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Should product managers have input on hiring decisions?

Posted on July 21, 2008 · No Comments

Question: How much influence should a product manager have on hiring?

How much do you think the product manager should be involved in hiring new team members? At my current position I am involved in a bit of a professional tiff over hiring. I think if they’re team members who are going to be offering technical or administrative support to my product than I have an obligation to be involved. Part of the problem also stems from the recruitment team we’ve been working with; I have been pushing to find more folks through recruiting sites and other marketplaces where we can get specialized recruiters without breaking the bank. But, I have been at odds with both project and hiring managers who seem territorial. Am I over-stepping my boundaries or do I have a case?

Answer from Derek Britton, Independent Product Management consultant: It’s not 100% clear to me whether this question refers to hiring other PM’s into your team, or whether you mean hiring others in the organization who will be directly contributing to your Product area. I’ve therefore covered both.

Who recruits is actually a question that goes right to the very heart of whether the Product Manager has true operational responsibility for the entire go-to-market success of a product, or whether they are merely responsible for helping shape strategy and product delivery, reporting to others who own the “business” side.

Re-stated, the question is “Who shapes the team that delivers on the vision (including revenue results, go to market activity etc.) for a product”? Should it, as you might think, be something the Product Manager decides? In an ideal world, we’d all like to think so. But for other teams? What about the fact that the skills required might be (especially sales, maybe very technical positions, even some marketing expertise) unknown (or at least not clearly known) to us. Surely we have to defer to the relevant functional leaders. I mean, if it is a sales guy, surely it is the sales manager who has to do the hiring, as he has the best skills to make the best judgment; otherwise, what is the sales manager’s functional remit? When you consider functional specialism, it is abundantly clear you have to defer responsibility for recruitment to those functional leaders, and trust them to recruit the right staff.

Having said that, you absolutely have every right to — at the very least — specify any product-area-specific requirements you have to that functional leader. Certainly in the cases where the recruitment is going to be unique to your product area (if that is the case, trust me you are fortunate), you may be looking for a unique type of skill, a specific background, a certain demeanor, etc. This may even be part of an existing product area business plan, in which case any failure to listen to your input can be flagged to those responsible for that plan (assuming again it isn’t just you). In software, there is a big difference between repeatable, transactional selling of “upgrades” of existing kit, as compared with new-site major enterprise deals. The sales skills required for each are so different as to be almost mutually exclusive. This does have an impact on recruitment — it is your prerogative to raise such matters.

Where you do want to specify needs, I think that agreeing your requirements with the interviewers (and for the job spec, obviously) would be sufficient. I can’t imagine you necessarily want or need to interview all candidates for a role in another team, for example. Where the teams are separate functional disciplines, again such as sales, development, even marketing, certainly F&A, you’d want to leave that to the functional leads, and simply give input as necessary. If the “team” in question is somewhere within the overall PM organization (however it is structured), you have a stronger case for attending the interview, of course. But again, the leader of the function is probably ultimately going to have the say in terms of who poses the questions. In my role, we have tended to have “informal chats” lined up after the interview where other PMs can get to know any good candidates, to at least have a view of a first impression, but the actual interview process only involves the boss and one other team member, not the whole gang. Frankly, countless people asking similar questions is not a good use of time and does not convey much trust in those doing the interviewing.

To summarise, my personal view here is that the PM should be informed and involved, but not necessarily directly taking part, in any wider (non-PM) team recruitment. For the PM team itself, the involvement is more hands on. Where the recruitment is outsourced in some way, certainly in terms of the initial screening, then the initial specification must be rock solid –and you can stipulate that in the service agreement with your supplier.

Finally, any “tiff” needs to be resolved, face to face. If you have an “issue” with recruitment, you need to understand yourself what you think is amiss, and be sure your view is based on a professional principle, not a personal perspective. I know people who want to control every aspect of their PM sphere of influence, but it invariably results in them alienating people who don’t appreciate the implied lack of trust. The subtleties of influencing skills may be required to yield the best possible results in this case. If you just don’t think your recruiter grasps what is needed, then you have to explain the “gap” in terms of the business value the role needs and therefore the skills required. It isn’t a scalable fix to try to conduct the interviews yourself.

While this response covers a lot of ground, the question implies a lot of possible scenarios, so I was hoping this will be a good general guide and will hopefully cover your specific case. If not just send further comments and I’m sure we can pick up the more specific thread.