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3 Things to Consider When Hiring Your First Product Leader

Calendar icon 12th April 2021

So you need to hire your first Product Leader, but do you know how to attract them? Do you know what makes Product people tick? Do you know what sort of Product Director/VP/Chief you’re looking for?

To help answer these questions, we believe there are 3 key pillars you need in place before hiring your first Product Leader:

Pillar #1 – Autonomy
Pillar #2 – The Player/Coach
Pillar #3 – Your Story

When carefully considered and combined, these 3 pillars will provide the foundations, culture and purpose that any successful Product Leader needs to thrive.

Let’s get into it…

#1 – Autonomy

This word gets thrown around a lot and is a regular feature in Product Management job descriptions.

However, if it’s so “normal” then why is it still a common area of frustration for Product people? Putting it simply, without the right level of autonomy the Product Leader can’t be fully effective. Understanding what autonomy really means for your first senior Product hire is critical.

So what does it mean?

Let’s provide some context: A VP Product’s biggest point of authority should be their knowledge of your user. This knowledge dictates the product roadmap, and how they fundamentally do their job.

  • Where does this knowledge come from? – By being given autonomy over their roadmap.
  • Where does autonomy come from? – Having the decision-making freedom to learn, test and build, day-to-day.
  • What does this day-to-day look like? – Deciding what to build and why, based on customer and stakeholder data.

What this really means is that the Founder (for example) needs to be fully comfortable with stepping away from the day-to-day world of Product Management, instead, shifting their focus to the longer-term Product vision. This typically involves; letting go of the intimate relationship with both Engineering and Design teams, and thus, their control over what should be built and delivered (in the short-to-medium term).

Don’t worry – any good Head of/VP Product knows that letting go of these responsibilities doesn’t happen overnight.

What’s the solution? Empower them, and let them play. You’ll quickly see what they can do, and you’ll soon thank them for it.

#2 – The Player/Coach

When hiring your first senior Product Leader, you ultimately need them to do a whole host of things – and the Player/Coach profile is often the best way to go. Hiring a Player/Coach into a Product role has its challenges; they sit in that small space between “not experienced enough” and “too strategic and hands-off”, so you want someone who brings a perfect balance of execution and leadership skills.

To help quantify this, here are the 5 “must have skills” we advise including in your requirements when looking your first Product hire:

The candidate must have experience in:

  • Setting and selling a Product vision
  • Leading and/or managing cross-functional Product teams
  • Implementing competitive Product strategies
  • Winning buy-in and influence
  • Building Products from scratch, fully end-to-end

Arguably the most important skill is their experience in building Products from scratch, i.e. – the ‘Player’. The narrative behind this is key and should give you comfort that they are still driven by execution, and that the future of your Product will be in good hands as they continue to innovate, and scale.

Your first Product hire should be comfortable in talking through how they build Products from scratch, particularly what went well, what didn’t, what they’d do differently now, and so on.

As Jonathan Golden (AirBnB’s first Product hire) puts it: “My advice is to find a builder, not a maintainer. Look for a PM who has actually built a new product, not someone who was handed a well-established product to manage.” The right candidate could have built something great 2-3 years ago, or even 7-8 and beyond, but it’s important they still know how to do this, and actually enjoy that part of the role.

Once they have their feet under the desk, the remaining four skills will very quickly follow, and that’s where the ‘Coach’ part comes in. These are a little more self-explanatory and may go hand-in-hand with the Founder in the first year, but will be essential in ensuring your Product Leader doesn’t drown in the more strategic and nuanced parts of the role.

It is a delicate balancing act and makes for a tough hire, but if assessed properly – the Player/Coach Product Leader will be instrumental in building a well-oiled Product function, and will lead from the front at each stage of growth and scale.

#3 – Your Story

Though autonomy and finding someone with that “Player/Coach” style is essential, you firstly need to engage and hire the individual.

When we ask Product Leaders what they want in their next role, almost always, one of the following requirements comes up:

“I want to work for a company that has a genuine mission, or social purpose”

“I’m looking for a role where product management is at the heart of their strategy, and the product has a meaningful purpose behind its vision”

“I’d love to build products that are solving real world, user problems that are making a positive impact on people’s lives”

Simply put, to properly convey purpose, mission, impact and vision – you have to get Your Story right. To construct a powerful story, you must be absolutely clear on the following:

  • The narrative behind why the business exists and the problems you set out to solve
  • How things have evolved from the idea, to now
  • Why a Product Leader, and why now?  
  • How you sell the mission, vision and purpose
  • The culture of the business – is it conducive for a Product Leader to thrive?
  • Alignment: is everyone (particularly interviewers) aligned? Product Management can be nuanced, so be super clear about what you need in your first Product hire. Does everyone know why?
  • The Team – Product people are betting on you – particularly if the Product is your lifeblood. Does your team know how to sell themselves?

When combined, this is how you hook someone in and rise above the noise. It’s about making them feel part of something special. Product people like to solve problems they believe in. Without this affinity, they will quickly become disengaged, and you’ll lose out on the best talent.

In summary, we advise condensing this story into a powerful narrative that is sharp, clear and impactful. Think of it as an elevator pitch. This must be watertight and compelling, and it will make all the difference when you know you have the right Product Leader in front of you.

To close, this is by no means a perfect formula, but it has all the raw ingredients to engage, impress and empower your first Product hire. By implementing these pillars, you will set the correct tone up-front, fully enabling your new Product function to play a leading role in the growth of your business.

Paul is a Director at Zeren and works with ambitious founders and innovative, high-growth B2B & B2C technology companies across Europe to build their Product leadership and teams from Manager to VP level.