9 FAQ’s Product Leaders will ask you when interviewing
By Paul Nicholls. Paul is a Director at Zeren where he leads the Product Management recruitment team, partnering with some of the hottest tech companies across UK & Europe.
It’s not uncommon for our clients to say to us: “I’ve never actually hired a Product Leader before – what can I expect”? …or “What should I be looking for”? Seeing as we speak with Product Leaders on a daily basis, we have listed 9 of the most common questions product leadership candidates will ask us about our clients, or roles we pitch to them.
We wanted to give some context to these topics, with a few hints and tips on how to best navigate them.
TLDR: Focus on the problem, know your numbers, look for the right level of leader, don’t be afraid to ‘let go’ at times, and be honest.
See below for some meat on the bones:
1. What problems are you solving, and how are you doing it?
More than ever, Product Leaders are putting “the problem area” at the top of their list. Culture, team, compensation (and more) play second fiddle to the problem itself. This is what gets them out of bed in the morning, so quite simply: this is the carrot to dangle. A great team, culture, package and scalable solution is what gets them to stay (more on that later).
Things to think about: Can you sell your vision in a compelling way? How did the business start? Tip: Condense this into a 2-3 minute compelling narrative. A personal story always lands well, and brings it to life for the candidate. Paint a picture, and a great product leader will sense your passion – making for a stimulating, thought-provoking conversation.
2. How scalable is this?
The basics – what is your addressable market? How do you (plan to) monetise? What verticals or use cases could your product fit within, and why? What experience do the Founders have in this space, and what is your plan to get to PMF? Knowing your numbers and being well informed is table stakes for any product leader – so be prepared (maybe you have a pitch deck you can share with them)?
Conversely, this can often translate into a great scenario for both interviewer and candidate to work through some scalability ideas together – putting a working relationship to the test!
3. What is the size and setup of the engineering team?
This is very important and can be a deal breaker for some candidates. Any pragmatic product leader will want to know how quickly they can execute, and they are only as good as their engineering counterparts (in the medium term at least).
It’s important to give an honest assessment of the tech stack, tech debt, the product backlog, and the performance of the product itself. Where are the challenges, and how can they help?
As mentioned above, a great team is what gets them to stay. The problem area gets their attention, the quality of your team (both technically and as people) is what will separate you from the competition. A great place to start is their Engineering counterpart, and wider product and design team. Get them involved in the interview process as early as you can.
4. What level of (financial) investment will I receive to be successful?
Perhaps not an immediate concern, as discovery work will take time – but over the first 12-18 months, how much investment is allocated to the product and tech side of the business, vs other teams? For example, saying you’re product-led and actually doing it is another thing.
To do this, investment is needed in both resource and new product development. This can also be flipped into questions to the candidate about how they navigate leaner, ‘bootstrapped’ business problems.
5. What are the immediate priorities?
With the Product leader likely being hired to help improve prioritisation across the business, it’s important you are honest about immediate priorities, and how these will impact the customer, and the business.
Equally, the immediate priorities might not impact the product or tech team, but either way, they will want to understand the state of play, and where they are needed to add value in the first 3 months. To reiterate: if your priorities don’t mention the “user”…prepare to be challenged! This can give off a reactive, sales-led environment which can put some product leaders off. If this is the case, it’s better to show self-awareness so the product leader knows what they are walking into.
In summary, having a clear (enough) idea about the immediate business priorities can validate or invalidate an opportunity for a Product Leader very quickly.
6. How would you describe your product culture?
This can be very telling, and we recommend putting some thought into this. Ultimately, the product leader is looking for an honest account of how decisions are made, and how you are solving customer problems. This will enable them to draw on more relevant parts of their experience, and they can assess how “set up being set up for product success” the business is, or whether they are going to need time to help transform the business from a sales, or project-led outfit – to a more product-led, customer-led business.
For example, in the absence of a product leader, who calls the shots? What framework and methodologies do you currently leverage, and how empowered are your team currently? (hint – there isn’t really a wrong answer here, but important nonetheless).
Having a clear, honest, answer to this question will earn you and your team some quick brownie points – at which point you can begin to ask for their experience in other product cultures like yours, and how they would move things forward.
7. How do you know that you are ready for your first product leader?
We’ll start with a tip here: don’t overcomplicate this. Ask yourself these questions if you aren’t entirely sure:
Why is the role live? Is it driven by capacity or a skill gap? Have your investors told you that you need to hire a VP of Product, but you don’t really know where to start? A bit of everything? As a Founder, are you truly ready to relinquish control of the product strategy and roadmap? The latter is particularly important, as one of the biggest reasons Product Leaders leave a role early, is because the Founder/s couldn’t properly ‘let go’ of their input on the product itself.
To save some time: I have written more about this here.
8. Will I have the remit to grow and scale the team?
This can depend on several factors, but…in the scenario that the business continues to grow, can you give them an idea of when they can hire? Is there a budget to hire, or are you looking for a hands-on leader for at least 12 months?
Don’t oversell this, be honest about your budgets and expected support they will receive – as this will likely inform the sort of product leader you actually need, as opposed to the sort of product leader you might want.
9. What is the current funding runway / cash burn?
A question that typically comes later once both sides are more invested, but in the current market – this is a topic you need to normalise and be comfortable discussing. We appreciate this only really applies to earlier-stage companies, so in that context – be honest about your runway and focus on how the candidates’ role factors into future funding requirements, and how much you expect them to be involved in investor discussions.
This will either act as a compelling sell or scare people off. Make sure you are hiring someone who can step up to this plate. It’s always a great sign if they are asking this sort of question.
In summary: Be prepared to have an open, honest conversation about these 9 topics with Product leadership candidates – and you will give a great first impression. We all know how much they count!