers. I wanted to take a little bit of time and add something to that. While I really love that article, it misses out on some pieces.

A few months ago I started recruiting for product managers to help build out our product team. What I found were a few different things:

  • Project managers applying for product manager jobs with no explanation for the role change (In my organization project managers assess risk, ensure on-time delivery, help with sprint planning, and handle many of the technical details);

  • Product marketers applying for product manager jobs. Similar to a lot of the project manager applicants I saw, many of these applicants hadn’t explained why the move from product marketing to product management. That said, I saw a number of product marketers who didn’t demonstrate a clear understanding of the difference between product marketing and product management. (In my organization product marketing helps craft the message, handles sales enablement, etc. where product management defines the features to solve the customer problems/needs, assists in prioritization, etc.)

  • Poorly put together application packages. These are packages of applications that didn’t come through friends or insiders that had either no cover letter, grammar errors in the cover letter or resume, or showed no effort whatsoever to tailor either the resume or the cover letter to what we wrote in the job description.

Of all of these reasons why I reject applicants it’s the 3rd that drives me the most nuts. Here’s why:

  • Good product managers talk to customers all the time, great product managers do their research before talking to customers and effectively tailor the conversation to the customer. If you haven’t spent the time to figure out what I’m hiring for and tailored the conversation to that, then how are you going to do it in front of a customer?

  • Good product managers have extraordinarily high “E Quotients" meaning that they know how to read the person they are talking to and tailor the conversation appropriately. This means even if you are coming from a different role you know how to explain and empathize with a change of pace. I’m never opposed to hiring someone who is job transitioning, but you’ve got to go the extra mile to explain the fit. It also means when I bring you in to interview across my executive team you are prepared and know how to adjust the conversation appropriately between the VP of Sales and the VP of Technology.

OK, beyond my hiring practices, let’s talk a bit more about the differences between good and great product managers.

  • Good product managers mind the details of a build and know when to ask questions of the engineering/design team. Great product managers know where the bodies are buried from cut features, technical debt, etc. Excellent product managers know how to steal time in future sprints to deal with these issues.

  • Good product managers understand their own company’s processes. Great product managers know what’s wrong with the company processes and how to push to get them changed. Excellent product managers look to other company’s processes and push to get those implemented in their own companies when appropriate. They can clearly articulate why a different process would be better.

  • Good product managers follow and implement new processes. Great product managers know when it’s time to drop the process bullshit. Enough said.

  • Good product managers move at the speed of their company. Great product managers move at the speed of their markets.

There you go- that’s some of the separation in my mind between good and great. In an upcoming post I’ll show one of the ways I get there in interviews. I’ll also be giving away my favorite interview question, so I’ll have to find a new one. Such is life.