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Where to find great product leaders


The only thing more expensive than hiring a professional is hiring an amateur.—Paul Neal "Red" Adair, American oil well firefighter.

In my workshops and coaching, I'm often asked how to find great product leaders. Obviously the best source for product leaders is someone already doing the job elsewhere. But you have to ask yourself, why would someone leave one job for another unless there’s more money or more responsibility.

I tell people to go to a smaller company to get a bigger title and then move to a larger company to get bigger money. Small companies don’t have much money but titles are cheap. You’re a product manager now and want to be a director? Go to a smaller company—it’s a horizontal move in salary but with a better title. (And maybe there’s some equity too.) Once you’re established at that company, you can leverage your bigger title to move to a larger company with the same title but for more money.

Sales people listen to sell; product leaders listen to learn. It would seem that sales people would be ideal candidates as product leaders and market experts but I haven’t found that to be the case. Sales people tend to be more focused on the needs of a single customer and have difficulty applying what they learn to a market full of customers. They get caught up in  the urgency of the needs of a single client and want to stop everything to address that client need. That’s laudable in a sales guy but not so much for a product leader. The last thing most development teams need is another person shouting at them to work faster, harder, or longer.

My friend David says, "sales people listen to sell while product leaders should listen to learn.” [Tweet this]

Nowadays many business analysts and developers like the idea of product management roles. Maybe they want to drive the business or at least be involved in more strategic thinking. The challenge for technical people is to stay focused on the personas and their problems while deferring to the technical team for solutions and implementation. It’s hard to give up their technical roots so they get too involved in design and provide too much detail in their stories. The danger is they try to be designer and developer and forget to do product management.

Of course there are many success stories of former sales people and developers in product management.

Personally, I’ve had the best results when recruiting sales engineers, usually from other companies, to join the team as product manager. They have domain skills and the ability to learn. And they’re unlikely to be promoted internally since the sales engineer role is so critical. The best hire of all is your competitor’s top sales engineer—you get a great product manager and they lose their best sales engineer.

Product leaders ensure your team is systematic in their methods and consistent in their deliverables. Need a playbook?

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