Scaling Product Management: How to Hire and Build High-Performing Teams

April 13, 2023

Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series on scaling product management from Series B to IPO. Read the first part here.

Progress starts with people.

Building the right teams—and ensuring that members keep leveling up—is my top priority when I join a new product management (PM) org. When I joined GitLab, I was given the task of tripling the PM org from 15 to 45 staff members within nine months. I had to hire a PM a week, so at least one third of my time was dedicated to hiring in my first year on the job.

Although most leaders won’t have as large of a hiring burden, remember that hiring the right person is worth the time spent. Carve out as much time as you think it’ll take. Establishing a comprehensive hiring process can help you scale the PM team that you need.

The right hiring process is systematic

A rigorous hiring process begins with clear job descriptions. But it succeeds with deliberate interview focus areas, tight coordination with sourcing and recruiting, and strategic role prioritization. And the work doesn’t end once your new hires are onboarded.

Scaling a product management team requires raising the bar across the org. That also means you’ll need to have a solid framework to assess performance and guide your PMs to grow in their roles. Here are four things you need to do to build a strong PM team:

1. Test candidates for systematic thinking

What kind of candidate has what it takes to be a top performer? People are complicated. Sometimes it’s hard to find patterns as to why some hires work out and others don’t.

A common pattern I’ve found is that those who struggle may be caught in the weeds and unable to see the bigger picture. At higher levels, success is often dependent on this ability—on understanding the implications of actions and managing complex systems. Businesses are complex, as are their products. The ability to keep relevant details in mind, while making a decision and explaining it systematically is a key trait of successful product managers.

One way to assess systematic thinking ability in an interview setting is to pose a case question asking candidates to walk you through their approach to a novel problem. I prefer off-topic case scenarios that lie outside of their domain of expertise. That way, they can’t just throw out buzzwords or speak from experience—they have to lean on their problem-solving ability to answer. For example: my go-to case interview asks the interviewee to walk through how they would solve a problem facing a PM in the packaged foods industry. You’ll want to keep some questions in mind:

  • Do they clarify the problem to ensure their understanding is correct before proceeding?  Do they ask good questions to ensure they have all the requisite details?
  • Do they think about the target customer early in the process? How do they validate both the customer and the problem?
  • How do they move from the problem to the solution? Do they have a methodical way to work with peers to arrive at a solution?
  • When they get to a solution and create a plan, can they translate it into an expected business outcome?
  • Observe how they problem-solve along the way. Is their thinking systematic?

I don’t expect people’s answers to be perfectly mapped out, but it’s a decent test of whether they naturally think in a systematic manner. If they think in a very chaotic, haphazard way, that could signal that that’s how they’ll think and communicate day in and day out on the job.

2. Optimize for experience and ratios

When it comes to scaling product teams, you’ll need to have the optimal mix of PM experience and coverage in order to hit your targets.

In terms of hiring for experience, you can choose to either train up more junior PMs (who bring familiarity with the org) or source new hires with more senior titles under their belts (who offer fresh perspectives coupled with years of PM wisdom).

When faced with this dilemma at SendGrid, we went with a mixed strategy: we hired five PMs externally and transferred four from internal functions. The overall make up consisted of five junior and four senior/principal level product managers with a mix of PM, email, and SendGrid experience.

This provided a rich mix of experience, allowing for learning and collaboration among team members. Internal transfers could get new hires up to speed on how the company worked while more senior PMs could mentor more junior PMs.

From my own experience, I consider a healthy ratio to be one PM to one designer, one PM to seven or eight developers, and one PM to one engineering manager. Cross-functionally, I recommend one product marketer for every three PMs at product-led companies.

Within product teams, you want to hit the right ratio of product managers to other functions. Healthy ratios ensure that everyone can work efficiently and effectively, resulting in a higher quality product. Balanced teams have the support they need to plan farther ahead, collect more insights from users, and fine-tune designs.

These ratios provide your PMs and designers adequate time to get out into the market, talk to customers, and deeply understand their problems, without getting buried in the day-to-day development process.

3. Build a career development framework

Inconsistent performance and skill sets across individual PMs is a hallmark of a PM org struggling to scale. If there is a wide variance in PM performance across the team, it could indicate insufficient PM coaching.

Clearly outlining PM skills and behaviors expected at each level can address these issues and ensure consistent execution among PMs, raising the overall level of performance.

At GitLab, we relied on a career development framework (CDF) to clearly articulate performance expectations and reinforce great PM behaviors. Though GitLab has since updated the framework, here’s my rubric for assessing a PM’s skills along four critical dimensions:

  • Validation track skills enable PMs to gather feedback and derive insights from customers, prioritize opportunities, and collaborate with design to envision a solution.
  • Build track skills refer to a PM’s ability to break down epics and issues into smaller iterations, have strong command of the product domain, architecture, APIs, and tech stack, and make informed tradeoff decisions with engineering.
  • Business skills involve connecting the dots between the product and the expected business outcome. PMs should set success metrics and track performance post-launch, research and define product vision and strategy, and make build/buy/acquire evaluations.
  • Communication skills are necessary both internally and externally. PMs should drive clarity in their area and serve as a trusted resource for customer calls and meetings, and build rapport with stakeholders to align around priorities. PMs should be effective at 1:1, small group, and large group communications both verbally and in writing.

For each dimension, specific expectations for each IC level—PM, senior PM, and principal PM—were outlined. We also had a similar set of expectations for the people management track. This framework lived in our company handbook, available for anyone to refer to.

4. Reduce performance review bias

Managers use the career development framework as a rubric to critically assess their reports during regular performance reviews. We recommend managers conduct CDF check-ins every two to three months. This creates space to discuss longer-term career development regularly, offers more moments to provide and receive feedback, and facilitates hard performance conversations when necessary.

It’s normal for managers to develop personal relationships with their direct reports. For human reasons, they want to protect their reports and be the bearer of good news.

But when good news comes in the form of a promotion that isn’t deserved, or even an inflated performance review, it takes a toll on your entire PM org.

The framework aligns everyone on where the bar is set. From there, managers assess their reports relative to that bar. Assessing people you care for is inherently hard, which is why having a clear description of expectations at each level is so crucial for objective reviews.

On the positive side, reviews are used to justify raises and promotions. On the other end, they can show that a PM isn’t a great fit for the company, or uncover a skill area where multiple PMs could use further training.

5 key takeaways for CEOs and product leaders

  1. Systematic thinking is a key trait of successful product managers, and posing a case question in an interview is a good way to assess this ability.
  2. Build teams that have the right amount of PM experience to perform well and mentor others, but don’t overlook the value of training internal transfers.
  3. Ensure healthy ratios of product managers to other functions to allow everyone to work efficiently and effectively, resulting in a higher quality product.
  4. Developing a career development framework can help ensure consistent execution among product managers and raise the overall level of performance.
  5. Encourage PM managers to lean on the career development framework to objectively assess performance, identifying reports who are falling below the bar and uncover org-wide opportunities for training and professional development.

Keep an eye out for the next installment of the Scaling Product Management series. Subscribe to the OpenView newsletter and connect with me on LinkedIn to be the first to know!

Product Advisor

Scott Williamson is a Product Advisor, helping B2B SaaS companies scale their products through periods of high growth. Most recently, Scott was Chief Product Officer for GitLab, where he led a team of 65 in Product Management, Product Operations, Growth, Pricing and Corporate Development functions. Prior to GitLab, Scott was VP of Product for SendGrid over a six year period, where helped lead the company to a successful IPO and $3B acquisition by Twilio. Scott lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and two teens. Outside work and family, Scott enjoys training for and competing in Olympic distance triathlons.