Hiring the Product Management Unicorn

As a many-yeared veteran of Product Management, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a trend I’ve spotted regarding the role of Product Management and Product leadership. I’ve seen many job descriptions from companies looking for senior Product leaders (CPOs, VPs), have talked to many hiring stakeholders, and have reflected on my own experience as a Product leader in half a dozen companies of various sizes, maturities, geographies. And, recently, a seasoned HR manager that has seen many companies asked me why Product leaders seem to have a high turnover (2–3 years in-role). This all leads me to my observations regarding the Product Management Unicorn.

The Product Management Unicorn
The Product Management Unicorn

Everyone wants one. No one has ever seen one. But they keep looking.

Any hiring team or manager that has spent at least a little bit of effort thinking through what they want from their Product Management leader actually ends up coming up with the same job description. For example, let’s enumerate all the “musts” for a typical CPO hire:

  • Think strategically, at a market and industry level
  • Think tactically, at a roadmap and implementation level
  • Think operationally, when running the Product team and working with the organisation
  • Be able to roll their sleeves up and dive into the detail of Product management (specs, requirements, KPIs, etc.)
  • Evangelise externally, present at conferences, webinars, etc.
  • Be a thought leader in the space of the business, publish posts, white papers, etc.
  • Understand the technology ecosystem and the emerging trends (vendors, providers, etc.)
  • Have a great understanding of the customers and their needs, spend lots of time with them
  • (Help) sell to customers, alongside Sales and Marketing teams, and put the deals over the line
  • Develop go-to-market plans, positioning, materials, product marketing content, etc.
  • Understand, select, and negotiate with partners, vendors, providers
  • Coordinate and work across internal stakeholders to build and drive consensus
  • Be an excellent public presenter and storyteller to the company
  • Hire and develop the best Product managers
  • Be a great people manager of the Product team, that builds trust and respect (and of course, retains them)
  • Run a high performing Product team, along with all of its processes, tools, organisational integration, roadmaps, offsite, socials, etc.
  • Be trusted by Engineering, building excellent relationships, and work effectively alongside them
  • Understand the underlying tech of the Product and its capabilities, costs, tradeoffs
  • Drive the build execution and deployment of the actual Product (roadmaps, development cycles, feature launches, sunsets, etc.)
  • Be responsible for the in-market Product performance (bugs, uptime, speed, customer feedback, etc.)
  • Be data-driven and excellent at analytics
  • Deploy and implement various metrics, KPIs, and other measurement processes across the organisation
  • Be able to communicate with the senior-most board members, as well as the junior-most individual contributors
  • Be flexible and adjustable in ways of working with different teams, processes, work styles, including during different phases of company maturity
  • Be firm and decisive, driving decisions and outcomes
  • Inspire and motivate everyone

If I missed something from the list, please let me know. Better yet, don’t. Because adding just another bullet won’t improve your chances of finding a Product Management Unicorn that fits your job description.

Now, I have worked with hundreds of Product people, dozens of Product leaders (and thousands of other people) in my career, even in big, important, famous companies, and I have never met anyone that comes even close to meeting all 20+ characteristics. If you have, please introduce me!! I’m always up for meeting a mythical creature.

On the bright side, this exhaustive list is an indicator of how valued and respected Product Management is. These are all things that various Product people are capable of doing well, and there are numerous examples where Product takes leadership in these areas and really drives great outcomes for organisations. It’s a testament to the importance Product Management plays and all of the ways it can be valuable.

However, a good, solid Product leader, or even more broadly, a good general manager/executive may be excellent at seven or eight of these things. Pretty good at ten, at most. (In my own observation, the most senior Product leaders in the “high profile” jobs/companies typically excel in only three to five of these.) You can’t be great strategically, and into details, and be a great people manager, and a great evangelist, and a great writer/communicator, and great at data analytics. Not only are all of the skills listed impossible to combine in one mortal person, there is simply not enough time in the day to undertake and excel in all of these things. If you’re spending time with customers, you’re not spending time researching the technologies and partners in your sector. If you’re spending time presenting to the board and writing thought-leading blog posts, you’re not spending time mentoring your team.

If you’re expecting all of this from your Product leader, you’re setting yourself up for eventual disappointment. It’s really that simple.

You will probably hire someone anyway. Perhaps you’ve found a candidate that has brushed up against most of these requirements before and has convinced you that they “can” do them (but you certainly haven’t examined their proficiency in all 20+ factors during the interview process). Perhaps you think that you’ll accept half of the factors now and let the candidate develop the other dozen over time, that they will “grow into” their role (they won’t, see above regarding human constraints). Perhaps you think that they can start out by fixing a few urgent problems first, then move on to carrying out the rest of their full role later (you’re underestimating “maintenance” costs for areas that they are strong in and have gotten under control as well as their affinity to those areas/skills).

Which leads me to the second part of this topic: why Product leaders (and even Product managers) have short tenure. My theory is that, after a few years, in a role, a Product leader that comes in with seven or eight of these strong capabilities, finds themselves pulled in the direction of the other 18 by the same forces that originally wrote the job description. At this point, there is a growing mismatch between what the Product leader wants to do/enjoys doing/performs well in, and what the company is pressing/expecting. Given the high demand for Product leadership in the marketplace, the simplest resolution to this tension is for the Product leader to go work elsewhere, where they can reset their focus to their strengths, and start over with the goodwill that comes from bringing a new set of strengths into an organisation (and usually, they will earn a lot more money in the new job). This goodwill and happy stakeholder theme will last usually a few years, until the cycle repeats itself. Staying put often means an ever-consuming and stressful effort to reshape stakeholder expectations, or the hard work to attempt to develop all the weak skills (which, for more senior, mature Product leadership is the path of much greater resistance than might be for junior PMs, particularly because they have been around long enough to know that no one can be excellent at 20+ things, and because they are from the focus on strengths school).

So what does this mean for you if you’re considering hiring Product leadership? Firstly, know your own strengths/capabilities and the strengths of the rest of the leadership team and your company. Identify the new strengths that will complement them via a new Product leader. (Do you really need them to evangelise externally, or are there enough founders and sales and marketing people to focus on this? Do you really need them to drive process/operations or is your Engineering team strong enough to own this?) Plan ahead a few years; if you’re a scale-up, or in a rapidly changing industry or organisation, think what strengths you might need from your Product leader later (probably team building and Product mentorship). Now, take this list and shave it down until you only have seven to ten requirement bullets. Finally, review the list and ask yourself: these things on the list, would I ask my CTO to do them all? My VP of Sales? Myself? If not… then don’t ask your CPO to do them all either. Keep shaving the list down. If, when you hire your Product leader you don’t feel like you’ve compromised on more than two or three things, then you know you’ve done it right.

And, if you’re wondering, I consider myself pretty good at 17 of the 26 bullets (but I won’t tell you which). Think of me as a white stallion but without the horn. I’m as close as you’ll get to a Product Management unicorn!

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