Product Teams Chris Jones

Chris Favorite Interview Question

Last year, my partner Marty Cagan wrote a blog post called My Favorite PM Interview Question which asks a candidate whether or not they believe the product manager is the CEO of the product. This question gives an interviewer great insight into the mindset and working orientation of an individual candidate; but if you are the manager responsible for building a team of PMs, there’s a question I like even better.

The question comes late in the interview, but early in the overall hiring process. The setup goes like this: “Now that I know you a bit, I’d like to give you a list of 4 broad work attributes. You’re a product manager, so I already expect that you’re strong in each. But I highly doubt that you consider yourself equally competent in all of them. So I’m going to ask you to stack rank them in order of strongest to weakest.”

This setup should be disarming. The candidate must understand that there is no correct answer to the question, hopefully setting up an honest conversation.

Now for the 4 attributes in no particular order. I usually describe them this way:

  • Execution — how well do you get things done, do the right thing without being asked, and track lots of simultaneous targets?
  • Creativity — how often are you the person in the room with the most or the best ideas?
  • Strategy — how well do you get up above what you’re working on and put it into a broader market or vision context and then make this clear to others?
  • Growth — how good are you at figuring out ways to multiply effort, through smart use of process, team management, etc.?

The surface value of this question reveals how a candidate engages in a conversation that is ultimately about their self-assessed weaknesses. I put a lot of importance on a product manager’s level of self-awareness and their ability to identify and admit areas of growth. (You can think about this question as a less contrived and more effective version of the classically stupid “tell me about your weaknesses.”) I’m skeptical of a candidate who is unwilling or unable to venture into this conversation or when their self-assessment seems wildly at odds with what I’ve already observed in other parts of the interview.

But if you’re a manager of PMs, this question serves a more important purpose: it is a check on your own biases and helps ensure that you don’t end up hiring a bunch of clones (usually of yourself). The question should leads you to frame your team as a more diverse portfolio of skills and strengths rather than a collection of one-dimensional all-stars.

To take some simple examples from my teams:

  • Creative-forward people are often strong at leading product teams that are working on early, pre-product/market fit areas of the product
  • Execution-heavy PMs may be better suited to lead team for a more mature product
  • Strategy-oriented PMs are good contributors for vision and product portfolio work
  • Growth people are helpful with setting process and managing teams.

It’s true that nobody is equally strong across those attributes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build a team-as-a-whole that is, then deploy those people to the places where they add the most value. This interview question will help you to assess your team across a portfolio of attributes, and hire into the deficiencies.

Most importantly, the question is a vehicle for you to execute the advice to “hire people smarter than you.” You should periodically stack rank your own attributes (it will change over time by the way), then hire PMs that can support your deficiencies. It’s a lot easier on the ego to hire into weaknesses when you also know what makes you uniquely strong.

Of course, the needs of every team are unique, and your list of attributes may be different than mine. I should also point out that I don’t include attributes that I consider mandatory for every candidate. I treat things like intelligence, communication, leadership soft skills, and passion for product as table stakes and don’t consider them part of a portfolio. The important thing is to understand which attributes are mandatory, and which ones to spread across the team as a whole.

If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find that this question leads to some interesting interview conversations and candidate observations. If you’re doing it right, it should also lead to revelations about your team and and even yourself.