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Your hiring strategy is getting in the way of your product success


Talent is Still the Game-changer

Having spent the last 18 months working on a book about Product Leadership it has come as some surprise that a big problem facing product leaders is still hiring. I say still because I wrote about this problem back in 2012. By now I had expected some, if not most, of these problems to have been addressed. With the rise of new skill based learning platforms and UX educational organizations I was expecting to hear that some of the supply-side problems had been solved. This has not been the case.

The supply of solid product-focused design and development talent has not kept up with demand. What’s worse is that recruiters and hiring managers have almost no idea how to hire for these product specific positions. Job descriptions are out of touch with what fast-growing design companies need. It’s 2017 and product designers are still being lumped in with graphic designers.

DIY isn’t an Elixir

What has made the problem worse is a mythology that the only way to get momentum is to do everything yourself. The arguments for this DIY approach are pretty thin. Especially when you consider that it’s increasingly cheaper and faster to have partners help you get work done. Either way, the struggle is real. Here are some of the frustrations we’re hearing from product leaders:

“We’re like most startups, we’ve got a lot on our plates. We really need to hire more design and Product Management folks before we can begin to tackle these projects.”

“We have a lot of open [product] positions and I don’t know where to start looking.”

“Even if we find someone, it’s going to take us months to onboard and have them producing. Ugh!”

“We need help recruiting very talented devs and designers. Our challenge is we’re not a sexy San Francisco based startup so I’m not sure we can attract those types of people.”

These concerns are not unique to product companies but they are increasingly the reasons that product momentum is slowing or halting. The problem is this, hiring is only part of the solution. The reason why so many leaders and managers are struggling with this problem is because they are seeing it from one perspective. This is not a one-dimensional problem.

Let’s start with the assumption that if you have a human resource need, you need to hire. Hiring internally might not always be the solution. Most often the requirement to fill a vacant spot requires a multidimensional approach. Hiring for the immediate needs versus the long-term needs will almost always be different. Here’s a recent real-world example:

One of our clients is creating a complex set of online education tools. Their immediate need is to prototype, test, and wireframe the initial product designs. Call this the MVP stage if you will. Their medium-term needs are slightly different. Over the coming months they will be hiring a team of designers and developers to take over from the MVP stage and build out the components in higher fidelity. These people will wear a few different hats and need to be overlapping generalists. Their long-term needs are to have autonomous teams made up of product managers, UX strategists, UI designers, and engineers to run each of the products across the platform.

What this example illustrates is no different from most high-growth companies. As these companies move through each stage they will encounter different challenges. The immediate needs, defined by what they need done in 3-6 months, is best performed by a partner like us. The company can never hope to recruit, hire, and onboard solid talent and then actually create the MVP in that short amount of time by themselves. So we have saved them months of frustration and replaced it with delivering real value. As they get traction they will need a team that can cover a lot of ground and wear multiple hats. Generalists that can design, test, code, and strategize are very useful at this stage. That doesn’t mean everyone at this stage has to be a generalist, just that it’s useful. As the company or product get traction then more specialization is required. The team might also start to diverge into product specific teams, depending on the platform size.

Multiple Hiring Strategies For The Win

The insight here is that to get where you need to go, quickly and affordably, you’re going to have to run multiple hiring strategies. It’s very possible a leader will hire the external team (freelancers, agencies, consultants), while recruiting for full-time talent, and planning for long-term team structures. Hiring talent is not a linear approach. Great product leaders know they need a pipeline of talent and a multi-track strategy to get the best people working on the most time-sensitive things.

To get the momentum you’re looking for ask yourself:

  • What is the immediate (3-6 months) need to get traction and momentum?
  • What is the medium-term (6-18 months) going to require?
  • What will we need once we have a validated product and customers?
  • How will these phases overlap or run in parallel?
  • Can we use outside skills to solve tactical and strategic problems while building out the core team?

Hiring Can’t Solve Cultural or Process Problems

Sometimes it’s possible to train the existing team or adjust the workflow or process to get the results you seek. Hiring a new person creates new problems and new challenges. Can we afford this person? Will they fit in culturally? How long will it take for them to get up to speed and create real value? Will they bring their own style of work and disrupt the current flow? These questions need to be answered before new people are added and in order to do that, it may be necessary to analyze the current state of the organization. Understanding the existing pain points and problems of the team gives the decision-maker the confidence to either make the hire, or postpone until another time. Apart from the questions above, here are a few questions to kickstart that analysis:

  • Do we have someone who can clearly articulate the product vision to new people and ensure it is executed correctly?
  • Are we missing growth or value opportunities because the current team is too focused on iterative adjustments or bug fixes and not on innovative improvements?
  • Is there product ownership? Someone with final responsibility for delivery?
  • Are politics creeping into the process and derailing the work?
  • Is the team easily distracted by new ideas and feature requests?
  • Why is this happening, and can we address it by prioritizing and focusing?
  • Is there a clear path from discovery to delivery?

Hiring Great Product People

If you can answer these questions and you still need to hire then consider the following. When you hire good people you make your job as a leader easier. Jason Fried of Basecamp talks about hiring a Manager of One. The idea that a great hire should be able to manage themselves. We like this concept. It doesn’t mean the person you’ve hired doesn’t need support, guidance and mentors, but it does mean they won’t need to have their hand held every minute of the day. It also doesn’t mean the person you hire has to be a manager. Managing yourself is not the same as having the title of manager.

Your goal as leader is to add people that make your job easier and the jobs of the other team members easier. The best way to do this is to hire people that are going to produce a multiple of what others can produce. Someone who is generating two or three times the value of the average person is also going to cost you less. Maybe not less money, but less frustration and less time. If you suspect for a moment that a person is going to create more work for you then don’t hire them. Beyond the necessary onboarding and orientation, if a new hire is taking up all of your time, they may not be the right person for the job.

Great hires can be identified with a few simple observations. Good product people understand that it’s a team sport and will have a deep interest in how that team operates. Their focus should be on the team, the end-user, and the environment the team works in – both physically and situationally. Ideally, they will ask a lot of questions. If they are not asking questions, encourage them to do so. They may just be nervous. It’s normal to be nervous in an interview, so your empathy and understanding will be appreciated by the interviewee.

Great product people will also ask questions about the product, the market, and the business, but they should also show an interest in who they will be working with. Listen closely for these traits. Do they ask questions about the team? Do they enquire about what makes the team good/interesting/productive? Do they ask about your leadership style and how you manage others? Do they express empathy for others? Do they understand that producing great products can be difficult and frustrating, but still want to do the work?

What Can You Do Today?

We receive almost daily requests from our clients, past-clients, and community of friends for talent suggestions. Let us know if we can help you find someone, get a project unstuck or just walk you through some of the best practices for hiring product people. We’re not a recruitment agency so we’ve got nothing to gain except to see you find some momentum.

In addition, we are running a short, 4-question survey on product team hiring challenges and would love to include your experience. So please take a look and submit your responses! If you do, we’ll be sure to send you the results as soon as we have them.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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