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Hiring a VP of Product? Here are the Questions to Ask.

April 12, 2020   By Jen Swanson

Whether you’ve created a new role or this is a backfill hire, the state of executive talent in the product space has been evolving quickly. The person you’re hiring now is coming from a very different talent pool than existed even 18-24 months ago. Here are some things to think about and ask a candidate during your interview process.

What you’re looking for

Making sure a candidate has the requisite technical and leadership experiences – that’s the easy part that a good resume can quickly help you determine. But their presence and how they interact with others is far more critical to the long term success of your product organization.

The product leader often takes on the role of devil’s advocate on a leadership team.

The new hire’s job will be to maximize opportunities for growth and profit by delivering customer value in the product experience. By definition, this means saying no to building features and products that don’t move the needle in the right direction.

When interviewing, do your best to understand how each person would fit in with your executive and board teams, as well as the broader organization. How will they deliver and manage news that might frustrate, upset, or challenge the status quo?

The interview questions below are designed to help you uncover these deeper qualities that go beyond the resume.

Start with strategy

Not only must a successful VP of product help the product team execute strategy, they have to manage through influence and collaboration. This person needs to ensure priorities are aligned across multiple very different teams. Ask candidates questions like:

  • Tell me about a time when you had to lead a strategic shift within the product organization, and how you aligned other teams outside of your direct reporting relationships.
  • What is your approach to creating alignment and excitement about product strategy within an organization?
  • How do you help your organization get past the fear of talking to customers? What systems and tools do you think need to be in place to be customer-centric?
  • How would you describe your product articulation process (product definition, strategy, roadmap, etc)?

Focus on people & culture

Don’t rely only on their resume to tell you whether a candidate really is a match for your team size and stage of company. Dig in to see if that enterprise experience was a good fit and if they’re looking to repeat it, or if they learned something about themselves that suggests they are better suited for a smaller growth-stage organization.

  • Tell me about your management style – for direct reports, as well as those accountable through a matrixed organization.
  • If you were building a product organization from scratch (which may be the case here), what is your ideal size and composition of the team?
  • Based on your experience, where do you think product management is optimally situated in the organization? Why? (No deduction of points if the candidate suggests an organizational structure different than yours.)
  • Tell me about your relationship with sales, customer support, and engineering at your last company.
  • What have you learned about your leadership style – strengths or weaknesses – and how do you plan to use that insight in your next role?
  • Can you teach someone to be a good product manager? How?
  • How do you teach someone to say “no” effectively?

End with blue sky

At the end of the day, a VP of product development has to draw on everything they know — industry trends, customer needs, team dynamics, market demands — to set an ambitious yet attainable strategy for both the product and the company. Knowing how comfortable and skilled your product leader is at navigating the grey areas of innovation as well as the concrete world of agile development will be critical to ensuring your new hire matches expectations for the role across the organization.

  • Tell me about a time where you’ve had to propose a radical shift in the product strategy (or create one from scratch). What did you draw on to develop it? Who did you partner with to get buy-in? What ultimately happened with it?
  • What role do you think storytelling plays in the role of a successful product leader?
  • How do you stay informed and connected on market trends, new platforms, the evolution of product teams, etc.?
  • How do you balance insights that come from data against those that come from intuition?

Talk with your team

Taking stock of what your executive team thinks a product leader does or how they function can illuminate gaps in knowledge or expectations that can make or break a new hire’s success in the long term.

Resist the temptation to pluck a productive product-doer and elevate them to leadership roles –– the skillset of building a product and selling a strategic product strategy inside a company, though related, are very distinct. Not all project managers are suited for VP roles. By focusing on narrowing down the pool of candidates to those that fit with your executive team’s expectations, you’ll increase the likelihood of a successful hire right off the bat.

Fahren specializes in the direct hire of senior leaders and practitioners within the digital product management, user experience and digital marketing sectors with a national network of talent. Let us guide you. Click here.

Principal Consultant

Jen Swanson is a digital transformation leader. She helps large, complex organizations solve customer experience challenges through effective product management, innovation practices, digital experience design, and multi-channel customer engagement. Jen approaches every project with a thirst for knowledge and understanding. Naturally curious, she gets energy from learning something new or helping someone else learn.

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