From Corporate Lawyer to Project Manager, to Chief Product Officer
The latest in our Industry Insiders series sees Ryan Ollerenshaw discussing recruiting and retaining the best Product Managers with Marc Abraham, Chief Product Officer at Settled. Marc is a recognized product leader who frequently speaks at major industry events and delivers workshops and sessions on best practices in product management. He also works closely with the organizers of ProductTank meetups across the globe, managing the delivery of leading product-focused events in over 160 cities.
Despite beginning his career as a corporate lawyer, Marc’s career shifted to the digital world with his role as Project Manager, ten years ago. He cut his digital teeth agency-side as a way into the digital world. However, he soon discovered this was not the route he wanted to take, finding Project Management in an agency environment to be quite limiting. The role is more concerned with meeting the budget, keeping to deadlines and ensuring stakeholders remain happy, rather than a more agile, product and customer focused approach.
Marc goes on to explain the steps he took to get into his preferred field: product management. Marc joked that, whilst perhaps a little biased, given that he’s now closely involved with ProductTank, attending ProductTank meetups helped him to understand the product management field. He secured his first product role in 2011 at 7digital, a creative digital music provider which afforded him good exposure and to work closely with both designers and engineers.
We asked how transferrable the skills learnt in is previous roles had been to his new product management space. He informed us that in terms of corporate law, there were practically zero transferable skills. However, his work in project management had provided some transferable skills, particularly around prioritisation; ensuring delivery. He expands on this by saying that some product managers have the luxury of working with a dedicated scrum master, however, this is not always the case, and thus the delivery of the product deadline is dependent on you.
In terms of hiring and retaining product managers, Marc mentions that due to his roles in a wide range of companies, he has been able to progress at a quick rate from Lead Product Manager, to Head of Product, to Chief Product Officer. This experience has given him the opportunity to have interviewed many Product Managers in a relatively short space of time (6-7 years.)
When we questioned him on the most common problems he faced in his role as Hiring Manager, he explained that as the market is relatively new, one organisation’s definition of what being a “Product Manager” means can differ entirely from another’s. So, we questioned him further, asking if he feels that there is a lack of standardised process or terminology.
He stated that he is more concerned with mindset: There are so many different products and organisations that require different approaches. Is the prospective employee curious? Will he or she “stick their neck out”? Do they have an “initiative mindset”? Can they deliver actual value? He argued that experience is not imperative – candidates could be “stuck” on one thing. But could have a completely different mindset.
Marc explains that he identifies these traits best by stress-checking the CV, to understand the context around the experience. He mentions that CVs are important as a first initial screening, but it is really the first meeting where you begin to understand the candidate: To comprehend the depth of involvement. That’s what he’d get from a first screening interview. His second step involves providing the candidate with a real-life scenario or case study, in order to get a sense of how quickly a person would deal with something, or what they would come up with to solve an issue. He suggests providing 30 mins for the interviewee to digest and understand the scenario, then the second half hour to discuss what could be done. What if X happened? Etc. This way you get a good sense of the candidate: what they have done before, and their attitude or mindset.
Product Manager vs. Project Managers
We asked Marc how he deals with the ambiguity and crossover between Project Managers and Product Managers. If he advertises a Product Manager role, is it likely for him to see several Project Managers put forward their CVs for consideration? He confirms that yes, this is the case, and with increasing exposure to CVs, he can recognise the prospective candidates’ efficiencies more quickly.
Equally, he mentioned that lots of people who haven’t worked in an agile/ iterative way (and instead, are more familiar with a more “waterfall” approach) put themselves forward for Product Manager roles. Whilst he admits that this works well for some organisations, considering the places he’s worked at and the people he’s worked with, it is often not compatible with his way of working and the organisations he is part of.
When asked what practical advice Marc would give to someone looking to get into Product from Project Management; he offered the below practical steps to aid the transition from Project Manager to Product Manager:
- Start going to product management events – like the ProductTank etc. This provides a great opportunity to gather understanding and network with peers, providing a neutral “safe space” in which you are welcome to pick their brains etc.
- Use a normal networking approach; identify a mentor (who will provide a sounding board for you to bounce ideas off.)
- Complete a course or attend a training workshop. (However, having said that, he provides the caveat - that standardisation doesn’t exist - so to be mindful of different approaches to product management.) Additionally, he explains that many of these workshops are run by practising Product Managers which is incredibly beneficial for junior or new people in the field as they are privy to a lot of real-life business examples.
When we questioned further, we found out Marc’s thoughts on programs run by General Assembly (for example) – and whether they provide a non-specific “cookie-cutter” approach?
He believes it to be a positive thing that these things start to exist, great that it’s there for those people who want to learn in his or her time. But then makes sure to mention that “Product Management is not something you can learn in a training course. You learn as you go, by making mistakes, working with different customers and stakeholders. It’s really difficult, if not impossible, to complete your course, get your certificate and be ready to go immediately…having said that, it is a good thing to have that foundation and use it as a starting point.”
Marc feels that there are just not enough Product Managers in the market that really embodies the voice of the customer and champions the user. The volume of vacancies and the need is much larger than an adequate talent pool. Someone who takes the time to speak to really understanding customer problems and needs. The main qualities he looks for are: entrepreneurialism, customer-centricity, curiosity, pride and, importantly, constant questioning.
Candidates who question the process before doing blindly following it the quality he looks for and is what holds them above the parapet. This can often be the difference between Project Management and Product Management.
With Project Management, you have a brief, you get on with it and you do it within the timeframe. With Product Management, so many more questions are posed, challenging the process, understanding what it would look like, how it will be released etc. Marc mentions that one of the main things he has seen in Project Managers (when compared to Product Managers) is that Project Managers often apply a different mindset, being focused more on set requirements, instead of learning about customer problems and the underlying 'why'.
How does Marc hire? We asked what he does to ensure they join his company? Which specific methods does he employ in order to secure the best people?
From the moment they begin engaging with a candidate, he tries to ensure they get it right and “sells” the company from the get-go. By this, Marc means providing a good experience – friendly and communicative. It’s not just about him sending the candidate to a tribunal, it’s about being honest about it: The set up and the challenges/opportunities. He feels being straight and direct is what works best in the long-run. Additionally, he suggests asking the candidate to catch-up with existing employees for their thoughts and posing any questions they may have about a company. Interviews are not a one-way street.
We spoke about how there may be candidates who are not particularly adept at interview, but worthy in terms of their experience and mindset. Marc explained that it is dependent upon the role type and company environment (as to whether they will need mentoring, further training etc.) In a startup organisation, you may not have the luxury of skilling someone up and he’d feel nervous around hiring someone who interviews badly.
How do you retain good Product Managers? We’ve seen the trend of Product Managers who may work in an environment for 9-12 months, get the heavy lifting done, then get “itchy feet” at the iteration stage. Marc agreed that this is something he has also seen: There is frustration with projects not moving quickly
Marc believes there are 2 ways to negate this frustration:
- It’s about iterating, continued “check ins” if you are on a long development life-cycles: constant learning keeps candidates happy,
- Ensuring a change of scenery within the company, moving around from disciplines e.g. API to Mobile. This is both beneficial from a retention point of view, but also for the employee: More versatile skills – something new they can learn. This may not just mean a different area, it could also mean a promotion or to encourage them to manage a junior Product Manager.
However, he does make the point that what motivates one person can be entirely different from another. i.e. pushing someone to be a people manager if they just want to learn a different discipline, travel to work in a different environment etc. Personal development plans need to be bespoke and individual.
Another way Marc hopes to retain employees is through providing them with the opportunity to learn from others. Against larger companies, he is unable to compete on salary, so has to offer something extra – Marc will bring in an industry expert, or senior member within the business to run a training session.
Additionally, another tactic used for retention is encouraging employees to attend events, where you can meet a lot of Product Management teams and can compare notes on challenges in a “safe” environment. Additionally, Marc suggests attending dedicated knowledge-sharing sessions with other product teams alongside the Meet-Ups – asserting that they help to create small but safe environments for product people to compare notes, share challenges and frustrations.
Marc explains about his experiences working in a larger company and talks about a year-long transformation program. He says that the pace of change is much slower and that working in an enterprise-scale company can at times feel a bit “backwards”. It is possible to get to the level of Product Director for a FTSE 100 company; however this is a long and arduous process.
We asked whether Marc had ever worked in a large organisation where he’d been able to break down the process and product cycle, in order to try and keep that level of interest for the Product Management team?
“To be honest with you, no. The largest company I’ve worked with has been 800 people. Without naming names, I know myself, I couldn’t work for a super-big bank, or one of those companies. It would not be the best fit for me, personally. Lots of people will go for that, promotion opportunities, they like the stability of it, it could be a stepping stone (due to the company’s brand/name), the lifestyle – that is a trade-off.”
Rounding up the interview, we asked if Marc had any additional tips about retaining talent. He said that as the Hiring Manager, to ensure that you keep in touch with a candidate – even if they are not successful - as there may be an opportunity to work together in the future. If you can keep a strong “live” network of good, talented professionals, you keep in other’s minds, and them, in yours.
We’d like to thank Marc Abraham for speaking to us about his experience in Product Management. For more information about our talent acquisition or if you’d like to speak to us about placing a Product Management candidate (or becoming one), get in touch.
Consortia are a specialist Product Management Recruitment business known for placing the best Product Managers into the most innovative tech companies in London. Get in touch with us if you are looking for contract, interim or permanent Product Managers for your team.