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What Background Should You Look For for Product Managers?

Jon Harmer
3 min readDec 21, 2020


Another week, another excellent Product Growth Leader’s Topic of the Week discussion. This week’s Topic of the Week was:

When hiring internally for a new product manager, what background do you look for?

My initial answer was:

By “new product manager” I’m assuming this is their first PM job, but doesn’t necessarily mean their first job overall.

I look for roles that show aptitude in certain areas: initiative/bias for action, user-orientation, collaboration/social skills, the ability to prioritize, influence without authority, systems thinking and logic. Depending on the product, some sort of technical proficiency.

And while those characteristics are important, they don’t tell you where to go to find potential product people. So the group discussion focused much more on specific roles where you could find good product candidates (other than product management itself, of course.) One participant found that a number of good candidates came with domain experience, specifically customer service and technology roles, and they would bring them in and teach them how to be a product manager. We all agreed, however, that at higher levels, you need to target people with PM experience. Especially if you’re going to bring in people at lower levels who don’t have PM experience, because those junior folks will need strong mentorship and coaching on the finer points of PM. Additionally, you need to ensure that you have a diversity of backgrounds on your team, so you don’t over index on one type of thinker or skill set.

One area of finding “diamonds in the rough” was a background that involves research and synthesis — talking to people and coming to conclusions. Backgrounds in journalism, psychology, research can all be interesting places to find good PMs, as long as you screen for some key characteristics, like empathy, continuous learning, and intellectual humility.

And on that note, actually, I think that intellectual humility is incredibly important. PMs who think they are always right, and aren’t open to new ideas, new data, etc will frequently and painfully be proven wrong, and that hubris is remarkably dangerous. IN Radical Candor, Kim Scott tells a story about Steve Jobs. Scott says she was having a conversation about Steve Jobs with Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, and Grove remarked, “F-ing Steve always gets it right.” Scott replied, “Nobody’s always right.” But then Grove clarified: “I didn’t say Steve is always right. I said he always gets it right. Like anyone, he is wrong all the time, but he insists — and not gently, either — that people tell him when he’s wrong. So, he always gets it right in the end.” While people don’t generally use the word “humble” to describe Steve, that story is a clear description of healthy intellectual humility that is crucial to PMs.

In a somewhat related idea, Jason pointed out that “innovation happens with ignorance and naivety.” Frequently, people get stuck on “how things work here” and end up being “product historians” instead of innovative product managers. People with fresh, outside perspectives can help jumpstart the thinking and solve problems in new ways. They don’t have the baggage of all of the unspoken constraints that come from being in a specific company or industry for a long time. “This is how we’ve always done things” gets confronted with, “but why?” which can start some very creative problem solving. This is especially true in older, more established industries or companies.

Learn more about the Product Growth Leaders community here, and you can view the recording of this conversation here.



Jon Harmer

I understand users and buyers and their problems. I help solve those problems and communicate that value.