Building a Product Team. Hiring from Product Manager to Manager of Product.

Concept in brief.

While it’s tempting to hire the most senior team you can, an effective product team needs junior talent. By mentoring junior talent, you leverage your senior product managers and increase their product skills by broadening their exposure to problems.

When you hire product managers, avoid hiring for a prototypical PM and minimize hiring to solve a current need. Hiring specialists as standard practice leads to reduce adaptability as products change. Build an adaptable product team by hiring individuals who add complementary or supplementary strengths and perspectives to your product team.

Concept in action.

  1. Hire Product Managers, not just Seniors. When your organization tilts senior, you’re either paying above market value for low value add tasks or operating your team too lean—likely a combination of both. Leverage your Senior Product Managers by pairing them with Junior talent.
  2. Hire Product Managers for strengths, not experience. If you would rather an entry-level candidate have two years of product experience than a Master’s in Data Science, you may not be building an effective bench. The Product Manager band is about adding skills, novel perspective, and coachable talent to your team, not about experience.
  3. Hire Senior Product Managers when you have a significant area. Hire Senior Product Managers for their ability and willingness to coach the organization what they know. When you have two candidates, both with excellent skills, bias towards the candidate who wants to teach the organization. Senior Product Managers who coach provide your organization with leverage.
  4. Most Managers of Product should be internal promotions. Your leadership team needs to translate and influence across the company, so a significant portion of the management role is the relationships they have across the organization. Supplement your managers with a few external hires, but a product team that is viewed as external to the company and company culture hinders productive work.
  5. Build your team for scale. Build your leadership team across before building down. Have clear product area owners even with Senior PMs before hiring junior talent to fill roles in different areas. Only by having your horizontal leadership defined do you have an understanding of the strengths you need and want to add to your team.


Product Management is an apprentice craft.

Product Managers become better product managers learning from others. And experienced Product Managers become better product managers teaching and coaching junior product managers.

Here are some general notes.

Building a Product Team.

Generally speaking, each hire should increase product team adaptability and responsiveness to future challenges instead of increasing specific industry expertise or knowledge. My rule of thumb is no more than 30% of the team should be hired for specific roles or the needs of any particular position.

Instead, staff your team with an adaptable and flexible mix of skills to allow the team to flex and move into new product areas as the problem evolves and needs change. Additionally, product managers, assignments should ebb and flow from more service-oriented and technical to more customer-facing or user interface impacting. 

A healthy product team is a machine for transforming “good” product talent into “great” product talent.

Hiring Product Managers. 

Associate Product Manager – Product Manager.

At scale, around 60% of the team should be non-senior, before scale somewhere between 30%-40%.

No experience or limited career experience.

Look for product managers who can learn the product team’s culture, processes and help evolve and grow it as they become more familiar and grow as product managers.

Since many candidates are eager for early in career product management roles–hire people who bring an exiting strength to the team. The strengths you are hiring for must evolve with your team composition.

About 60% of your team should have a strong technical foundation (either learned through experience or education). When you’re at that threshold, recruit the remaining 40% for the strengths that they bring a mix of:

  • Business strategy and finance
  • Data analysis
  • User experience/Service design
  • Information Architecture
  • Ethnographic/consume research
  • Industry experience from an adjacent or related industry

Recruit these roles from a mix of college (generational diversity) and industry talent looking to make a career change. If you need experience in a specific area, hire for the industry or technical knowledge that maps to that area. Still, I advise against hiring for direct product management experience at this level. There are three reasons:

  1. You limit your talent pool by quite a bit, looking for the intersection of industry, technology, and product experience. 
  2. When you hire someone as a product manager, you’re expecting them to utilize their product experience. However, as a product team, you should be solidifying and developing your product management flavor. Suppose you’re hiring talent at all levels for their product management experience and their perspectives on excellent product management. In that case, you will have a hard time developing an operational consensus around your desired means of product management. 
  3. Great product management isn’t taught in the academic sense. It’s learned from great product managers while applying the trade. In short, it’s an apprentice craft. 

A lot of teams skip recruiting new to discipline product managers altogether. They believe their problems are pressing, and they need senior product managers for the job. Senior Product Managers are costly. There is a cap to how many you can productively deploy because the most valuable asset senior product managers provide: thought leadership, coaching, and the ability to handle significant product areas. The need for these in an organization is constrained. When you’re over-allocated on Senior Product Managers, you’ll be paying senior expertise to do many tasks that would be better suited for Junior Product Managers.

Or, when the cost of hiring yet another Senior Product Manager is untenable. Costs become externalities. Adjacent roles often in project management, marketing, or operations become more significant to close the gaps not easily covered by a lean and senior product management team. The challenge here is that the broader organization evolves to cover the product management organization’s gaps. When this happens, the organization develops a ‘need’ for projects to deploy its large project management team. Other functions need to be involved in the upfront to product manage their area appropriately. 

In effect, the under staffing creates an over-functioning org and limits the product manager’s accountability to ensure their products and projects are operating effectively. 

With an appropriate mix of Junior Product, there is the capacity for note-taking, status reporting, follow up, and general activities within the team. When those needs on projects are low, they can flex to play other roles on the product team. As an added benefit, these activities are also learning activities for building a better product and becoming a better product manager.

There should be room in the Product Manager title and band to cover the first 5-7 years of experience. Your most impactful Product Managers should be raising the bar and outperforming the lower performing quartile of the Senior Product Manager band

Hiring Senior Product Managers. 

Senior Product Manager – Staff Product Manager.

At scale, around 30% of the team should be senior.

Promoted from within the team or hired from the industry with 8+ years of relevant product experience.

We are looking for product managers who can advance the product team’s culture, processes, product area expertise, or technical capability.

Senior Product Management talent is in high demand and tough to recruit. Get the most of the talent you do bring in by ensuring you have or plan to have a junior base of skill who can learn from and institutionalize this knowledge.

Hire each external Senior Product Manager either for their capability, willingness, and eagerness to learn a new culture or their experience working with great product teams. Be upfront in the interview process regarding whether you’re expecting them to learn your product team culture or redefine it.

By the Senior Product Manager level, product managers should have reasonably strong technical acumen. However, you should continue to hire for strength to gain for the team. Every Senior Product Manager needs to be a good coach.

Whether it is their experience with new technology, scale, industry experience, or a unique superpower, add individuals who diversify your skills available to you on your product team. Avoid hiring for a prototypical Senior Product Manager, as your goal is to build a strong product team that requires a mix of experiences, not a cookie-cutter background.

Senior Product Managers need significant areas of ownership, or they will unintentionally become destructively productive. For example, Senior PMs without appropriate scope regularly create new work in areas that are not current priorities in search of new areas of ownership and to maintain being ‘productive’. However, this creates cascading work for the organization to support, review, or resource–silently pulling resources away from priorities.

Similarly, Senior Product Managers should have formal or informal mentees. Mentoring others plays a critical role in developing Senior Product Managers and growing your management bench.

Hiring Managers of Product. 

Lead Product Manager, Manager of Product Manager, Director of Product Management.

At scale, 20% or less of the team should have managerial responsibilities.

Promoted from within the team or 8+ years of relevant product management experience. Hire for strengths towards scaling systems of product management versus strengths in management-specific features or product areas.

For lower managerial levels, consider candidates without previous management experience. This consideration opens you up to a stronger talent pool, as you will be able to arbitrage hire great talent that has not yet had an opportunity to move into management. Every great manager was once an individual contributor. 

You should have no more manager of products than you have significant product areas. Managers of Product Management are not merely people managers; they need to be experienced product managers willing and capable of advancing and growing the team in writing and defining product strategy, leading product reviews, and improving product development execution.

At scale, fill about 70% of manager roles through internal promotions. Before you reach this level, you must first build, and retain, a diverse bench of talent from various backgrounds. Before your team has reached scale, you can get away with as few as 40% of your management team hired through internal promotions. Any less than 40% and the risk that the “host rejects the organ” increases substantially. Promoting from within, even for interim roles, will help in the cultural translation and buy-in needed to transition to a new agenda.

Generally speaking, this applies to individual contributors as well. As you build your product team, ensure no fewer than 40% of the team is considered internal/homegrown. Start with college hires. They are naturally viewed as internal, but you can also grow your internal talent by semi-regularly transfer talented individuals from within the company. These individuals help broaden the team’s perspective, strengthen relationships, and are social capital to borrow against for the team. Insist on resetting levels when this occurs. Senior Product Managers need product management experience.

Who is perceived as internal and external can change with time. For example, when I joined Nordstrom in 2015, I was viewed as a Microsoftee. When I left in 2019, I was considered a Nordie. I invested significantly in learning, acclimating, and respecting its culture instead of exclusively importing talent and principles from external to the company.

While you should aim for Managers of Product to directly oversee their team’s areas of responsibility, this is not necessary. Establish that individuals will lead and contribute initiatives that span manager boundaries and that we’re not going to reorg to change product assignments. Everyone should view themselves as members of the global product (ex. Facebook Marketplace) and not their specific function or product area (Facebook Marketplace Billing).

Managers of Product should have technical fluency for their product area and bring a unique skill or perspective to augment the team’s viewpoint. Finally, hire for managers who are excellent coaches and have a team-oriented disposition.


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