Confidently Build Your Best Product Team with These 4 Moves

Reading Time: 5 Minutes

Whether you’re a team of one against the world or part of a large organization of product managers, every new person you bring onto your team will be critical to your success. In the latest (and unfortunately penultimate) session of the First Round Product Program, our instructors — Adaptly VP Product Kristen Donnino and Squarespace Director of Product Natalie Gibralter, outlined a framework on how to confidently build the best product teams.

They outlined four key components to building a great product team, and each of them are equally important in ensuring that you locate and hire the right person for the job:

  • Build a Strategic Hiring Plan
  • Define Key Competencies
  • Develop Questions to Assessing Competencies
  • Interpreting Responses to Standardize Evaluation

Build a Strategic Hiring Plan

While this may sound obvious, building a strategic hiring plan is an often overlooked step. You have to ensure that candidates are being brought through a thorough and engaging process where you learn as much as you can about them, and they learn as much as they can about you.

This requires involving all of the relevant folks they will be working with, or those that will be impacted by their work. Interviewing is a two-way street, and a clearly defined plan with clear goals and objectives is crucial to making sure you have all the information you need in order to make the right hire — and in order to make sure the candidate wants to work with you as well.

To do this, you’ll want to determine who should be part of the hiring team, and broadly outline each step a candidate should take, between application and hire. Once you’ve created this outline — you’ll want to bring the team together and get into the details, determining what’s actually important for the job. Defining a job usually starts with the job description, but to truly get the best hires, you’ll have to dive into the details, and dig into what being a product manager means for your organization. This is critical to aligning aligning the hiring team on what you’re looking for, and ensuring everyone is assessed with fairness and speed.

Define Key Competencies

To help gather a good list of competencies, Kristen and Natalie had the class call out all the skills and attributes they thought defined a great product manager. Once we had a healthy list (about 20), we silently voted. We each got 3 stickers each — and placed them on our top competencies. The highest-voted competency in our group was “High Emotional Intelligence,” and this was the competency we used for the rest of the exercise. Some of the other competencies we came up with were: Attention to detail, Data-driven, and Pragmatic.

This exercise can be done quickly by your entire hiring team to gather all the competencies you think are important, and align everyone on what the most important ones actually are. Developing this with your own org will help you define what type of product manager you’re looking for right now, whether it’s a visionary leader, or someone who can dig into the weeds and help an experience team dig out of technical debt.

Once you’ve selected your favorites, you have to define them. This is one of the harder steps of the process, but one of the most important. A competency can mean different things to different people (whether they’re a product manager, designer, engineer, or anyone else on the hiring team). So, making sure you all have a clear definition is critical to making sure everyone on the hiring team is on the same page — and therefore, every candidate is being judged fairly and accurately by the standards of your organization.

Once you’ve done the heavy lifting of defining your key competencies, you’ll want to make sure everyone is aligned on how to discover whether or not a candidate actually has that competency.

Develop Questions to Assessing Competency

To help narrow down the best questions to assess these competencies, we went through a similar idea generation and voting exercise. Everyone had two minutes to write down questions (on sticky notes) that they would ask to assess whether or not a candidate had the competency or not. Once those two minutes were up, we ran through each question so everyone was familiar with the list, and asked for clarification any that were unclear. Then, the silent voting began.

The highest voted questions for “High Emotional Intelligence” were:

  • Can you give me an example of a time you were misunderstood and how you handled it?
  • How have you gotten your team out of a failure?

Most of the questions were great, but being able to choose our favorites helped us narrow the focus — and will help your team more precisely define the hiring plan. These will be the same questions that the interviewers will ask each and every candidate when interviewing. Getting the entire team to agree upon these questions is great for making you fine the right product person for the job.

Interpreting Responses to Standardize Evaluation

The final step in this process is to ensure that everyone is aligned on what a good response from a candidate actually looks like. In the same way that people can define competencies differently, or want to ask different questions to asses them, different people on the hiring team may consider different responses good and bad. For this section — we focused just on the question “Can you give me an example of a time you were misunderstood and how you handled it?” You may have guessed this already, but we wrote down good and bad responses to this question on sticky notes and silently voted on them with stickers to pick our favorites. Quickly narrowing down the responses to the very best, I recommend it for your team as well.

An important thing to note is that when we were defining good answers, we additionally were outlining and bad answers as well. This will help interviewers identify not only when a candidate is really excelling, but also when an interviewer should be recognizing red flags. While some of these fake responses could get laughs — at the end we landed on responses that we were really proud of.

For the question “Can you give me an example of a time you were misunderstood and how you handled it?”— the best kinds of responses were ones that included a period of reflection and rephrased the experience in a way that focused on the emotions of others. The worst kinds of responses were those that were stubborn and indicated the candidate never addressed the underlying communication problem.

Putting It All Together

This process only took us about 15–20 minutes total to run through, but this was only for one competency. Which is to say, defining this stuff is hard. But the amount of time spent upfront to do this work is immeasurable compared to the risk of hiring a candidate that isn’t the right fit for the organization. As Kristen and Natalie mentioned during the presentation, that’s not the best place to be for either the new hire or your organization.

While defining and clarifying your product manager competencies are hard, it’s also not the last step. Once you have this clearly outlined, you have to put it all back together with the plan and make sure that you put it into motion (potentially with a great tool like Greenhouse). The recurring theme in Kristen and Natalie’s presentation was the importance of alignment and consistency. If everyone on the team is consistently asking the same great questions and ranking folks along the same key competencies — you’re much more likely to end up with an awesome product team. And, once you have an awesome product team, the awesome product is inevitable.