How to stand out as an applicant for a product management position
We are talking with Erika Klics. Erika is a former Head of Talent for tech companies who became a Job Search Strategist for startup and scaleup Directors, VPs, and department Heads for Product Management and other functions in tech. She sent me an email message that got my attention, and I’d like to read part of it.
She wrote, “In a past life, I sat on the other side of the table supporting hiring teams to define processes, find candidates, and make great hires. And I noticed a few patterns along the way….When it comes to PM leadership roles, hiring teams would share the same small handful of reasons for rejecting candidates.
‘They just weren’t quite strong enough.’
‘I liked them, but who else do we have?’
‘We need them to be more strategic.’
‘They’re great, but I’m not sure they’re senior enough.’
They used different language, different lenses, but it was the same across almost every scorecard. Candidates were missing something, but hiring teams couldn’t articulate what it was. So I started paying attention to who was getting the offer and what they did differently. Erika will help us not make the mistakes that lead to you not getting the job—she even has a system for job seekers she calls the Inevitable Edge Method.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[3:24] What are some reasons you see product leaders not getting the jobs they’re trying to get?
There are different flavors of product managers and different focus areas. Often, hiring decisions depend on whether you have experience in the area the company needs. I see a lot of product management leaders get all the way through the hiring process and then get generic rejections. Why is that happening? It’s about building trust at every level of the interview process with other leaders, the team, and cross-functional leaders. Build trust that you can do the job they’re looking for and take the product wherever they need to take it next.
[5:28] How can product leaders get feedback on why they were rejected?
Build relationships along the way. The stronger a relationship you have with the recruiter, the more likely you’re going to get feedback from them and the more likely you will land the role. Even if you’re not the right fit, if you’ve built the relationship and connected on a more human level, it’s a lot harder for them to ignore your email when you ask for feedback. This feedback is not always actionable but it can give you peace of mind. It’s usually not you; it’s the company. It’s not that you’re bad at your job. The company was looking for something else.
Often startups do a couple of months of interviewing not to find the right person but to figure out whom they want to hire. If you’re the first candidate going through a hiring process, it’s pretty hard to get the offer.
[8:41] How can product managers build trust and position themselves to get the job?
Build a relationship from the beginning, starting with the first recruiter screening. Get to know the person who’s going to guide you through the process. Give small signals—when they ask, “How’s it going?” give a little anecdote instead of just saying, “Great.” Warm people up in conversation. It sounds simple, but a lot of people get into interview mode and it has a very different feeling than just a conversation.
Read between the lines—a skill products managers need every day anyway. Think about the context clues you can pick up and what’s not being said. Are there particular challenges in the product? Are there cross-functional collaborators? Where does the product fall within the suite of products? These clues can help you position yourself as a better candidate and build trust with the people you’re meeting along the way. Think about how you can meet the needs of each person you meet in the interview process. If you create an interview environment where it feels like you’re actually working together, then they’re envisioning you in the job.
[13:58] What should applicants know about the company before the interview?
Do research for the right stage of the interview process. Don’t spend hours talking to the recruiter for the role at the very beginning of the process because they may not be able to answer deep questions about the product or team. However, before the conversation with the recruiter prepare by learning about the company. Look through job descriptions to see who else they are hiring. This can give a lot of signals about what they’re planning on building next or where the company focus is. Know who’s on the team and who the executives are. Look through the history of funding. Where were their big growth spurts? Collect some clues that can give you context so you share stories that are most relevant to where the company is today and where they want to go.
[17:30] Tell us more about the role of the recruiter.
The recruiter plays both sides, but ultimately they want to fill the role with the right person, and they want you to be the right person for the role. The recruiter collaborates with the hiring team and shepherds the candidates through the process. They know who else is going through the process, the budget for the role, and where other candidates have fallen short. If you build a great relationship with the recruiter, you can get those nuggets along the way to get a clear picture of what the team is expecting. They might not fight as hard for you to get the information you need if you don’t invest in that relationship with them.
[21:02] How can people in adjacent roles get into product management?
Start learning about product management. Talk to all the people you possibly can about what they do and where they spend their time. See if you can sit in product management meetings. Pick up projects related to product management that you could then stick on your resume. Even though you don’t have a product management title, you do have product management experience. Frame your experience in the context of what the company you’re interviewing is trying to achieve.
Action Guide: Put the information Erika shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.