Need help interviewing Group Product Managers

I will be interviewing for a Group Product Manager position. I will be inheriting 3 PMs.
What are some questions interviewers ask about to understand your management & leadership skills? What are good reading materials for this interview process?
Example: How did you motivate your team through the COVID pandemic?

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This is written from the perspective of the other side of the table, but I think it’s an excellent series in terms of breaking down what hiring managers look for from certain interview questions.
It’s not PM-focused but some of the content might be relevant to the broader leadership questions you’re thinking about.

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I think that as you go up the hierarchy then the questions asked and the type of interview becomes very different per company.

So my advice would be to get the most insight about the company and the person interviewing you. The company:

  • Job posting - Read every bullet in the job posting very carefully. Find the bullet that is not generic. The one that looks like it has the “touch” of the hiring manager . Think of stories from your experience where you covered that bullet successfully and find a way to weave it into the interview
  • Company/product problems - Talk to people within the organization to understand what the problems are in terms of business/product. Ask them which of those issues are just their thoughts, and which of those are a consensus inside the company
  • Company unique value - With those same people, ask them what is the unique value of the company vs. competitors. It may not be the product. Could be the CS org. Weave that info into the interview

The person interviewing you:

  • Their posts/social media - Search for anything that person wrote, especially around product. Get a feel of what they value.
  • LinkedIn profile - Understand their background. Are they dev-oriented? Sales oriented? Do they care about credentials (ivy league schools or do they present online courses they’ve done in their LinkedIn)
  • Colleagues - Talk to people in the company who know them (if you can)

The approach in the interview should be that you two are already working together. If by the end it feels like you two are colleagues then you increased your chance for sure.

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Hi! I used to do the people management/leadership interview rounds at my previous companies.

Here’s what I would ask:

  • First, understand this person’s management experience. How many direct reports? For how long have they managed? How large was their org and cross-functional team? Titles are pretty loose these days, so it’s helpful to know exactly what their experience looks like.
  • Next, I’d ask 2-3 case studies. We actually separated people management from product leadership-- they were two separate interviews. For people management, I might pose a case study and see how they would respond, e.g.: (a) Ambitious PM wants to get promoted in 6 months but 12-18 months is more realistic. (b) Team member who’s technically brilliant and has a strong product sense gets feedback that they’re putting down others’ ideas. (c) You deliver feedback to a team member about the quality of their specs, and they get defensive about the feedback. (d) (For managers of managers) You need to bring on a new manager on your team. How do you decide whether to hire from outside the org or give an existing senior IC this role?

I ask follow up questions to understand the specific actions the candidate would take to address these situations. I sometimes ask them to jump into a role play (with me as direct report) to see how they’d handle a tricky management convo. I’m looking for solid judgment around common PM manager challenges. For product leadership, my questions are different. Let me know if it’d be helpful to know those.

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@NaomiNwosu, those are amazing, I would love to read your thoughts on product leadership interviews as well. (Didn’t write the question, just an interested bystander)

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Thanks @AmyWalker — For product leadership, it depends a bit on the role, but for a Director level position I’d typically ask two case studies: (a) A time when you led a team through ambiguity and uncertainty, (b) A time when you drove or made a decision amidst conflict and controversy. I tell them that these can be failures or successes. What matters is understanding your thought process/approach and what you learned from the situation. I personally like leaders who’ve failed meaningfully before and take ownership for it-- they tend to be more resilient and less fearful than leaders who’ve only experienced negligible failures. I asked a lot of follow up questions, in particular about specifically what actions they took, how they decided to take those actions, and their post-mortem on what could’ve been improved. Candidates typically come prepared with a canned 3-4 minute story that sounds nice. It’s the follow up questions that determine their quality of leadership IMO. Good candidates have sound, intentional reasoning for their actions, and truly insightful learnings. I walk away from the interview thinking "wow, that was insightful, being around this person would make me a better leader. "Not-so-great candidates aren’t intentional with their actions (e.g. they might say “well, it just happened that way” or “that was my only choice” or “it seemed like the right approach to take”). Their learnings are OK but less insightful (e.g. “I learned that I should bring in stakeholders early on in the process” - good learning for an early career PM but I expect more from a Director level candidate).

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What To Interview Product Managers For?

In Who, Geoff Smart and Randy Street offer an approach that starts by articulating a position’s mission, outcomes, and competencies. Someone has articulated XO Group’s key Product Manager competencies in an article defining the modern strategic Product Manager. For each Product Manager level at XO Group, they evaluate:

  • Strategic Thinking, including macro and micro level design making and problem structuring
  • Technicals, including engineering and design collaboration tools
  • Collaboration, including EQ and conflict management
  • Communication, including the ability to inspire others
  • Detail Orientation, including QA
  • User Science & Empathy, including qualitative and quantitative user research
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In addition to competencies, you would also evaluate if the candidate would be motivated by the position’s mission, users, team, structure, and growth opportunity. Not just can the candidate do the job, but will the candidate be excited waking up every day to do the job? These two separate notions are also known as will and skill.

Will: does the person have the will to do the job, i.e. is the person motivated and excited? Does this position feed the person’s soul?

Skill: does the person have the skill to do the job, i.e. does the person possess the key competencies to fulfill the position’s responsibilities?

In hiring, you should look for candidates with both will and skill. (Note that there’s been much HR discussion about optimizing for one vs. the other). Pertinent to Professor Dana’s and the You book’s recommendations, you should use the same questions in every interview, questions aligned to the role’s key needs.

I hope that makes sense.

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Evaluating Will: Top Product Manager Interview Question

“Tell me what the job is you’re applying for, and why it’s a great fit for your career.”

I read this question from an interview published by someone who wrote about his experience with Mike Osier, COO at Chegg and former VP Ops at Netflix. You can discover so much from this question, such as

  • Does the candidate understand the role? Has she done the research to take the application seriously? Have they synthesized what they’ve learned from other discussions into this response?
  • How does the candidate frame the role? Does the role feel important and ambitious?
  • Does the candidate remember to answer the second part of the question? Many don’t, even though the second half is more important!
  • What are the candidate’s career ambitions? Is this the type of person you want on your team now and in the future? Is this role and the organization a good fit for the candidate, and vice versa?
  • Is this candidate interested in product management because she’s a user-centered builder, or because she wants to add Product Manager to her resume?
  • How well does the candidate see the broader opportunity? Does the candidate’s framing show excitement, motivation, and understanding of impact, fit, and growth? Can you see how and why the candidate will want to thrive in this role?

I love this question as it accomplishes several goals while letting the candidate tell his/her story. To pass this question, the user needs to answer both sections and sell me on how this role positions him/her to take over the world. If the candidate fails to motivate me with passion, or simply forgets to answer the second part of the question, I’m likely going to pass on the candidate.

Isn’t it just amazing how he has grilled the candidate? I think you will definitely benefit from these points.

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OMG! Such amazing response and sooooo descriptive and full of wisdom comments. Thank you all for sharing your insights and experiences. It has been a great discussion and am looking forward to conducting a very fruitful and productive interview.
Thank you once again.