How to Use Empathy, Time Management, and Curiosity to Judge PM Candidates
Much like Bart’s experience with not doing what Donny Don’t does, the PM interview process (and often the role itself!) is highly dependent on the company context. Unfortunately, that’s a recipe for murkiness and opacity in the interview process (at best), with a high likelihood for wasted time on both sides of the table (at worst). And while several books exist for how to be the interviewee, as a Product leader there are precious few resources for structuring PM interviews effectively, so they are almost all a variation on the following theme:
- A screening call with HR (optional)
- A chat with the hiring manager, typically a Product leader or someone close in rank to her or him, with questions similar to this excellent list from Product School
- A case study or take home exercise
- Defense of the case study or take home exercise
- A final round
While this has served countless companies well over the last decade, we’ve all collectively learned enough about Product Management as a discipline to evolve the interview process and judge candidates on three skills — Empathy, Time Management, and Curiosity — fundamental to PMs anywhere. While it is possible to get lucky on a case study or cover up a lack of domain knowledge with some quick cramming, it is nearly impossible to fake those three core skills. I won’t be outlining the promised 10/500, but what follows is a nevertheless solid list of interview techniques to tease out Empathy, Time Management, and Curiosity traits in your PM candidates.
- (Time Management) Take and share notes. Have the candidate go through their background one time (on the initial interview), then distribute their “tell me about your background” answer to the rest of the hiring group. This will give the candidate more time to demonstrate core competencies in each round, and ask thoughtful questions (see tip #3).
- (Empathy) Every round should be a different stakeholder. I understand that the logistics of this can be tough, but it is in your best interest to see how the candidate handles conversations with people with whom they’ll be interacting on a frequent basis.
- (Empathy, Curiosity) Each stakeholder should tailor their questions so that the candidate is directly correlating their answers with something that is key to the stakeholder. This assumes that the interviewer read previous rounds’ notes (to avoid asking the same questions), and that the interviewer relies on the product manager for input (and if not, why is this person on the hiring committee?). Examples of questions could be:
- “Tell me how you get feedback from both prospects and existing customers.” (Sales/Customer Success)
- “What are some ways you like to work with Designers?” (Design)
- “How do you prioritize technical debt vs. new features?” (Engineering)
- (Time Management, Empathy, Curiosity) Dedicate at least half of every round to questions from the candidate. The best product managers tend to ask the best questions, so any candidate who would turn down the opportunity to ask questions, or doesn’t have thoughtful questions prepared in advance, would make me think twice. An important corollary here is that it is perfectly OK to ask multiple stakeholders the same questions — after all, the answers might be radically different, which opens up even more questions!
- (Time Management) Skip the case study, especially if it’s a take home exercise. I anticipate losing respect on this one, but asking a candidate for a 2–4 hour investment on top of their normal responsibilities says more about your company than you think. Do you really get a feel for how a product manager thinks by giving them a hypothetical task, or is it a box that you’re checking? If it’s the latter, are you doing it because it’s the way you’ve always done it? Think about what you are actually hoping to find out about the candidate with a case study/take home exercise, because my bet is the next tip will be a better indicator.
- (Empathy, Curiosity) If you simply must “test” a candidate, hold a mock user interview with a clear feature in mind — say, a custom reporting interface— where the interviewer assumes one of several preset personae (provided in advance to the candidate). If the interviewer is a Sales user, does the candidate ask the right sorts of questions, and tailor the questions based on answers in the process? If it’s a B2C product, and the interviewer is a casual user vs. a power user, how does that alter the candidates questions and conclusions? This process allows the candidate to draw on their existing body of knowledge or, if they’re new to the domain, study up ahead of time!
- (Curiosity) As part of the final round, ask a very direct question: “Why are you passionate about working with us?” You probably already ask something similar, but pay very close attention to the answer the candidate gives. What about them makes your company special? Do they love your product and want to make it better? Have they always wanted to work for a company that does what yours does? Leaving a job is a huge decision on par with your decision in hiring — get a feel for why your company is at the top of this candidate’s list. Expediency is the worst possible answer.
- (Time Management) Don’t add unnecessary items to a list just to overextend a Simpsons reference.
A product management hire is important for every organization, whether this is the 1st or 10th or 100th. Product managers are business critical, and a misstep in the hiring process means lost weeks and months of ramping time followed by what will likely be subpar execution. While the role itself is nebulous, the skillset isn’t and any product manager who can successfully demonstrate Time Management, Empathy, and Curiosity is going to have a stellar career, hopefully with your company. Just don’t do what Donny Don’t does.